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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in attend a welcoming ceremony in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.HANDOUT/Reuters

Kim Jong-un has become the first North Korean leader to step on South Korean soil, crossing the military demarcation line that separates the two countries at 9:29 a.m. Friday.

A smiling Mr. Kim, dressed all in black, strode up to the line across from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, buoyant in a blue tie symbolizing peace. Mr. Moon has used the Winter Olympics in his country and now a leaders’ summit to lower tensions after years of North Korean nuclear and missile tests that raised the spectre of renewed war.

The two men shook hands and posed for a pair of photos – one looking north, another facing south – before Mr. Kim invited his South Korean counterpart to step back, briefly, onto the North Korean side, where they shook hands again. The unexpected gesture added a measure of warmth to a summit intended as both a display of peace and a substantive effort to reduce the dangers of a nuclear-armed pariah state.

Holding hands with Mr. Moon, Mr. Kim then returned to South Korea, where he was met by fifth-graders bearing flowers, meant to inaugurate “the opening of a new era,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office.

The summit is taking place at Panmunjom, the so-called “truce village” where the armistice that suspended the Korean War was signed in 1953. Panmunjom now sits at the heart of the demilitarized zone, a broad line separating the Koreas that is in reality among the most heavily militarized places on Earth. Mr. Kim signed a guestbook with an inscription saying: “New history starts now. At the starting point of history, of a peaceful era.”

In a brief live broadcast of discussion between the two men, Mr. Kim said he did not want to repeat a history “where we were unable to fulfill our agreements,” saying “through today’s meeting, I hope that we will go back to square one again.” Mr. Moon urged a “bold decision” during the summit so that “we can give a great gift to all of humankind and the universe, by achieving peace.”

The Friday leaders summit is only the third of its kind since 1953. Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon are expected to discuss the North’s nuclear program as well as the possibility of a more enduring peace agreement between the two countries.

But even minutes before the summit was to begin, much remained unknown, including whether Mr. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, would attend (she did not appear). The confusion over her attendance was set against broader uncertainty over the meeting’s outcome – particularly regarding Mr. Kim’s willingness to countenance denuclearization.

The two leaders have scheduled hours of talks, and the specifics of their agreement on the fate of North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be the most closely watched outcome of the summit, which comes amid strict economic sanctions levied against North Korea as the international community seeks to compel Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear arms.

His arsenal of deadly weaponry, however, has been a hard-won attempt to guarantee his regime’s security, and scholars have expressed doubt that he will fully give it up.

North Korean state media on Friday morning said Mr. Kim is prepared to “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.”

The White House, in a statement, said it is “hopeful that talks will achieve progress towards a future of peace and prosperity for the entire Korean Peninsula.” President Donald Trump is expected to hold his own summit with Mr. Kim in May or June.