SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un grins, just on the verge of a belly laugh, as he grasps the hand of a visiting South Korean official. He sits at a wide conference table and beams as the envoys look on deferentially. He smiles broadly again at dinner, his wife at his side, the South Koreans seeming to hang on his every word.
Kim is used to being the center of gravity in a country that his family has ruled with unquestioned power since 1948, but the chance to play the senior statesman on the Korean Peninsula with a roomful of visiting South Koreans has afforded the autocratic leader a whole new raft of propaganda and political opportunities.
Photos released by North Korean state media Tuesday showing Kim meeting with the envoys are all the more remarkable coming just months after a barrage of North Korean weapons tests and threats against Seoul and Washington had many fearing war.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the images were reported in the North, but they spread rapidly across the southern part of the peninsula a day after Pyongyang said Kim had an “openhearted talk” in Pyongyang with 10 envoys for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Kim reportedly expressed his desire to “write a new history of national reunification” during a dinner that Seoul said lasted about four hours.
The meeting Monday marked the first time South Korean officials have met with the young North Korean leader in person since he took power after his dictator father’s death in late 2011. It’s the latest sign that the Koreas are trying to mend ties after one of the tensest years in a region that seems to be permanently on edge.
Given the robust history of bloodshed, threats and animosity on the Korean Peninsula, there is considerable skepticism over whether the Koreas’ apparent warming relations will lead to lasting peace. North Korea, some believe, is trying to use improved ties with the South to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions and pressure, and to provide domestic propaganda fodder for Kim.
But each new development also raises the possibility that the rivals can use the momentum from the good feelings created during North Korea’s participation in the South’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last month to ease a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and restart talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
The role of a confident leader welcoming visiting, and lower-ranking, officials from the rival South is one Kim clearly relishes. Smiling for cameras, he posed with the South Koreans and presided over what was described by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency as a “co-patriotic and sincere atmosphere.”
Many in Seoul and Washington will want to know if, the rhetoric and smiling images notwithstanding, there’s any possibility Kim will negotiate over the North’s breakneck pursuit of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can viably target the U.S. mainland.
The North has repeatedly and bluntly declared it will not give up its nuclear bombs. It also hates the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that were postponed because of the Olympics but will likely happen later this spring. And achieving its nuclear aims rests on the North resuming tests of missiles and bombs that set the region on edge.
But there was nothing about the Koreas’ very real differences in the North Korean report. Kim was said to have offered his views on “activating the versatile dialogue, contact, cooperation and exchange” between the countries
He was also said to have given “important instruction to the relevant field to rapidly take practical steps for” a summit with South Korean President Moon, which the North proposed last month.
Moon, a liberal who is keen to engage the North, likely wants to visit Pyongyang. But he must first broker better ties between North Korea and Washington, Seoul’s top ally and its military protector.
In the meantime, Moon sent his national security director, Chung Eui-yong, to head the 10-member South Korean delegation that was sent to Pyongyang. Chung’s trip is the first known high-level visit by South Korean officials to the North in about a decade.
The South Korean delegates have another meeting with North Korean officials on Tuesday before returning home, but it’s unclear if Kim will be there.
Kim was said to have expressed at the dinner his “firm will to vigorously advance the north-south relations and write a new history of national reunification by the concerted efforts of our nation to be proud of in the world.”
There is speculation that better inter-Korean ties could pave the way for Washington and Pyongyang to talk about the North’s nuclear weapons. The United States, however, has made clear that it doesn’t want empty talks and that all options, including military measures, are on the table.
Previous warming ties between the Koreas have come to nothing amid North Korea’s repeated weapons tests and the North’s claims that the annual U.S.-South Korean war games are a rehearsal for an invasion.
Before leaving for Pyongyang, Chung said he would relay Moon’s hopes for North Korean nuclear disarmament and a permanent peace on the peninsula.
Chung’s delegation includes intelligence chief Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung. The South Korean presidential Blue House said the high-profile delegation is meant to reciprocate the Olympic trip by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who became the first member of the North’s ruling family to come to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim Yo Jong, who also attended Monday’s dinner, and other senior North Korean officials met with Moon during the Olympics, conveyed Kim Jong Un’s invitation to visit Pyongyang and expressed their willingness to hold talks with the United States.
After the Pyongyang trip, Chung’s delegation is scheduled to fly to the United States to brief officials about the outcome of the talks with North Korean officials.
President Donald Trump has said talks with North Korea will happen only “under the right conditions.”
If Moon accepts Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang, it would be the third inter-Korean summit talks. The past two summits, one in 2000 and the other in 2007, were held between Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, and two liberal South Korean presidents. They resulted in a series of cooperative projects between the Koreas that were scuttled during subsequent conservative administrations in the South.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.