South Korean president meets unsmiling Kim

South Korea’s president arrived in hermit North Korea’s capital on Tuesday to cheering crowds and a dour leader Kim Jong-il for only the second summit between two states still technically at war.

South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun has billed his first trip to the communist North as a chance to end animosity born with the partition of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II.

But Roh’s critics say the visit is aimed more at domestic politics and expect him to tip-toe around the sensitive issues of nuclear weapons and human rights abuses.

North Koreans dressed in their finest, on cue, waved pink and red plastic flowers and cheered when Kim arrived at a main city square, repeating the greeting minutes later as Roh stepped out of an open car supplied by North Korea.

An unsmiling and portly Kim, wearing his trademark jumpsuit and platform shoes that made him appear taller than Roh, then shook hands with the South Korean leader and his wife.

The greeting was in sharp contrast to Kim’s effusive welcome for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at the start of the first summit in 2000. Then, the two leaders rode together in cars, embraced, held hands and harmonised in singing patriotic songs.

And there was no mention of the latest summit in the official North Korean media on Tuesday.

This week’s meeting comes against a backdrop of regional negotiations to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions in return for massive aid and an end to its status as an international pariah.

With just five months left in office, Roh has said he will use the summit to press for peace and an eventual arms cut on the peninsula that is watched over by some two million troops, most of them near the border.

While the first summit was seen as a landmark event that led to an easing of tensions, the latest meeting has been greeted with a far more muted response, due to a vague agenda and doubts Roh will be able to achieve much.

It has not helped that the meeting was again in Pyongyang, despite an agreement in 2000 that Kim Jong-il would head south for the next one.

“The visit also helps Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy. By agreeing to once again go north, South Korean leaders help play to the domestic image of Kim Jong-il as the ‘real’ Korean emperor, with Roh [gifts in hand] being seen as playing a tributary visit,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank.

Crossing the forbidden line

Roh started the trip to the North by becoming the first president to step across the heavily armed border and then leading the largest civilian motorcade between the two capitals.

“I am crossing this forbidden line of division,” Roh said as he walked into the reclusive North, stepping across an 80cm-wide yellow strip on which were written the words “peace and prosperity”.

“There is nothing in sight, but this line is the wall that has left our nation divided for half a century.
Because of this wall, our nation has suffered so much pain.”

Analysts say South Korea may pledge billions of dollars to help raise its communist neighbour’s ruined economy.

“I intend to concentrate on making substantive progress that will bring about a peace settlement together with economic development,” Roh said in a televised address before departing.

Surveys show South Koreans favour the summit and eventual unification, but want the process to be gradual, fearing that the cost of absorbing the impoverished North would wreck their own economy, Asia’s fourth largest.

“I do think it will help in the unification process and economics,” said Kwon Deuck-ki (35) an interior designer in Seoul. “However, the summit has political purposes, particularly with the presidential elections coming up.”

Critics accuse the unpopular Roh of using the summit to fan dreams of unification to improve the fortunes of his liberal camp, which is trailing badly in opinion polls ahead of December’s presidential election.

Roh is constitutionally barred from a second term in office and the North’s official media routinely lambasts the opposition conservative party, expected to win the presidency and which promises to be tougher on an errant Pyongyang.

The crossing helped shares in Seoul in early trading with construction firms up in anticipation of landing major contracts to improve the North’s creaking infrastructure.

The summit will last through until Thursday and the first official talks between the leaders are scheduled for Wednesday. - Reuters

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