With wide grins and a historic handshake, US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un met at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone today and agreed to revive talks on the pariah nation's nuclear program.

Trump, pressing his bid for a legacy-defining accord, became the first sitting American leader to walk with Kim into North Korea.

The meeting, another historic first in the yearlong rapprochement between the two technically warring nations, marks a return to face-to-face contact between the leaders since talks broke down during a summit in Vietnam in February.

Trump announced after the meeting that the two nations had agreed to resume discussions in the coming weeks. But significant doubts remain about the future of the negotiations and the North's willingness to give up its stockpile of nuclear weapons.

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US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, step over the border at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. Photo / AP
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, step over the border at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. Photo / AP

Trump's brief crossing into North Korean territory marked the latest milestone in two years of roller-coaster diplomacy between the two nations, as personal taunts of "Little Rocket Man" and threats to destroy the other have been ushered out by on-again, off-again talks, professions of love and flowery letters.

"I was proud to step over the line," Trump told Kim as they met in a building known as "Freedom House" on the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom.

"It is a great day for the world."

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk on the North Korean side in the Demilitarized Zone. Photo / AP
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk on the North Korean side in the Demilitarized Zone. Photo / AP

Kim hailed the moment, saying of Trump, "I believe this is an expression of his willingness to eliminate all the unfortunate past and open a new future."

He added that he was "surprised" when Trump invited to meet by a tweet on Saturday.

US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. Photo / AP
US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. Photo / AP

What was originally expected to be a brief exchange of pleasantries over the raised line of concrete marking the border between North and South - Trump had said it would last "two minutes" - turned into private talks stretching about 50 minutes. Trump was joined in the Freedom House conversation with Kim by his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers.

As he announced the resumptions of talks, Trump told reporters "we're not looking for speed. We're looking to get it right."

He added that economic sanctions on the North would remain, but seemed to move off the administration's previous rejection of scaling down sanctions in return for North Korean concessions, saying, "At some point during the negotiation things can happen."

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Peering into North Korea from atop Observation Post Ouellette, Trump told reporters before greeting Kim that there has been "tremendous" improvement since his first meeting with the North's leader in Singapore last year.

Trump claimed the situation used to be marked by "tremendous danger" but "after our first summit, all of the danger went away."

But North has yet to provide an accounting of its nuclear stockpile, let alone begin the process of dismantling its arsenal.

The meeting represented a striking acknowledgement by Trump of the authoritarian Kim's legitimacy over a nation with an abysmal human rights record.

Trump told reporters he invited the North Korean leader to the United States, potentially even to the White House.

"I would invite him right now," Trump said, standing next to Kim, who speaking through a translator, reciprocated that it would be an "honor" to invite Trump to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang "at the right time."

Trump's summit with Kim in Vietnam earlier this year collapsed without an agreement for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. He became the first sitting US president to meet with the leader of the isolated nation last year, when they signed an agreement in Singapore to bring the North toward denuclearization.

North Korea's nuclear threat has not been contained, Richard Haas, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted. Haas added that the threat of conflict has subsided only because "the Trump administration has decided it can live (with) a (North Korean) nuclear program while it pursues the chimera of denuclearization."

Substantive talks between the nations have largely broken down since the Vietnam summit. The North has balked at Trump's insistence that it give up its weapons before it sees relief from crushing international sanctions. The US has said the North must submit to "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization" before sanctions are lifted.

Every president since Ronald Reagan has visited the 1953 armistice line, except for George H.W. Bush, who visited when he was vice president. The show of bravado and support for South Korea, one of America's closest military allies, has evolved over the years to include binoculars and bomber jackets.

Trump kept to his blue suit and red tie, but ever the showman, sought to one-up his predecessors with a Kim meeting.

The leaders met at a time of escalating tensions. While North Korea has not recently tested a long-range missile that could reach the US, last month it fired off a series of short-range missiles.

Trump has brushed off the significance of those tests, even as his own national security adviser, John Bolton, has said they violated UN Security Council resolutions.

DMZ ORIGIN

The DMZ, which runs across the Korean Peninsula, is 248 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide. Created as a buffer at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War, it's jointly overseen by the American-led UN Command and North Korea.

Hundreds of thousands of North and South Korean troops are now deployed along the DMZ, which is littered with an estimated 2 million mines, tank traps, razor wire fences and guard posts.

It's extremely rare for anyone to cross the DMZ in unauthorized areas. More than 30,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea for political and economic reasons since the war's end, but mostly via the North's long, porous border with China.

Violence was more common in the Cold War, but a 2015 land mine blast blamed on North Korea maimed two South Korean soldiers and pushed the rival Koreas to the brink of an armed conflict.

As relations improved last year, the two Koreas agreed on several deals aimed at reducing animosity at the border. They removed mines from certain areas, dismantled some of their guard posts and halted front-line live-fire exercises. Experts say tensions can easily return if diplomacy eventually fails to end the North Korean nuclear stalemate.

PANMUNJOM

Panmunjom has been the venue for past high-level talks. It's somewhat safer than other areas, and it is just an hour's drive from Seoul, South Korea's capital. Most past DMZ visits by US presidents and other officials happened at Panmunjom and nearby areas.

Today's summit between Trump and Kim took place in a building in the southern part of Panmunjom. Before the meeting, Trump and Kim shook hands and posed for photos several times as they stepped across the concrete slabs that form the village's borderline.

Last year, Kim came to the village's southern side when he held a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South.

North and South Korean troops stand only several metres away from each other there. They once carried pistols, but since last year's deals they aren't armed.

Panmunjom is also where an armistice was signed to stop the Korean War. That armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war. About 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea.

Panmunjom is 52 kilometers north of Seoul and 147 kilometers south of Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.

Since the armistice, more than 830 rounds of talks have been held in various Panmunjom conference rooms.

The most notorious incident at Panmunjom happened in 1976, when ax-wielding North Korean soldiers killed two US officers sent out to trim a tree that obstructed the view from a checkpoint. Washington sent nuclear-capable bombers toward the DMZ in response.

Animosities eased after North Korea's then-leader, Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, expressed regret over the incident.

In 2017, North Korean soldiers sprayed bullets at a colleague who was making a dash for the border. He survived and now lives in South Korea.

PAST PRESIDENTIAL VISITS

In 1993, President Bill Clinton visited Panmunjom when the North Korean nuclear crisis first flared. In 2002, President George W. Bush visited the DMZ a few weeks after he labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil".

In March 2012, Kim Jong Un came down to Panmunjom and met front-line North Korean troops in his first known visit to the area since taking power in late 2011. He gave the troops rifles and machine guns as souvenirs and ordered them to maintain "maximum alertness," according to North Korean state media.

Days after Kim's Panmunjom trip and ahead of a planned North Korean long-range rocket launch, President Barack Obama visited a front-line US military camp just south of the DMZ and told American troops they are protectors of "freedom's frontier".

In November 2017, Trump planned to visit the DMZ with Moon to underscore his stance on North Korea's nuclear program, but his plans were thwarted by heavy fog that prevented his helicopter from landing at the border.

- AP