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The key players attending North Korea-South Korea summit

A brief guide to who is pulling the strings behind the scenes as Moon Jae-in meets Kim Jong Un for the first time.
by Mac William Bishop /  / Updated 
Image: South Korean activists
Activists wearing masks featuring the faces of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un show their support for the looming inter-Korean summit at a rally in Seoul on Wednesday.Jung Yeon-je / AFP - Getty Images

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met for the first time at a historic summit Friday.

The neighbors technically remain at war.

Image: Korean unification talks
A meeting room where the inter-Korean summit was being hosted.HANDOUT / AFP - Getty Images

The meeting was held in the Joint Security Area, a part of the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries where an armistice which stopped fighting on the Korean Peninsula was originally signed in 1953. No peace treaty followed to formally end the Korean War, something which Kim's regime wants to rectify.

One of the key issues to be addressed is North Korea’s nuclear program, which has been at the center of tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, as well alarming China and the United States.

The inter-Korean meeting precedes an equally high-stakes diplomatic gambit involving President Donald Trump and Kim. However, the date and location for that summit remains unclear.

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Behind the high-profile names at Friday's meeting are a host of policymakers with histories of backroom deals and influencers who advise their respective leaders on strategy.

Here is a brief guide to who is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

North Korea

Kim Jong Un, supreme leader: If the current overture bears fruit, it will be one of the ironies of history that Kim Jong Un’s bloody consolidation of power provided him with the impunity to pursue peace with his nation’s mortal enemy, the United States. Believed to have ordered the deaths of anyone viewed as a potential threat to his rule, Kim also personally oversaw the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs. The biggest question now is whether he is actually willing to cede ground on what has been North Korea’s long-held ambition to be a nuclear power.

Image: Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.AFP - Getty Images file

Ri Su Yong, vice chairman of the Central Committee: Ri Su Yong’s ties to Kim Jong Un go back to the days when the future supreme leader was a student in Switzerland. A former foreign minister, Ri Su Yong’s unimposing title belies the fact that he supervises North Korea’s foreign policy, and retains Kim’s ear on foreign affairs, particularly with regard to the U.S.

Kim Yong Nam, president of the People’s Assembly: Described as second only to Kim Jong Un, the elderly Kim Yong Nam has been the public face of North Korea and carried out high-stakes diplomatic missions around the world, including attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the PyeongChang Olympics earlier this year.

Ri Yong Ho, minister of foreign affairs: A diplomat with a 30-year career behind him, Ri Yong Ho is a former ambassador to the United Kingdom. Fluent in English, only last year Ri stood in front of the U.N. General Assembly and called Trump “President Evil” and “Commander-in-Grief.”

Image: North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.SERGEI CHIRIKOV / EPA

Kim Yong Chol, head of national intelligence: A former four-star general, Kim Yong Chol is a hardliner who South Korean intelligence believes ordered the sinking of the South Korean navy vessel in 2010, killing 46 sailors. Eight years later, he was heading North Korea’s delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He served as a bodyguard to Kim's father Kim Jong Il, and has been in intelligence for more than 30 years, and was also the lead military negotiator with South Korea during previous inter-Korean talks that ended in 2008.

South Korea

President Moon Jae-in: The liberal Moon swept into power after the divisive impeachment of his predecessor, and promised to pursue better relations with his northern neighbor. A human rights lawyer by trade, Moon was imprisoned as a student for his role in protesting against military strongman Park Chung-hee. Moon also served in South Korea’s special forces in the DMZ during a period of exceptionally high tensions. He promised to pursue a policy toward North Korea following in the pattern of the “Sunshine Policy” of his liberal predecessors. His challenge has been to persuade the Trump administration — and conservatives inside South Korea — of his dedication to the Seoul-Washington alliance.

Image: Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae-in.Kim Min-Hee / EPA file

Chung Eui-yong, director of the national security office: Chung’s role is similar to that of national security adviser in the United States. After being named special envoy to North Korea by Moon, Chung shuttled back and forth between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington laying the groundwork for the proposed summit between Kim and Trump.

Suh Hoon, director of national intelligence: South Korea’s top spy has been the architect of previous summits involving North Korea, and is viewed as an honest broker by Pyongyang. In the 1990s he lived in North Korea for two years, working on an international agreement that would have supplied the country with a non-military nuclear power reactor. Having studied at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, Suh is also comfortable in Washington D.C., where he is well-known and respected.

Image: Unification Bridge
Unification flags are put up near Unification Bridge in Paju, South Korea, on Wednesday.Lee Jin-man / AP

Moon Chung-in, special adviser to the president on national security: A prolific writer on foreign affairs and national security, Moon Chung-in was tasked by South Korea's president with an advisory portfolio that included unification and national security. Having studied for his master’s degree and doctorate in the U.S. during the 1970s, he also taught at the University of Kentucky and Duke University before returning to South Korea.

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