Kim Jong-un has become the first North Korean leader to cross the heavily militarised border into the South ahead of historic talks.
The summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in will set the stage for Kim to meet with US President Donald Trump in late May or early June, in what will be an unprecedented first encounter between sitting leaders of the two countries.
Just months ago, Trump and Kim were trading threats and insults as North Korea’s rapid advances in pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles capable of hitting the United States raised fears of a fresh conflict on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea’s Moon personally greeted Kim at the military demarcation line at 9.30 am (1.30am UK time), making Kim the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two leaders smiled and shook hands after which Kim Jong Un gestured to Moon they cross over to North Korea briefly, which they did for a few steps, then returned to the South, holding hands.
The two were handed flowers by a South Korean boy and girl, residents of a village situated in the demilitarised zone.
Walking on a red carpet rolled out for the two heads of state, the pair were met by a South Korean honour guard in historical costumes and playing traditional music.
Kim wore glasses and his trademark black Mao suit, while the rest of the North Korean delegation appeared in military uniforms or Western attire.
Kim stopped to sign a guest book in the South’s Peace House before the two leaders met for a private discussion.
“A new history starts now. An age of peace, from the starting point of history,” Kim wrote in Korean in the book, dating and signing the entry.
The White House said: “On the occasion of Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, we wish the Korean people well.
“We are hopeful that talks will achieve progress toward a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula.”
In a dramatic gesture just days before the summit, Kim announced North Korea would suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and dismantle its only known nuclear test site.
But scepticism is rampant about whether Kim is ready to abandon the hard-earned nuclear arsenal his country has defended and developed for decades as what it says is a necessary deterrent against U.S. invasion.
South Korea hopes North Korea’s leader on Friday will directly confirm his will for “complete” denuclearisation of the peninsula.
The two neighbours expect to release a joint statement late on Friday – possibly called the Panmunjom Declaration – that could address denuclearisation and peace, and an improvement in relations, South Korean officials said.
Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the Cold War conflict, which pitted the South, the United States and United Nations forces against the communist North, backed by China and Russia.
Friday’s inter-Korean summit is the third ever after two former South Korean leaders, Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2007, met with Kim Jong Un’s late father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang.
The latest summit has particular significance not least because of its venue: the Demilitarised Zone, a 160-mile (260km) long, 2.5-mile (4 km) wide strip of land created in the 1953 armistice to serve as a buffer between the South and North.
With heavily armed soldiers and propaganda broadcasts blasted over loundspeakers from both sides, the DMZ has long been a symbol of hostilities on the divided peninsula.
South Korea switched off its propaganda broadcasts on Monday to set a positive tone ahead of the summit, and South Korean residents living near the border said the North Korean broadcasts had also appeared to stop on Tuesday.
South and North Korea are in discussions about a peace agreement that could officially end the state of war, an effort Trump said has his “blessing” if Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal.
For the first time, key moments such as Kim crossing the border into the South, the two leaders shaking hands and walking to the Peace House for their summit talks, will be broadcast live.
The summit includes a dinner where Swiss fried potato rosti, as well as chocolates, macarons and gruyere cheese cakes will be served as a homage to Kim’s childhood spent in Switzerland.