KIM Jong-un has stepped across the border with South Korea for historic talks with President Moon Jae-in.

The meeting marks the first time one of the ruling Kim leaders has crossed over to the southern side of the Demilitarised Zone since fighting in the Korean War stopped in 1953.

The two Koreas are technically still at war given no peace treaty was ever signed.

Holding hands, the two Korean leaders met face-to-face for the first time in a moment that seemed impossible just months ago.

The two leaders shake hands as Kim crossed the border into South Korea. Picture: Korea Broadcasting System/AP
The two leaders shake hands as Kim crossed the border into South Korea. Picture: Korea Broadcasting System/AP

Walking over the world's most heavily armed border to greet his rival, Kim invited Moon to cross briefly north with him before they returned to the southern side.

Mr Moon shook hands with his North Korean counterpart, telling him: "I am happy to meet you."

The two leaders were then escorted by South Korean honour guards to a welcoming ceremony before beginning official proceedings at Peace House, a South Korean building inside the border village of Panmunjom.

The moment marks the first time Kim has ever stepped across the heavily militarised border.

The leaders are set to discuss the North’s nuclear program. Picture: Korea Broadcasting System/AP
The leaders are set to discuss the North’s nuclear program. Picture: Korea Broadcasting System/AP

Kim's promise to wind down his weapons program will be at the top of the agenda during the meeting, which is expected to run into the afternoon.

Seoul hopes Kim will confirm his willingness for "complete" denuclearisation of the peninsula.

The two leaders are then expected to release a joint statement later this afternoon, possibly called the Panmunjom Declaration, which could address denuclearisation and peace.

Today's meeting is only the third time that the leaders of the divided Koreas have met in the 65 years.

Kim crosses the military demarcation line to meet with Mr Moon. Picture: Korea Summit Press Pool/AP
Kim crosses the military demarcation line to meet with Mr Moon. Picture: Korea Summit Press Pool/AP

The first inter-Korean summit took place between former North Korean leader Kim Jong-l, the late father of the current leader, and the liberal former president of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung in 2000.

The Koreas held their second summit in October 2007 between Kim Jong-il and Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung's liberal successor and the political mentor of current South Korean President Moon.

The historic moment is the third such summit for the Koreas. Picture: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images
The historic moment is the third such summit for the Koreas. Picture: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

WHY IS TODAY'S MEETING SIGNIFICANT?

Kim is the first North Korean leader to visit since 1953 when the Korean War ended with a ceasefire agreement.

The historic meeting comes ahead of a planned summit between the North Korean leader and Mr Trump.

Just months ago, the two leaders were trading threats and insults as North Korea's rapid advances in pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles capable of hitting the US raised fears of a fresh conflict on the Korean peninsula.

In a bold move, Kim announced North Korea would suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and dismantle its only known nuclear test site.

However many experts remain sceptical about whether the North Korean leader is ready to abandon the hard-earned nuclear arsenal his country has defended and developed for decades.

In a statement, the White House said it wished the Korean people well and were hopeful that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula.

"The United States appreciates the close co-ordination with our ally, the Republic of Korea, and looks forward to continuing robust discussions in preparation for the planned meeting between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks," the statement said.

People in Seoul write goodwill messages during their rally welcoming the planned inter Korean Summit. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
People in Seoul write goodwill messages during their rally welcoming the planned inter Korean Summit. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

KIM'S MOTIVES

According to Dr Leonid Petrov, a leading expert on North Korea, Kim and Moon may have completely different political motives and goals but their intentions coincided this year.

Dr Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, said Kim desperately needs to steer North Korea away from an imminent disaster such a nuclear war, a domestic upheaval or both.

"Moon, in contrast, needs to keep South Korea in the comfort zone of the US alliance and export-oriented economic trajectory in the quickly changing global trade and political climate," Dr Petrov said.

"Meeting and talking about inter-Korean reconciliation and economic co-operation will not only boost the two leaders' popularity at home but will also give confidence to the neighbouring powers, who have been waging Hot and Cold Wars in Korea for regional domination since the late 19th century."

A motorcade carrying South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives at the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, in Paju. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP
A motorcade carrying South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives at the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, in Paju. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP

Dr Petrov said everyone seems to realise that without peace in Korea there will be no ultimate security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said he expected Kim will want the South to make concessions in return for the North agreeing to a peace settlement.

However he warned any cut and dry deal was unlikely to happen today.

"I don't expect a peace agreement to be negotiated today. This is the beginning of a long process," Dr Davis said.

"The North Koreans have said the US can maintain forces on the Peninsula, but once a peace settlement is signed, I'm expecting the North Koreans to insist that those forces be dramatically reduced in size and posture changed to a peacekeeping role."

Dr Davis said he remained sceptical over what Kim means by denuclearisation.

"The North may see denuclearisation quite differently, and will resist intrusive inspections," he said.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

John Blaxland, Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and director of ANU's Southeast Asia Institute, told news.com.au ahead of the North and South's high-level meeting that Kim has been playing a high stakes game for months.

Prof Blaxland said Kim has taken initiatives that continue to surprise the West ranging from missile tests to cheeky "game playing" during the Winter Olympics.

However, he said the West should remain sceptical of the North Korea's promises and Kim's intentions.

Not all South Koreans are thrilled about the summit with protesters making their views known ahead of the meeting by burning pictures of the North Korean regime. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Not all South Koreans are thrilled about the summit with protesters making their views known ahead of the meeting by burning pictures of the North Korean regime. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

"This is the same man who was happy to have his half-brother assassinated and others executed mercilessly," he said.

"So when thinking about expectations of the summit, it is important to remember he comes from a dynasty of hard-nosed survivors who have instilled a level of fear, nay, paranoia, in their society that leaves him with a strong grip on power and a commitment to maintaining the rhetorical line of America being evil."

Prof Blaxland said we should expect the unexpected.

"Kim Jong-un likely will surprise again, offering a deal that his southern counterpart, Moon Jae-in and Trump, may find quite enticing; that appeals to the South's desire for symbols of peace and reconciliation and to Trump's desire to be seen as having won on the art of the deal," he said.

However Prof Blaxland warned this made for a dangerous set of circumstances.

"The brinkmanship and elevated expectations conceivably could result in a breakthrough that sets the path for a final ending to the Korean War that has been in armistice limbo for longer than most people alive can even remember," he said.

"But alternatively they could see either side leave angrily in a huff, having tripped over a precipice from which it may prove very difficult to return.

"We can hope that the sanctions have had such an effect, and the goodwill proves so compelling that the breakthrough finally comes. But hope is not a plan. And there are far too many variables that leave the situation primed for an awkward if not awful unravelling."

 

The Korean leaders pose with children as they meet at the Military Demarcation Line that divides their countries at Panmunjom. picture: Korean Broadcasting Service/AFP
The Korean leaders pose with children as they meet at the Military Demarcation Line that divides their countries at Panmunjom. picture: Korean Broadcasting Service/AFP

Speaking about the historic meeting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he hoped it would lead to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

However Mr Turnbull said while that appeared to be everybody's goal he remained cautious of the outcome.

"we have seen this before, we have had false dawns before on the Korean peninsula," he said.

"So that is why it is really important to maintain that the pressure of the sanctions. It is the economic sanctions that have brought this apparent change in attitude, and that pressure has to be maintained, but the goal is denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."

AWKWARD ENCOUNTER

As today's historic meeting takes place the White House released photos of its own awkward attempt at diplomacy with Kim Jong-un.

The photos, taken in Pyongyang last month, show ex-CIA director Mike Pompeo meeting and shaking hands with Kim.

There are no smiles in the pictures, with both men holding stoic expressions.

The newly sworn in Secretary of State travelled to Pyongyang over Easter after being nominated for the key role.

 

He met with Kim ahead of the planned summit with US President Donald Trump, expected in late May or June.

Mr Trump revealed more information about Mr Pompeo's secret trip to North Korea including that he wasn't supposed to meet with Kim, but ended up talking with him for more than an hour.

Mr Pompeo, who won Senate confirmation on April 26 to become Secretary of State, was the most senior US official to meet a North Korean leader since 2000.

In an interview on Fox News, Mr Trump also said releasing photos of the meeting wasn't a bad idea.

Park Strategies senior vice president Sean King, an expert on Asian politics, told news.com.au the timing of the release could be strategic on the President's part.

"Trump's maybe trying to upstage Moon Jae-in (South Korea President) with those Pompeo in Pyongyang photos, reminding the world his guy met Kim before Moon did," Mr King said.

Mr Pompeo and Kim met for more than an hour in a meeting Washington said was a huge success. Picture: The White House/AP
Mr Pompeo and Kim met for more than an hour in a meeting Washington said was a huge success. Picture: The White House/AP

Mr King said Kim is meeting Mr Moon because he knows that's the path he needs to take in order to meet the US President.

"As America's long told Pyongyang, the road to Washington runs through Seoul," he said.

"But in the meantime, Kim will presumably be looking to Moon for sanctions relief of any kind. What's more, he'll play the Korean ethnicity card, telling Moon they should stand together as one against foreign forces."

Mr King said this rhetoric resonates with some on South Korea's political left because, unlike in most countries, South Korea's left is actually more ethno-nationalist than its right.

 

Mr Pompeo met with Kim over the Easter weekend. Picture: The White House/Getty Images
Mr Pompeo met with Kim over the Easter weekend. Picture: The White House/Getty Images

As for expectations of what will be discussed at the historic summit, Mr King said there has been a lot of talk about Kim's recent statement that he's OK with US troops staying in South Korea.

"Well, my worry is how long it will be until Moon asks us to pull out troops?" he said.

"And in America First Donald Trump, who's always looking to cut costs abroad and is already upset that we don't sell enough cars in South Korea, Moon might find a willing partner for at least a partial withdrawal."

 

debra.killalea@news.com.au

 

- Additional reporting by Reuters

 

Mr Pompeo met with Kim over the Easter weekend. Picture: The White House/Getty Images
Mr Pompeo met with Kim over the Easter weekend. Picture: The White House/Getty Images

 

South Koreans hold up placards of President Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally welcoming the planned Inter Korean Summit. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
South Koreans hold up placards of President Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally welcoming the planned Inter Korean Summit. Picture: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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