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Leaders Of North And South Korea Meet In Pyongyang For 3rd Summit



Sound from a remarkable scene today in North Korea - the leaders of South and North Korea together in Pyongyang. Photos show the two standing up through the sun-roof of a car as they drive through the streets of the city. They were met by throngs of cheering crowds waving flags of a unified Korea. South Korea's leader, Moon Jae-in, is there for another round of nuclear talks. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Seoul, where he is monitoring these events. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, this is quite a sight, the two of these leaders. I know they have met in summits before now, but it's still a big deal when we see them together smiling.

SCHMITZ: Very happy (laughter) shiny, happy people.

MARTIN: Shiny, happy people.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) That's right.

MARTIN: But I mean, what is the substance of these talks? What's going to happen here?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think the first item on their agenda, which is a big concern of the Trump administration, is getting North Korea back on track on their path toward scrapping its nuclear weapons program. Now, this is something that Kim Jong Un seemed to promise to do at the summit with President Trump in June. But in August, the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency released a report showing that the North was actually further developing nuclear weapons. So a lot of damage has already been done, and there's a bit of work for Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, on that issue.

MARTIN: Right. They've also got other issues on their agenda. What are they going to talk about besides - if you can set aside the nuclear issue?

SCHMITZ: Well, after these two held their first meeting in April, in Panmunjom along the border, they agreed to begin deescalating tensions along that border in the demilitarized zone. And that's a multi-step approach that the two leaders will certainly try to hammer out. And they'll also talk about improving their economic relationship, as well as a host of maritime issues. The other big issue is working towards a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War. Both leaders want this, but the U.S. is a little wary because doing so might necessitate a drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea, something that the U.S. doesn't want until it's clear the North is scrapping its nuclear program.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about the balancing act that Moon Jae-in, the South's leader, finds himself in. Because in many ways, he's this interlocutor between the United States and North Korea. And on the other hand, he's got to represent Seoul's interests, the South's interests. What are people saying about this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. It's interesting. Moon's approval rating here in South Korea was at 83 percent after his first summit with Kim in the spring. It's now at 49 percent. It's clear that South Koreans are divided over whether all of these summits will actually lead to a nuclear-free peninsula. And many people fear that Moon is being played by Kim, kind of like a lot of people fear that, you know, his father sort of did that, too, with the international community. The other issue here is Moon's performance as president of his own country. You know, I spoke to 36-year-old engineer Kim Sun-woo about this on the streets of Seoul, and here's what he said.

KIM SUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) Diplomatically, President Moon is doing fine by forming a better relationship with the North and all. But domestically, especially in terms of our economy, the president is not performing well at all. I think he needs to focus on that.

SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, obviously for Moon Jae-in, there is a lot to focus on. You know, he sees this warming of relations between the North, which is now a nuclear power for the first time, and his own country as a rare opportunity to safeguard his country. But if he should fail at this, then with his country's economy lagging, he won't have much to fall back on politically here among voters in South Korea.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Seoul on this summit between the leaders of North and South Korea happening in Pyongyang. Hey, Rob, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "TREE HUNT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.