He capped weeks of diplomacy with Saturday’s announcement of an end to nuclear and long-range missile tests and the shutting down of a nuclear test site, saying he would now focus on rebuilding the economy. And he earlier told American and South Korean envoys that his country was willing to give up nuclear arms if it received the right incentives.
Choi Hae-jong, 55, who runs a gas station in the provincial city of Ulsan, said he believed that Kim Jong-un would indeed bargain away his nuclear weapons if given the aid and security guarantees that he needed to rebuild the economy.
“He knows he can’t feed his people with nuclear weapons and tanks,” Mr. Choi said.
With Friday’s meeting, Mr. Kim will become the first North Korean leader to cross the inter-Korean border, sitting down with Mr. Moon on the South Korean side of Panmunjom, a “truce village” straddling the border. President Trump plans to meet Mr. Moon weeks later at a time and place still to be determined.
The flurry of diplomacy has left South Koreans guessing at Mr. Kim’s intentions and debating the wisdom of negotiating with him — and wondering what lies in store for the future of the Korean Peninsula.
For generations, it has been an article of faith among South Koreans that they should eventually reconcile and reunify with the North. But after seven decades of division, the capitalist South and the totalitarian North have drifted so far apart that the yearning for reunification is not what it used to be, especially among young South Koreans.
“Unlike those in their 60s and older, who still shared a sense of national identity with the North Koreans, many in their 20s merely perceived North Korea as an ‘enemy’ or a ‘stranger,’” said a study published last week by Kim Ji-yoon, Kim Kil-dong and Kang Chung-ku for the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, based in Seoul. “Many in their 20s were indifferent to unification and did not view it as an urgent matter.”
Mr. Kim’s recent behavior has led to some paradoxical findings in public opinion surveys. One poll last month showed that more than 81 percent of South Koreans supported holding a summit meeting with Mr. Kim. But another survey this month showed that more than 70 percent doubted that Mr. Kim would give up his most dangerous weapons.
“When dealing with North Korea, there is always this nagging feeling that they may stab us in the back again,” said Choi Hae-pyeong, 55, a businessman south of Seoul.
In 1991, the two Koreas signed a nonaggression agreement. In 1992, they jointly vowed not to seek nuclear weapons. After an inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000, South Korea shipped billions of dollars’ worth of aid and investment, but the North still went on to develop a nuclear arsenal, inviting a conservative backlash in the South.
Indeed, many older conservatives fear that North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons to drive American troops from the South and reunify the peninsula under its rule. But others see the North’s nuclear program as rooted in the Kim dynasty’s insecurity following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which left North Korea more vulnerable and isolated in its standoff against the United States. And a peace deal could be one way out of that predicament.
“The North Korean nuclear and missile problem is a byproduct of hostile relations between the United States and North Korea,” said Lim Dong-won, a former unification minister and intelligence chief of South Korea. “It can be resolved only in the context of ending the Cold War enmity and establishing peace on the peninsula, through a comprehensive deal of formally ending the Korean War and normalizing ties.”
Progressive South Koreans like Mr. Moon argue that the only realistic and peaceful way of removing the North’s nuclear weapons is to persuade the government that it can survive without them. While conservatives prioritize the alliance with Washington, the progressives like to see their country as finally “in the driver’s seat” in managing the precarious situation on the peninsula.
“We are at the crossroads where it will be decided whether denuclearization and permanent peace is possible by peaceful — not by military — means,” Mr. Moon said on Monday.
But Mr. Moon acknowledged that the nuclear crisis could ultimately only be resolved between North Korea and the United States. The best he can do, he says, is to serve as a “guide” to help Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump reach a “comprehensive” deal to trade the North’s nuclear weapons for security guarantees from Washington, such as a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
Some conservatives, having been burned before, remain deeply skeptical of that approach.
“The current government turned the table, claiming to be ‘a driver’ just when the North began feeling the pain of sanctions,” Lee Bong-bok, a well-known right-wing expert on North Korea, told the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo.
Mr. Trump has threatened to walk out of his planned meeting with Mr. Kim if he refused to denuclearize. Should that happen, South Koreans fear, calls for military action in Washington, and the risk of war in Korea, could grow greater than ever.
Last year, South Koreans fretted as they watched Mr. Trump threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea; Mr. Kim, in turn, called him a senile “dotard.” But many now hope that Mr. Kim’s daring style and Mr. Trump’s unpredictability combine to offer the chance to break the decades-old nuclear stalemate in Korea.
Mr. Trump is the first American leader to agree to sit down with a North Korean leader.
“When I said I supported President Trump’s election because it would be a great opportunity for us, people called me crazy,” said Mr. Lim, who leads a panel of senior nongovernmental advisers to Mr. Moon. “No matter what people say about him, here is an American leader who wants to overturn the status quo.”
Mr. Kim himself has been overturning some of the conventional wisdom about North Korea.
His pledge to stop conducting nuclear and missile tests is the kind of concession that would have taken Washington years of haggling to extract from the North in the past — and only with promises of aid. Mr. Kim announced it Saturday without any conditions attached.
Park Sang-min, 39, a marketing official in Seoul, said he sees in the North Korean leader “a confidence and eagerness to negotiate.”
“He has completed his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles so that the Americans would have no option but to take him seriously and pay the prices he wanted,” he said.