SEOUL, (BRIAN PADDEN).- The Inter-Korean summit began Friday morning with a historic step as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un crossed the military demarcation line that has divided Korea for over 60 years. At the end, the leaders of the communist North and Democratic South embraced prior to announcing a joint declaration committing to denuclearization and peace.

"Today, Chairman Kim Jong Un and I confirmed that the realization of the nuclear-free Korean peninsula through complete denuclearization is our common goal," said President Moon Jae-in at a ceremony to announce what they are calling the Panmunjom declaration.

The North Korean leader also endorsed the joint declaration as well as past inter-Korean agreements without elaborating or specifically acknowledging the agreed upon outcome to dismantle his country's threatening nuclear program.

"We have decided to open this transitional phase of improvement in relations and development by thoroughly implementing the North-South Declarations and all the agreements that have already been adopted," said Kim.

Historic crossing

Kim is now the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korea. He was greeted by Moon, who waited on the South Korean side of the borderline in the village of Panmunjom, the historic site, where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. The two leaders smiled as they shook hands across the border. Kim then stepped over the cement boundary marker.

Kim said he was, "excited to meet at this historic place" and later wondered "why it took so long" to get there.

"It really has a strong emotional impact on me," said Kim about the warm welcome he received from the people of South Korea.

President Moon welcomed Kim to the South and said he would like to one day visit North Korea. Laughing, the two together momentarily stepped over the border marker into the North's side of the demilitarized zone.

The two leaders posed for pictures with an unsmiling Kim dressed in a communist Mao-style suit and a smiling Moon in western business attire.

They also agreed to continue efforts to improve relations that had grown increasingly tense over the North's continued nuclear and missile tests, especially accelerated efforts in the last two years to develop nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to target the U.S. mainland.

"We declared together that there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and that a new era of peace has begun," said Moon.

At the summit Moon and Kim conducted two rounds of meetings during the day, and the South Korean leader hosted a dinner that featured a variety of famous Korean dishes including Pyongyang-style cold noodles. Kim's wife, Ri Sol-ju, and sister Kim Yo Jong Un joined the delegations for dinner with Moon and his wife, Kim Jung-sook.

Diplomatic pivot

This year, Kim pivoted to embrace diplomacy and agreed to engage in negotiations to end his country's nuclear program. Both President Moon's diplomatic outreach to the North, and U.S. President Donald Trump's maximum pressure campaign, which imposed tough sanctions that block virtually all North Korean exports, and that emphasized the possible use of military force, are credited with compelling Kim to change his previous confrontational stance.

The joint declaration "confirmed the common goal of realizing complete denuclearization, and a nuclear free Korean Peninsula."

It also recognized as "meaningful and crucial," North Korea's recent unilateral concessions to suspend further nuclear and missile tests, and to close its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. However, some analysts have expressed skepticism that these measures are meaningful as they only freeze and not reduce the country's nuclear capabilities.

There were also indications that perhaps more serious diplomatic progress was being made away from the official talks when Moon and Kim engaged in what seemed to be a very candid conversation without any staff or advisers present as they sat together for 30 minutes outside the conference hall in the afternoon. Television cameras recorded the meeting from a distance.

Trump-Kim summit

The declaration is meant to prepare the diplomatic ground for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, expected to be held in May or June. South Korean officials have assured the Trump administration that Kim is prepared to commit to completely and verifiably dismantling his nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees from the U.S., sanctions relief, and developmental assistance.

President Trump applauded the commitment to peace and denuclearization on Twitter, but added that "only time will tell" if the goals are achieved.

Is everybody believing what is going on. James Comey can’t define what a leak is. He illegally leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION but doesn’t understand what he did or how serious it is. He lied all over the place to cover it up. He’s either very sick or very dumb. Remember sailor!

While Trump has expressed optimism that a nuclear deal with North Korea can be reached, he has said he will walk out of the meeting if there are signs it "is not going to be fruitful."

Given the unconventional nature of these summits, which come at the beginning and not the end of the negotiation process, and North Korea's past performance in breaking agreements, many remain skeptical that these high-level meetings will lead to real denuclearization progress.

"The devil is in the details and as we have found in the past, in three separate sets of negotiations with North Korea, the devil is always in the details," said Victor Cha, a North Korea scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Peace treaty

Moon and Kim also agreed to work on measures to improve cross-border security, restart family reunions, and work toward replacing the longstanding armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 with a permanent peace treaty, which would also require the approval of the U.S. and China as signatories to the truce.

"I think there is room for North and South Korea to make progress on a peace settlement. That is fundamentally a Korean issue, including confidence building measures along the DMZ, [demilitarized zone], a declaration to end hostilities," said Gary Samore, a former White House arms control coordinator and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

After their historic talks, the leaders and their wives attended a banquet, along with Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong. They raised a toast and were entertained by a variety of musical performances. Kim Jong Un bought Pyongyang-style cold noodles for the dinner, at the request of his South Korean counterpart. The starring role of the noodles led to long lines outside restaurants in South Korea's capital that were serving the dish.

This was the third inter-Korean summit, but the first to take place in South Korea. The meetings in 2000 and 2007 were held in the North.

Lee Youn-jee contributed to this report from Seoul.

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CoreadelNorte11SEOUL, (BRIAN PADDEN-VOANEWS).- North Korea’s sudden threat to pull out of the upcoming summit with the U.S. raises new doubts of whether a denuclearization deal is possible.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to meet with U.S President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12 to work out an agreement to end the North’s nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and an end to punishing international sanctions.

But on Wednesday North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Kwan released a statement through the state-run KCNA news agency that criticized “unbridled remarks” made specifically by the U.S. president’s National Security Adviser John Bolton demanding that Pyongyang completely decommission its entire nuclear arsenal, along with its ballistic missile program and chemical weapons stockpile, before receiving any compensation or concessions.

He expressed “indignation” at the U.S uncompromising position and said North Korea might pull out of the Trump-Kim summit, unless the Trump administration acts with “sincerity” to improve relations through dialogue.

“If the United States is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the North Korea-U.S. summit,” the statement said.

The vice foreign minister also said it was “absolutely absurd” that Bolton would compare Libya’s experience dismantling its relatively rudimentary nuclear program as a model for dealing with the North’s more advanced and expansive capabilities.

He also denounced the Trump administration for “miscalculating the magnanimity” of Kim Jong Un’s decision to suspend further nuclear and missile tests, and his willingness to engage in nuclear talks, as “signs of weakness,” that were the result of what the U.S. administration has dubbed its “maximum pressure” campaign that led international efforts to impose punishing sanctions banning 90% of North Korean trade.

​The vice minister’s remarks came shortly after the North abruptly canceled inter-Korean talks planned for Wednesday, citing ongoing joint military drills between South Korea and the U.S.

Last week American and South Korea forces began their two-week Max Thunder exercise that involves 100 aircraft, including eight F-22 radar-evading jets, as well as F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. The North derided the drills as a rehearsal for invasion that undermines improving inter-Korean ties.

Cautious reactions

The U.S. and South Korea reacted with caution to North Korea’s more confrontational posture.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conferred with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Wednesday and said the U.S. would continue planning for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit but continue to monitor the situation.

Pompeo, who recently met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang to prepare for the summit, said on Sunday that the U.S. would lift sanctions on North Korea if it agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

However, Kim Kye Gwan's statement appeared to reject such an arrangement, saying North Korea would never give up its nuclear program in exchange for economic trade with the United States.

Wednesday’s denouncement of the joint drills also seemed to contradict what the North Korean leader reportedly said earlier this year. A South Korean diplomatic envoy that met with Kim in Pyongyang this year, said the North Korean leader had dropped his objection to U.S., South Korea military exercises as a barrier to developing a peace agreement.

The South Korean Unification Ministry said it was “regrettable” that the North unilaterally postponed ministerial-level inter-Korean talks, and the North’s cancelation of talks was not in line with the “spirit of the recent Panmunjom Declaration” calling for increased cross border cooperation that was signed by Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the inter-Korean summit.

"The South Korean government has a firm willingness to faithfully implement the Panmunjom Declaration and is urging the North to respond quickly to the talks for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula," said Baik Tae-Hyun, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesperson.

Bargaining positions

It is unclear if the North’s threat to pull out of the summit with the U.S. reflects a change in policy or a negotiating tactic to exploit Trump’s repeated claims that he may achieve a historic diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea that has eluded past presidents.

“If you signal you are desperate for some kind of deal, then your counterpart can sense that you are willing to make concessions, and they can drive a hard bargain, and this could be a reflection of that,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with Troy University in Seoul.

The more aggressive stance taken by the North may also reflect growing pressure from conservative elements within the military or Communist Party that are worried the U.S. seems to be unilaterally dictating the terms for a nuclear deal.

“It is true that North Korea is anxious about the situation where it needs to back down on everything to the U.S.,” said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and analyst with the World Institute of North Korea Studies in Seoul.

John Delury, a North Korea analyst with Yonsei University in Seoul suggested on Twitter that the U.S. and South Korea address the North’s sudden threat to withdraw from talks by making a small but meaningful good-will gesture, given that the Kim government has already made a number of concessions, including releasing three American prisoners, and suspending missile and nuclear tests.

However North Korea skeptics say the Kim government should not be rewarded for merely meeting its minimum obligations by suspending nuclear and missile tests that violate U.N. restrictions or for releasing prisoners that were unjustly apprehended by the repressive state.

Lee Yoon-jee contributed to this report.

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SEOUL, (BRIAN PADDEN-VOANEWS).- North Korea’s recent threat to pull out of the upcoming nuclear summit with the U.S. has added new urgency to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington next Tuesday.

President Moon has played a key role in facilitating the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump scheduled to be held in Singapore June 12.

Diplomatic jeopardy

At the recent inter-Korean summit Moon got Kim to affirm a broad commitment to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and that opened the door for Trump and Kim to negotiate a more detailed agreement to end North Korea’s nuclear program.

However, uncompromising positions recently voiced by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton demanding the North’s unilateral disarmament, and by North Korea in response canceling further talks with the South and threatening to pull out of the U.S.-North Korea summit, have put the prospects for continued diplomatic progress in jeopardy.

President Trump has tried to reassure the North Korean leadership that a nuclear deal would not weaken the Kim government, but would bolster it.

“He'd be in his country, he'd be running his country. His country would be very rich.” Trump said Thursday while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the White House.

Moon mediation

President Moon, who will meet with Trump in Washington on Tuesday, has said he will try to moderate differences between the U.S. and North Korea over how to achieve denuclearization, while also giving the Kim government the security guarantees and sanctions relief it wants.

But the convergence of interests that have brought Moon, Trump and Kim to all agree to give diplomacy a chance seems to be diverging over how to bridge the gap between the U.S. demand for complete denuclearization prior to offering any concessions, and the North’s insistence on a step by step process that would ease sanctions early on for incremental measures, such as giving up some nuclear material and allowing in outside inspectors.

“We have three leaders, each thinks he is in the driver’s seat and it is like three cars hurling toward an intersection. Each one convinced he has the right of way and the other two drivers will yield,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center while speaking at the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul this week.

Trump and Kim’s unconventional approach to diplomacy, by rushing to meet before a deal is worked out, also runs the risk of being undermined by hardline elements in their governments.

“I think there are questions in both Pyongyang and Washington about how the leaders are connected to their own bureaucracies.Maybe we are seeing evidence of that question even today,” said Scott Snyder, the director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, who was also in Seoul for the security-related leadership conference.

There are also concerns that China may have encouraged North Korea to take a more gradual approach to denuclearization by promising to ease sanctions no matter the outcome of the summit.

Inter-Korean friction

Pyongyang has also taken on a harsher tone with Seoul this week, with a high level negotiator calling the South Korean government "ignorant and incompetent," denouncing U.S.-South Korean military drills underway, and threatening to halt all inter-Korean talks.

Some South Korean conservatives staged a rally on Friday in front of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to protest President Moon’s efforts to pursue a peace deal with a North Korea government they say cannot be trusted.

“They only talked very vaguely about the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. What concerns me the most is the lack of transparency between Kim Jong Un and President Moon,” said Byun Hee-jae, a rally organizer with a conservative organization in Seoul called Media Watch.

However, the vast majority of South Koreans support Moon’s persistent diplomatic efforts to facilitate denuclearization talks and improve relations with the North.

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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA, (BRIAN PADDEN-VOANEWS).- The South Korean Constitutional Court has voted unanimously to uphold the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye.

Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi’s reading of the ruling from the Constitutional Court in Seoul Friday was broadcast live by national media outlets.

“We believe that there are greater benefits by expelling the respondent from the office. Therefore with a unanimous vote of the justices we announced upholding (the impeachment.) The respondent President Park Guen-hye is expelled.

Impeachment ruling

All eight of the Constitutional Court justices endorsed the National Assembly motion, passed in December with more than the two-thirds majority support needed, to remove Park from office on charges of corruption, misconduct and negligence.

The court cited as “grave violations” of the constitution the allegations that Park colluded with her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to extort Korean conglomerates to donate more than $69 million to two dubious foundations. Choi was alleged to have a “cult-like” influence over Park and control over her staff, even though she had no official government role.

“These violations undermine the rule law and a representative democracy,” Lee said.

Park was also reprimanded for being uncooperative and evasive in the investigations, and attempting to prevent the legislature from acting as a “check and balance” on executive power.

Other charges the justices found troubling but did not constitute grave violations of the constitution include allegations of negligence related to Park’s extended absence during the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster.

The Constitutional Court also clarified that its ruling was focused on the legitimacy of the National Assembly action to oust the president, and not on criminal guilt or innocence.

Leaders react

The 64-year-old Park now becomes the first democratically elected president of South Korea to be removed from office. She is the second president to go through the impeachment process. In 2004 President Roh Moo-hyun was ousted by the legislature but was reinstated by the court two month later.

In Myung-jin, interim head of Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party said his party will respect the “grave value of constitutional law and democracy” and will “humbly accept the decision” of the court.

“From this moment, the Liberty Korea Party is not a ruling party anymore,” In said.

Choo Mi-ae, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Korea, hailed the court ruling as a historic triumph of people power and democracy over an entrenched government and corporate monopoly.

“The world will record the great fight and victory of our people as new history of democracy,” Choo said.

The impeached president has repeatedly denied the charges against her, maintaining that the actions she took were in the national interest and insisting she never personally benefited during her 18 years of public service. She also offered a number of public apologies for not being aware that some of her close associates may have been involved in some wrongdoings.

Park is the daughter of a military ruler who led the country for 18 years before being assassinated in 1979.

U.S. reaction

U.S. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner issued a statement, saying “We will continue to work with Prime Minister Hwang for the remainder of his tenure as acting president, and we look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president.”

Toner emphasized that the South Korean impeachment decision “is a domestic issue on which the United States takes no position,” and that the U.S. will continue to be a “steadfast ally, friend, and partner” to South Korea, “especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea.”

The South Korean military has been put on high alert following the impeachment ruling to deter North Korea from taking advantage of the political turmoil in the country.

New election

Park was suspended from her duties following the impeachment vote in December but continued to reside in the Blue House presidential residence. She must now move out as soon as possible.

Park won’t vacate the presidential Blue House on Friday as her aides are preparing for her return to her private home in southern Seoul, according to the Blue House. Park wasn’t planning any statement on Friday, it said.

Under the constitution, Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn must schedule a presidential election with 60 days.

Delay THAAD?

Opposition leaders have called for the polices of the impeached president to be put on hold until a new leader is elected.

The Democratic Party of Korea has also called for the deployment of the controversial U.S. THAAD missile defense system to be delayed. China’s strong opposition to THAAD and reports of Beijing retaliating against Korean companies have sparked increasing concerns in South Korea. Parts for the anti-missile battery, however, have already begun to arrive in South Korea and the system is expected to be fully operational as early as April.

Many progressive leaders want to pursue a less confrontational approach to resolve tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program.

In the upcoming election, conservatives are expected to make national security a key issue and will try to contrast liberal pro-engagement policies with their hardline positions on taking increasing defensive measures, maintaining the close alliance with the U.S. and increasing punitive measures on the Kim Jong Un government.

Immunity, benefits gone

While in office, the president was immune to prosecution, but Park could now face criminal charges. Earlier this week a special prosecutor, appointed to investigate this corruption scandal, accused Park of wrongdoing on several charges, including a bribery conspiracy implicating the Samsung Group.

Samsung Group Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and other company officials were indicted for donating $37.19 million to the Choi-run foundations in exchange for government help on an important merger for the company, and could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Choi and a number of presidential aides are facing similar charges and prison terms for their roles in the influence peddling scandal.

Because she was impeached, Park will also lose most post presidency benefits and privileges including a generous pension, health care and administrative support.

Protests

Outside the court, thousands of Park supporters and opponents held rival demonstrations. More than 21,000 police were dispatched to prevent violent clashes between these groups. Traffic near the court has been shut down. Two people later died during the protests.

The anti-Park protesters celebrated the impeachment ruling. Since October there have been weekly massive, peaceful protests across the country demanding the president step down over the corruption scandal. The demonstrations, along with Park’s approval rating of less than 10 percent, helped pressure the National Assembly to act.

A recent survey poll found that 79 percent of the South Korea public supported an impeachment ruling.

The presidents’ supporters reacted with outrage and there were incidents of protesters scuffling with police.

In the last month, increasing numbers of conservative supporters of President Park have been organizing counter demonstrations to denounce the impeachment as tyranny of the mob and an illegal reversal of a democratically held election.

The court was intent to make its ruling by Friday before judicial term limits reduced the normally nine-member body to seven justices. The South Korean Constitution requires at least six justices concur for an impeachment motion to be upheld. But Chief Justice Park Han-chul was forced to step down in January when his term ended, and Monday will be the last day of Justice Lee Jung-mi’s term. During the impeachment process justices’ terms cannot be extended and no new judges can be appointed.

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