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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un greeted Moon Jae-in with hugs and smiles on Tuesday as the South Korean president arrived in Pyongyang for a third summit between the two, aimed at advancing faltering nuclear talks and officially ending the Korean War.
Hundreds of North Koreans wearing suits and traditional dresses also greeted Moon, carrying flowers and waving Korean peninsula and North Korean flags. A sign behind them read: "We ardently welcome President Moon Jae-in's visit to Pyongyang!"
The inter-Korean summit will be a litmus test for another meeting Kim has recently proposed to U.S. President Donald Trump, giving clues to whether Kim is serious about denuclearization, a commitment he made at their first encounter in June.
Trump has asked Moon to be "chief negotiator" between himself and Kim, according to Moon's aides, after Trump cancelled a trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state last month.
Washington wants to see concrete action toward denuclearization by North Korea before agreeing to a key goal of Pyongyang — declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.
"If North Korea-U.S. dialogue is restarted after this visit, it would have much significance in itself," Moon said before his departure.
Underscoring the challenges ahead, North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun said on Tuesday "the responsibility falls squarely on the United States" for the stalled nuclear discussions.
"It is due to its nonsensical, irrational stubbornness that other issues can only be discussed after our country has completely verifiably, irreversibly dismantled our nuclear capabilities... without showing the intention to build trust including declaring the end of war," the newspaper said in an editorial.
Moon, himself the offspring of a family displaced by the war, arrived at the North's capital of Pyongyang at about 10 a.m., greeted by Kim, his wife Ri Sol Ju and other top North Korean officials, before inspecting a large honor guard and a military band.
Moon and Kim were all smiles as they hugged and chatted with each other. Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the leader and a key propaganda official, was seen preparing officials for Moon's arrival and accompanying Kim Jong Un and his wife.
The two leaders will sit down for formal talks after lunch, which will be followed by a musical performance and welcome dinner, a South Korean official said.
Accompanying corporate executives, including Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee and the chiefs of SK Group and LG Group, will meet with North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong Nam in charge of economic affairs.
On Wednesday, Moon and Kim are expected to unveil a joint statement, and a separate military pact designed to defuse tensions and prevent armed clashes. Moon will return home early Thursday.
This week's summit comes as the United States presses other countries to strictly observe U.N. sanctions aimed at choking off funding for Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, amid growing evidence that North Korea is continuing nuclear weapons development. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley accused Russia on Monday of "cheating" on U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
Moon is hoping to engineer a proposal that combines a concrete framework for the North's denuclearization and a joint declaration ending the Korean War, Seoul officials said. The war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving U.S.-led U.N. forces including South Korea technically still at war with the North.
But U.S. officials remain "unenthusiastic" about declaring an end to the war without any substantial action toward denuclearization from the North, Seoul officials said.
South Korea is pinning high hopes on Kim's remarks to Moon's special envoys earlier this month that he wants to achieve denuclearization within Trump's first term in office ending in early 2021, the first time line he has given.
Agreeing on a timetable is a core task for Moon, as it would induce U.S. action, said Lee Jung-chul, a professor at Soongsil University in Seoul.
"Given U.S. scepticism that South Korea may have oversold Kim's willingness to denuclearize, how President Moon delivers his sincerity toward denuclearization to Trump would be a key factor for the fate of their second summit," Lee told a forum on Monday in Seoul.