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Korean leaders seek to control optics at historic summit

Last Updated Apr 25, 2018 at 10:20 pm EDT

FILE - In this April 18, 2018 file photo, members of media visit the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone during a press tour, South Korea.Kim Jong Un will be in unchartered territory when the third-generation autocrat crosses over to the southern half of the Demilitarized Zone separating the rival Koreas on Friday, April 27, possibly on foot, and greets South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

SEOUL, South Korea – Kim Jong Un will be in uncharted territory when the third-generation autocrat walks across the border and into the southern half of the Demilitarized Zone separating the rival Koreas on Friday to greet South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Cameras wielded by one of the most aggressive media contingents on the planet will fire live images of a man used to controlling every aspect of his public persona into the homes and onto the phones of millions of people around the world — though it’s not yet clear if it will be seen instantly in North Korea.

But as Kim navigates this minefield (figuratively; he’s not passing through that part of the DMZ) at the third-ever inter-Korean summit, he may have an ally of sorts in Moon.

Despite an announcement that some bits of the summit will be shown live, and the possibility of a joint news conference, Moon seems intent on keeping the North Korean leader at ease, and an aggressive local media at bay, while engineering a summit meant to move the Koreas from what seemed like the brink of war last year to the engagement that the liberal Moon has always dreamed of.

This mindset could make it hard for Moon — keen on creating a legacy-defining moment that will set up Kim’s summit with President Donald Trump in the coming weeks — to resist whatever media controls the North demands.

“The South Korean government is so anxious and invested to ensure the Kim-Trump summit happens, and isn’t a failure, that acceding to media choreography is a very small price to pay when Kim and Moon meet,” Vipin Narang, a Koreas specialist at MIT, said by email. “If Kim asks for it, I don’t see the South Koreans pushing back too hard.”

At home, thousands of people work to craft Kim’s image. Even when Kim travelled to China earlier this month, the self-censoring Chinese media and the autocratic government in Beijing helped cloak the trip in secrecy; the North then later packaged a sanitized video presentation of the visit for state-controlled TV.

While Kim may not be able to control every aspect of what happens on the South Korean side of the DMZ, Seoul seems eager to make sure things go smoothly, even preparing a banquet that includes dishes from Switzerland, where Kim studied during his teens.

Seoul has also planned three days of extensive, closed-door dress rehearsals, one of them involving North Korean officials, leading up to the summit Friday. The rehearsals are reportedly timed for the exact, as-yet-unrevealed moment Kim will cross the border so that the angle of the sunlight will hit the participants in the same way. The leaders plan to plant a pine tree together on the border; Moon will give the tree water from South Korea’s Han River and Kim will sprinkle water from North Korea’s Taedong River. Another clue indicating the level of micromanagement in the summit’s planning: The leaders will sit at a table exactly 2018 millimeters apart from each other.

The information the world receives will also be closely controlled: Except for a group of pool reporters at the summit, whose access may be extremely limited, journalists will be sequestered at a media centre well away from heavily guarded Panmunjom, the border village where the summit will take place.

“I’m sure part of the ground rules for the North-South meeting will be tight controls on the South Korean press,” Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS and a longtime Koreas expert, said in an email. “Besides that, Pyongyang will have total control over how the meeting is portrayed in the North so the risk is minimal. Kim Jong Un seems to exude great self-confidence so he may think he is prepared to take on the South Korean press, but I assume he and his handlers will be very cautious on this point.”

Moon, ahead of the summit, has faced media reports that his government allegedly pressured prominent defectors and conservative analysts to stay out of the press, presumably because they might anger the North, which keeps a close eye on such things — accusations the government in Seoul has strongly denied.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa seemed to indicate that Seoul won’t raise at the summit what the U.N. says is Kim’s pattern of starving and abusing his people, despite being pressed by activists to do so, when she told reporters that to “include the (human rights) issue in the inter-Korean dialogue now is something that will require more preparation.”

And in what critics took as an attempt to muzzle dissent, Moon this week asked “that our political circles halt their political warfare at least during the summit.”

“It is understandable that Seoul wants to avoid annoying Pyongyang ahead of the April 27 inter-Korean summit. But in order for its policy to work, the government must open its ears to various voices on North Korea,” the conservative Korea JoongAng Daily recently wrote. “The president cannot push ahead with (his) rapprochement policy if (he) does not gain support from the people. Many conservatives believe the government is too soft toward Pyongyang.”

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Foster Klug, the AP’s bureau chief for South Korea, has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow at www.twitter.com/apklug