A carefully choreographed diplomatic dance at the Korean border added a surprise extra step on Friday, instantly turning a moment destined for the history books into a viral meme for the social-media era. The surprise moment in which Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, encouraged President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to step over the border to the North’s side became one of several images that displayed both countries’ understanding of the propaganda value of political theater.
After a year in which tensions between the two countries reached an acrimonious pitch not seen in decades, the two leaders were careful to publicly signal a new era of rapprochement. Smiling broadly at each other, the men took their time shaking hands as Mr. Kim stepped gingerly over the concrete slab that marks the border between the two countries, becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South.
Knowing that photos and video of their meeting would be broadcast around the world, even their clothing — veritable costumes — was chosen to project a message. For Mr. Jae, a dark business suit was paired with a light blue tie that echoed the hue used in the Korean Unification Flag, which the countries use when competing together as single team at international sporting events.
Mr. Kim wore an austere black Mao-style suit, a message to his citizens that despite being in enemy territory he was still committed to the ideals — and dress — of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, who ordered the 1950 invasion of the South that started the Korean War. Once on the South side of the Demilitarized Zone, the stretch of land that makes up the border and in which the summit meeting took place, Mr. Kim inspected a military honor guard.
Though the DMZ is heavily fortified and security was tightened for the visit, the honor guard’s soldiers carried spears and swords, instead of rifles. They were dressed in 19th-century costumes, worn at a time when Korea was a unified empire. Even the décor inside Peace House, the building in which the meeting took place, was chosen for its political optics. In the run-up to the talks, workers hung paintings of Mount Kumgang, which straddles the border and is an important symbol to Koreans in both countries.
The table and chairs inside the meeting room were also carefully designed with a pattern evoking two bridges coming together. At the table was Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, the only woman in the delegation. Ms. Kim’s stature has risen since she represented the North’s government at this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That visit was widely seen as an opening gambit toward a détente, and Ms. Kim was widely credited with softening her country’s image.
At Peace House, Mr. Kim signed a guest book, leaving a message guaranteed to be photographed, tweeted and deconstructed by political analysts. “A new history starts now,” he wrote. “An age of peace, from the starting point of history.”