SEOUL, South Korea – Both protagonists at Friday’s inter-Korean summit speak the same language and share the same ancestral roots and cultural background. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the third generation of his family to rule in absolute power, and democratically elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who wants to engage the North, also lead countries that have been divided along the world’s most heavily fortified border for seven decades.
A look at the two leaders meeting at the border Friday in the Koreas’ third-ever summit talks since their 1945 division:
KIM JONG UN
Kim, 34, took power upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.
Technically, he rules in his capacity as chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party and holds a slew of other prominent titles, including chairman of the State Affairs Commission and supreme commander of the North’s 1.2-million-strong Korean People’s Army. State media dispatches always put “respected supreme leader” before his name.
In reality, Kim rules through his blood ties with his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
Some foreign experts initially wondered whether he would enjoy the same absolute power that his father had established because he had a relatively short time to prepare for leadership. His father was groomed for 20 years. But the younger Kim has quickly bolstered his grip on power by orchestrating a spate of high-profile executions, purges and dismissals, including the 2013 killing of his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek.
Kim Jong Un has initiated the so-called “byungjin policy,” which simultaneously pursues a powerful nuclear deterrent and economic growth. He has carried out an unusually large number of weapons tests in a bid for nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Four of the North’s six nuclear bomb tests happened during his rule. He’s also allowed some capitalistic elements such as street markets.
Kim has apparently modeled his rule on his grandfather, adopting his hairstyle, gestures and penchant for regular public speeches. Observers say he likely intended to inspire nostalgia for an era during which North Korea was economically better off than under his father’s rule, when a famine killed hundreds of thousands.
Kim, a graduate of Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Military University, was previously schooled for several years in Switzerland. He’s married to Ri Sol Ju, a former singer with the North’s Unhasu Orchestra.
Moon, 65, began his single five-year term in May last year after winning a special by-election after the early ouster of his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who faced a huge political scandal.
Moon, a former human rights lawyer, previously worked as chief of staff for late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, who held the Koreas’ second summit talks with Kim Jong Il in 2007. Moon oversaw Seoul’s preparations for the summit, which produced a slew of now-stalled reconciliation projects.
Before Moon’s inauguration, ties between the Koreas suffered as the North furiously reacted to Park’s hard-line policy on its nuclear program. The North’s state media called Park a “prostitute” and “traitor.”
Moon initially found little room to mend ties with North Korea as Kim’s accelerated pace of weapons tests last year forced him to join U.S.-led efforts to maximize sanctions and pressure on the North.
But things changed dramatically this year, with Kim sending athletes to the Winter Olympics in the South and Moon later brokering a meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump set for May or early June.
Moon is a son of North Korean refugees who fled to South Korea aboard a U.S. ship after the 1950-53 Korean War broke out. His family resettled in South Korea’s southeastern region, and Moon once waited in line as a boy to receive handouts of U.S. corn flour and milk powder.
After entering Seoul’s Kyung Hee University in 1972, he became a pro-democracy student activist and was imprisoned for several months while fighting against the dictatorship of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee. In 1975, Moon was conscripted into the special forces because of his dissident activities.
Moon’s wife is Kim Jung-sook, who went to the same university with Moon and treated him when he was struck by tear gas during a rally in the 1970s.