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South Korea is sparing no effort to make summit with Kim a made-for-TV success

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 4/26/2018 Anna Fifield

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SEOUL — Nothing will be left to chance when Kim Jong Un on Friday becomes the first North Korean leader to cross the military demarcation line that has divided this peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government is pulling out all the stops to create the most conducive environment for an inter-Korean summit that, it hopes, will not only usher in a new era of engagement between the estranged neighbors but also pave the way for a fruitful meeting between Kim and President Trump.

The style and substance of Friday’s summit have been painstakingly choreographed.

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Soon after 10 a.m., the North Korean leader’s motorcade will pull up in front of Panmungak, the main building on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area, where the armistice ending the war was signed in 1953.

The 34-year-old will then walk to the military demarcation line, represented at this spot by a concrete curb, where Moon will be waiting for him. The moment the men meet and shake hands at that line will be broadcast live around the world — another first.

Then, inside the newly renovated Peace House building, they will sit exactly 2,018 millimeters apart, “highlighting the historic 2018 inter-Korean summit,” the South Korean presidential Blue House said. (That’s about 79 7/16 inches.) They will sit across a table designed to look like two bridges merged into one. 

There are three items on the agenda for Friday: denuclearization, creating a peace regime, and improving inter-Korean ties. The second and third items have already been negotiated and the results agreed to, according to local media reports.  

Moon will propose the opening of an inter-Korean liaison office and establishing a joint committee to promote political, military and economic exchanges, the left-leaning Hankyoreh reported.

(Slideshow by Photo Services)

But on denuclearization, the most difficult issue and the one of most interest to the United States, the discussion will be carried out by the two leaders directly, the right-wing Chosun Ilbo reported, citing an unnamed Blue House official.

After their meeting, the leaders will have dinner in a specially constructed banquet room inside Peace House. As with the furniture, every dish has meaning. They will even serve potato rosti, in a nod to Kim’s teenage years in Switzerland.

This is not the first inter-Korean summit, but it is the first that South Korea has hosted. 

Kim Dae-jung, the patriarch of South Korea’s progressive movement, traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet then-leader Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, although the event was tarnished when it emerged the South had paid $500 million to secure the North’s participation. 

 Then, in 2007, Roh Moo-hyun followed suit, traveling to Pyongyang and meeting Kim Jong Il. At the time, Moon was Roh’s chief of staff and head of the summit preparation committee. It was Moon’s idea to paint a yellow line across the road to show the exact moment Roh stepped into North Korea.

Now Moon, the third in the progressive presidential trifecta, will have a summit of his own, this time with Kim Jong Un, the third-generation leader of North Korea’s authoritarian dynasty. This time, however, it will be held in the southern part of the demilitarized zone, the 2½-mile wide buffer strip between the two ­Koreas.

“South Korean presidents have crossed into the North so the procedure will be the same, but this is a special occasion because it’s the first time a North Korean leader is crossing the DMZ,” said Han Yong-sup, a professor at South Korea’s National Defense University. “It’s historic.” 

Analysts are wondering whether the South Korean military will form an honor guard to welcome Kim Jong Un as he crosses the line into South Korea, just as North Korean soldiers saluted Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun when they arrived in Pyongyang. 

That kind of greeting — conveying legitimacy upon Kim Jong Un — would cause widespread heartburn in Washington and Tokyo.

Either way, the summit, held in a location that President Bill Clinton once called “the scariest place on Earth,” comes with special security situations — and ones that involve the U.S. military.

The South Korean side of the Joint Security Area is controlled by the United Nations Command because it was the United Nations — represented by the United States — that signed the 1953 armistice deal that brought the Korean War to a close.

That means Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of both U.S. Forces in Korea and the U.N. Command, is therefore theoretically in charge of Kim’s security while he is on the southern side of the line.

“An American commander who answers to the president of the United States, as commander of United Nations Command, is outside American law and is responsible for Kim’s safe return to the DPRK,” said Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, using the initials for North Korea’s official name.

Brooks and the U.N. Command team “have been in close coordination with the ROK government and specifically the Blue House on setting the conditions for a successful summit on Friday,” said Chad Carroll, the spokesman for both U.S. Forces Korea and U.N. Command, using initials for South Korea’s official name.

This coordination has focused on security, command and control, and media coverage, Carroll said. 

But it’s not just a matter of Kim Jong Un crossing the line into South Korea — it’s also a question of who he brings with him.

The 34-year-old leader will be accompanied by bodyguards from the Guard Command, a branch of the Korean People’s Army, and the Pyongyang Defense Command.

“Members of the Guard Command who escort Kim Jong Un are technically soldiers,” said Lee Ho-ryung, chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. As such, some if not all of them will be armed.

North Korean soldiers haven’t been able to cross into the South since a 1976 ax murder, when North Koreans killed two American soldiers who were cutting down a tree that blocked their view. 

Coincidentally, Moon was serving with South Korean special forces in the DMZ during this incident.

There are likely to be other special arrangements made for Kim — and his bodily functions.

“Rather than using a public restroom, the leader of North Korea has a personal toilet that follows him around when he travels,” said Lee Yun-keol, who worked in a North Korean Guard Command unit before coming to South Korea in 2005.

“The leader’s excretions contain information about his health status so they can’t be left behind,” Lee said.

Another consideration: Kim Jong Un is a heavy smoker. Will he light up in the conference room? Or will the South Korean government create a special smoking place for him?

All of this information will be useful for the United States as it prepares for Trump’s own summit with Kim, expected to be held in late May or early June. 

“Any time we have an opportunity to be in the same room or the same vicinity as Kim Jong Un and his entourage is definitely an intelligence-gathering opportunity,” said Frank Aum, a former senior adviser for North Korea at the Pentagon who is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

South Korea’s president is expected to travel to Washington in mid-May to brief Trump on the meeting. National security adviser John Bolton and his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, met in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the summit between Trump and Kim.

The location for that meeting has still not been decided, but South Korea’s newly renovated Peace House is one of the options.

Min Joo Kim contributed reporting.

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