SEOUL, South Korea (AFP) — North and South Korea’s leaders held surprise talks on Saturday to get a historic summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump back on track after a head-spinning series of twists and turns.
The meeting is the latest remarkable diplomatic chapter in a roller coaster of developments on the Korean peninsula.
Trump rattled the region on Thursday by canceling his meeting with Kim that had been due to take place in Singapore on June 12, citing “open hostility” from Pyongyang.
But within 24 hours he reversed course, saying it could still go ahead after productive talks were held with North Korean officials.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Saturday for two hours in the truce village of Panmunjom in an effort to ensure the landmark meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader goes ahead.
“They exchanged views and discussed ways to implement the Panmunjom Declaration and to ensure a successful US North Korea summit,” Seoul’s presidential Blue House said in a statement, referencing a declaration the two leaders signed last month vowing to improve ties following their historic first meeting in the same village.
Pictures showed them shaking hands and embracing on the North Korean side of the Demilitarised Zone separating the two nations.
The North’s state-run KCNA news agency said the two leaders agreed to “meet frequently in the future to make dialogue brisk and pool wisdom and efforts, expressing their stand to make joint efforts for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Specifically, Moon and Kim will hold “high-level talks” on Friday, the agency added.
Kim also “expressed his fixed will on the historic DPRK-US summit talks,” KCNA added, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.
Trump’s original decision to abandon the historic summit blindsided South Korea, which had been brokering a remarkable detente between Washington and Pyongyang.
However, there was a further signal from the US Saturday the June 12 summit may yet go ahead as the White House said it would send a team to Singapore to prepare for the meeting.
“The White House pre-advance team for Singapore will leave as scheduled in order to prepare should the summit take place,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
Last year Trump and Kim were trading war threats and insults after Pyongyang tested its most powerful nuclear bomb to date and launched test missiles it said were capable of reaching the United States.
Tensions were calmed after Kim extended an olive branch by offering to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, sparking a sudden detente that led to Trump agreeing to hold direct talks with Pyongyang.
Moon won election last year partly by vowing to be open to dialogue with Pyongyang and finding a solution to a Cold War-era sore that continues to blight the region.
But the flurry of diplomatic backslapping and bonhomie disappeared in recent weeks as the summit was thrown into doubt by increasingly bellicose rhetoric from both top US administration officials and Pyongyang.
Trump eventually pulled the plug on talks in a personal letter to Kim on Thursday.
But he left the door open to future meetings and Pyongyang responded by saying it was willing to sit down “at any time,” prompting Trump to reply that the Singapore summit could still take place.
Saturday’s meeting between Moon and Kim took place in a grand building on the North Korean side of Panmunjom, a heavily fortified village that lies between the two countries and marks the spot where the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 was signed.
Only last month the two leaders met in the same village, with Kim famously inviting Moon to step briefly into the North before they both held talks in a building on the South’s side.
Koh Yu-hwan, an expert on Korean relations at Dongguk University, said Saturday’s meeting between Moon and Kim increased the likelihood of the Singapore summit taking place as originally intended.
“Today’s summit is aimed at resolving the misunderstanding caused by communication glitches between Washington and Pyongyang and lay the groundwork for the US-North Korea summit,” he told AFP.
Adam Mount, a nuclear policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was a “bold but risky” move by Moon, describing the sudden summit as “a clear demonstration of how dangerous Trump’s temper tantrum was.”
“Trump says ‘everybody plays games.’ Moon Jae-in is not playing a game: he must keep his people safe from war,” he wrote on Twitter.
Unlike last month’s summit, which was held in front of live TV cameras, Saturday’s meeting took place in utmost secrecy, with reporters only being told later that the face-to-face had taken place.
Footage released by the Blue House on Twitter, accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score, showed Moon arriving in a convoy of cars and first shaking hands with Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who has played a major public role in recent talks with the South, including leading a delegation across the border during February’s Winter Olympics.
Saturday’s talks were only the fourth time serving leaders of the two Koreas, who remain technically at war, have ever met.