April 27, 2018, was a historic day for Korea, and for the millions of people on both sides of that tragically divided peninsula. In a meticulously planned event, Kim Jong-un, the 34-year-old hereditary dictator of North Korea, stepped carefully over the border running through the truce village of Panmunjom and clasped hands with Moon Jae-in, the democratically elected president of South Korea.
Kim’s action marked the start of a remarkable day in which the two nations “solemnly declared” an end to the Korean War, which ripped the country apart from 1950 to 1953. “When you crossed the military border for the first time, Panmunjom became a symbol of peace, not a symbol of division,” said Moon, the son of two North Korean refugees who fled south in 1950. A former student activist and human-rights lawyer who was chief of staff to former president Roh Moo-hyun, Moon ran for office in 2017 on a pledge to make that moment of reconciliation possible.
Over the next few hours, accompanied by top aides and diplomats, generals and intelligence chiefs, the Korean leaders discussed an agreement that would lead to what they both described as the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula. The two also “affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord,” a signal to both the United States and China that the days of great-power intervention in their divided country may be waning.
The full Panmunjom Declaration, signed that Friday during an elaborate ceremony broadcast live in South Korea and around the world, included strong commitments to be taken “at all levels” of both societies to forge a lasting peace, including rebuilding key rail and road links, opening a permanent liaison office in the border city of Gaesong, and organizing civic and sports exchanges as well as the reunion of divided families. It marks a huge leap past the tensions of the previous year, when the United States and North Korea appeared to be lurching disastrously toward war, with South Korea caught in the crosshairs.
To alleviate that possibility, Moon and Kim agreed to “actively pursue trilateral meetings” involving the United States, and later China, “with a view to declaring an end to the War and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.” The participation of the United States (which led the UN Command during the war) and China (which subsequently pushed US forces out of the North) is necessary because they, along with North Korea, are the only signatories to the armistice that ended the fighting in 1953. (South Korea’s then-leader, the right-wing autocrat Syngman Rhee, refused to allow his generals to sign it.)