Ahead of historic Korea summit, optimism and obstacles each loom large

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un steps across the border on Friday, setting in motion the historic inter-Korea summit, every step will have been carefully considered, choreographed and catered.

With Korean peace on the agenda at Friday's meeting, both North and South leaders have much at stake

Activists wearing masks of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, pose for a photo during a rally in Seoul on Wednesday to support the upcoming inter-Korean summit. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un steps across the border tomorrow, setting in motion the historic inter-Korea summit, every step will have been carefully considered, choreographed and catered.

Friday's meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will take place in the demilitarized zone, or the DMZ, the strip of land that separates the rival Koreas. Kim has never visited this side of the border, never stepped past the expressionless soldiers, barbed-wire fences and rows of landmines.

After all, these two countries are technically still at war.

For weeks, officials from both Koreas have been working on the details of the visit. They have overseen renovations to the cavernous "Peace House" venue to install a meeting room and banquet hall (done), negotiated whether parts of the visit will be covered live by South Korean TV (yes), and debated whether there will be a joint news conference at the end (undecided).

Policemen stand guard on the Grand Unification Bridge leading to the Peace House, the venue for the inter-Korean summit. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

They've even planned the dinner menu, with every bite steeped in historical and geographical significance.

There will be dumplings and fish from the hometowns of former South Korean leaders and cold noodles from a renowned restaurant in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Swiss-style rosti potatoes will also be served, reportedly a childhood favourite of Kim from his days attending boarding school in Switzerland.

All of it will be "cooked with respect," according to a government spokesperson in Seoul.

A Swiss-style potato rosti, reportedly a favourite of Kim Jong-un, will be served at Friday's summit. (Getty Images)

Moon has gone out of his way to welcome Kim and other officials from Pyongyang, ever since he invited North Korea to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February.

That gesture seemed to spark a series of breakthroughs in peace talks with North Korea — unimaginable just a few months earlier, when Kim was setting off nuclear tests and threatening to fire missiles at the United States.

The North Korean leader offered to start direct negotiations with U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss the future of his weapons program, and, just this past week, to end testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear devices.

That last announcement may or may not be the first big step toward the North's eventual denuclearization.

In the shadow of a 2nd summit

But the proposed meeting with Trump is seen as a pivotal opportunity to avoid a military conflict. It is being planned for late May or early June, though neither a date nor a location has been decided.

Does that make tomorrow's meeting a sideshow? Not at all, according to South Korean experts.

"Kim Jong-un wants to use this summit to establish his status as the leader of a nuclear power — before the summit with Trump," said Jeung Young-tae, director of the North Korea Research Institute.

For young people in the South, the idea of a reunified Korean Peninsula can seem more like an unnecessary delusion than a dream. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Kim also needs to show that he's serious about negotiating a reduction of North Korea's weapons, something many still doubt after several years of fruitless talks under his father and grandfather. They were accused of misleading the United States to buy time for the development of the country's arms program.

For South Korea's Moon, the most important aim is to stay at the centre of these talks in order to protect his country's interests.

"South Korean people are worried about Donald Trump and his America First policy," said Jeung. "If the he gets whatever is important for the U.S., … there might be a possibility he just abandons South Korea."

In other words, if Kim is willing to give up his intercontinental ballistic missiles, Trump may not worry about the shorter-range missiles that threaten South Korea.

Détente diplomacy

Both Moon and Kim may want to use the summit to make a grand declaration of peace. Officials here have been discussing an agreement to formally end the Korean War, which has been on pause since 1953.

Moon is also eager to advance his lifelong dream of the reunification of North and South Korea. It won't happen tomorrow or in the near future, but many in the South have been losing hope or interest that it will happen at all. Young people in particular have tuned out.

With these talks, the idea may be back on the public agenda. It's certainly back in the public eye — in the form of a gigantic outline of a united Korean Peninsula on the lawn of Seoul's city hall.

It appeared just days before the summit, made up of millions of little white flowers.

A unified Korean Peninsula, made up of tiny white flowers, is shown on the lawn of Seoul's city hall. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

"One of the big obstacles has been to keep our desire and enthusiasm for accomplishing unification," said Min Tae-eun, research director for the Korea Institute for National Unification. "With the current détente between the two Koreas, it gives me hope that young people will realize how important it could be to bring peace to their daily lives."

One issue not on the agenda is North Korea's human rights violations. Pyongyang has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations, international rights organizations and South Korean leaders, including Moon, in the past.

But human rights groups in the South say they have been told by the president that now is not the time to focus on the issue.

"He doesn't want to talk about anything that will jeopardize this relationship between North and South," said Park Bum-jin, chairman of the Seoul-based Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. "It's a missed opportunity."

"Besides," he said, "all of this may fall apart anyway. The North may not really want to discuss any of it."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.