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SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean President Moon Jae-in left for Pyongyang on Tuesday for his third summit of the year with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the presidential Blue House said.
Moon's goals are lofty: To try to resolve deadlocked nuclear diplomacy, ease a decades-long military standoff and promote peace on a Korean Peninsula that many feared was close to war last year.
Moon said ahead of his trip that he will push for "irreversible, permanent peace" and for better dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington during "heart-to-heart" talks with Kim. Moon's chief of staff, however, played down the chance that Moon's summit with Kim will produce major progress in nuclear diplomacy.
A presidential plane carrying Moon left a military airport near Seoul on Tuesday morning. The plane was to fly in an indirect route off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula before turning inland and arriving at Pyongyang's international airport about 80 minutes later, Moon's office said. A group of about 150 business, entertainment and sports leaders streamed onto the government aircraft before Moon left.
Since taking office in May last year, Moon has met Kim twice at the Koreas' shared border village of Panmunjom. His Pyongyang trip makes him the third South Korean leader to visit North Korea's capital for an inter-Korean summit since the peninsula was divided into a Soviet-backed north and U.S.-backed South at the end of World War II in 1945. The two countries fought a bloody three-year war five years later after a North Korean sneak attack. Moon and Kim are both pushing a reluctant Washington to sign off on formally ending the war, which still technically continues because no peace treaty has ever been signed.
Moon's two late liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, went to Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, respectively, to meet Kim's dictator father Kim Jong Il. Those trips produced a slew of inter-Korean rapprochement projects. But they were later suspended after conservatives took power in Seoul with hardline policies toward the North. Kim Jong Un took office in late 2011 upon the death of his father.
Moon is to meet Kim at least twice — later Tuesday and then again on Wednesday. Kim is expected to show up at Tuesday's welcoming ceremony for Moon at the Pyongyang airport, Moon's chief of staff Im Jong-seok told reporters Monday.
Im said he expects Moon and Kim to jointly announce the results of their talks on Wednesday if their meetings go smoothly. Moon is to return home on Thursday.
While presiding over a meeting with top advisers on Monday, Moon said he "aims to have lots of heart-to-heart talks" with Kim and achieve "irreversible, permanent peace that is not shaken by international politics."
To achieve such a peace, Moon said he'll focus during the summit on easing military tensions between the Koreas and promoting a North Korea-U.S. dialogue on denuclearization issues.
Moon said he wants "to find a middle ground between a U.S. request for (North Korea's) denuclearization and the North's request for corresponding measures such as ending hostile relations and security assurances."
Nuclear diplomacy between the United States and North Korea, which Moon brokered through his April and May summits with Kim, has stalled, and questions have been raised about how serious Kim is about following through with his vague commitments to denuclearize.
During a June summit between Kim and President Donald Trump, the first ever such meeting of the rivals' leaders, the North Korean leader expressed his commitment to denuclearization while Trump promised to provide him with security guarantees and announced the suspension of major military drills with South Korea.
North Korea has taken some steps, like dismantling its nuclear and rocket-engine testing sites, but U.S. officials have said it must take more serious disarmament steps before receiving outside concessions.
North Korea has long maintained that its nuclear program is aimed at coping with what it calls U.S. military threats. North Korea is pushing for a peace treaty with the United States to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. It also wants the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions.
Earlier Monday, Im said that it's "difficult to have any optimistic outlook" for progress on denuclearization during the summit though he said progress will depend on how candid the discussions are. Im said he still expects the summit to produce "meaningful" agreements that "fundamentally remove the danger of armed clashes and ease fears of war" between the two Koreas.
Military officials have in recent months discussed the possibility of disarming a jointly controlled area at the Koreas' shared border village, removing front-line guard posts and halting hostile acts along their sea boundary.
The Koreas' 248-kilometer (155-mile) border is the world's most heavily fortified, with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed along a line that's laced with mines, barbed wire fences and anti-tank traps. The navies of the Koreas have fought several bloody skirmishes off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula.
Moon will also take a group of business tycoons including Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong to Pyongyang. Some experts say Moon is preparing for the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation projects after diplomacy eventually yields results. Currently, all major joint economic projects between the Koreas remain stalled because of U.S.-led sanctions.
AP writers Kim Tong-hyung and Foster Klug contributed to this story from Seoul.