SEOUL, April 27 (Reuters) - Smiling and holding hands, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met at the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between the countries on Friday in the first summit for the two Koreas in over a decade.
The meeting, aimed at ending their decades-long conflict and easing tensions over the North's nuclear weapons program, comes weeks before Kim is due to meet U.S. President Donald Trump.
Moon greeted Kim at the military demarcation line at 9:30 a.m. (0030 GMT), making Kim the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim invited Moon to step briefly across the demarcation line into North Korea, before the two leaders crossed back into South Korea holding hands.
The two were handed flowers by a South Korean boy and girl, residents of a village situated in the demilitarized zone.
Walking on a red carpet rolled out for the two heads of state, the pair were met by a South Korean honor guard in historical costumes and playing traditional music.
The two are expected to talk denuclearisation and exchanges between the Koreas and also will plant a memorial tree at the border truce village of Panmunjom.
Kim and Trump are expected to meet in late May or June, with Trump saying on Thursday he was considering several possible dates and venues.
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.
Earlier Friday North Korea's official KCNA news agency said Kim had left Pyongyang for the "historical" summit in which he would "open-heartedly discuss with Moon Jae-in all the issues arising in improving inter-Korean relations and achieving peace, prosperity and reunification of the Korean peninsula."
Just days before the summit, Kim said North Korea would suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and dismantle its only known nuclear test site.
Moon traveled to the meeting in a large motorcade, stopping briefly to greet dozens of summit supporters waving South Korean flags near the Blue House.
Hundreds of demonstrators were seen gathering in downtown Seoul from early morning to protest or support the summit.
Skepticism has been 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.
The two neighbors 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.
On Thursday, Trump once again he added that it remained unclear whether his meeting with Kimwould occur.
"It could be that I walk out quickly - with respect - but ... it could be that maybe the meeting doesn't even take place," he told Fox News by telephone. "Who knows. But I can tell you right now they want to meet."
The White House released two photographs of then Secretary of State-designate and CIA chief Mike Pompeo's meeting with Kim in North Korea over the Easter weekend to discuss the planned summit. It was Kim's first known meeting with a U.S. official.
The photos show Kim and Pompeo, who was confirmed as secretary of state on Thursday, shaking hands. In one they faced each other looking serious; in the other they both appeared to wear faint smiles. https://bit.ly/2KfRHN3
The latest summit has particular significance not least because of its venue: the Demilitarised Zone, a 160-mile (260-km) 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.
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 talks, were broadcast live.
(Reporting by the Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps, Christine Kim and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey and Eric Beech in WASHINGTON Editing by Lincoln Feast and James Dalgleish)