Kim Jong-un

The moment when the inter-Korean summit went off script and tensions surfaced

The leaders of North and South Korea were all smiles for their historic meeting, but not everything went according to the script

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2018, 1:48pm

The historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea was orchestrated as a show of unity, a carefully choreographed interaction designed to pave the way for talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

South Korea held rehearsals before the summit, making sure the interactions between the two leaders went smoothly.

But there were still moments where the players went off script and, in one case, revealed underlying tensions between two countries that are technically still at war.

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The greetings began with South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcoming North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the southern side of the concrete military demarcation line at Panmunjom that has divided the two Koreas since an armistice agreement in 1953. 

The two shook hands and posed for photographs before Kim extended a surprise invitation to Moon to cross over into the northern side of the demarcation line.

Moon obliged and the two leaders walked across the border to the North, holding hands, before walking back to the southern side of the border together.

Yoon Young-chan, a senior press aide to the South Korean president, said Moon’s decision to step over into the North was unexpected and came after Moon expressed his wish to visit North Korea. 

Moon and Kim then went back on script, walking along a red carpet to the Peace House, reviewing an honour guard to the sound of traditional Korean music.

Some of the guards were dressed in costumes in the style of the Chosun dynasty founded more than 700 years ago. They stood alongside personnel from the South Korean army, navy and air force.

Then another unexpected event occurred, reminding observers of the decades of strain between the countries.

Ri Myong-su, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, and North Korean Defence Minister Pak Yong-sik stood to attention in full military uniform and saluted Moon.

But the gesture was not reciprocated by the South Korean military officials – a reminder that the two sides are technically still at war. Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a handshake and Defence Minister Song Young-moo merely nodded to the North Korean leader.

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Still, officials from both sides were keen to keep the focus on positives.

After becoming the first North Korean leader to enter the Peace House, Kim wrote in the guestbook that “new history begins now at the starting point of an era of peace and history”.

There was also a flurry of photographs of officials from both sides, including Seoul’s chief presidential secretary Im Jong-seok, Pyongyang’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam and Kim’s younger sister Kim yo-jong.

At the summit meeting itself, which started 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled 10.15am and went for 100 minutes, the two leaders reinforced the importance of peace on Korean peninsula. 

“We should produce good results by talking frankly about current issues ... It is a moment to write a new history of peace and prosperity,” Kim said.

Moon echoed the sentiment, saying: “I hope we can talk frankly to reach an agreement and present a big gift for the Koreans and the people around the world who wish for peace.” 

At the main press centre, where around 3,000 journalists gathered, applause went through the room when Kim approached Moon for a handshake.

Meanwhile, protesters burned a North Korean flag near a checkpoint leading to the summit site.

Once the talks were over, the symbolism continued outside with Moon and Kim putting soil on a pine tree called “sonamu” in Korean, which literally means “chief tree” – to symbolise honour and strength. The tree was planted in 1953, the year that the armistice was signed.

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Moon’s contribution of soil came from Baekdusan, North Korea’s northernmost mountain, while Kim’s came from Hallasan, South Korea’s southernmost mountain – a combination meant to symbolise reconciliation and peace.

The two also installed a ceremonial stone inscribed with the words “planting peace and prosperity”.