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South Korean President Meets Kim Jong-il in North Korea

Reuters
Monday, 1 Oct 2007 | 11:50 PM ET

South Korea's president arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday to the cheers of North Koreans and the handshake of leader Kim Jong-il for a summit aimed at ending a half century of animosity born in the Cold War.

North Koreans dressed in their finest clothes waved pink and red plastic flowers when Kim arrived and broke into cheers when Roh stepped out of his open car supplied by North Korea.

A solemn-faced Kim then shook hands with Roh.

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

"I am crossing this forbidden line of division," Roh said as he become the first South Korean leader to walk into the reclusive North, stepping across an 80 cm-wide (31 inches) yellow strip with the words "peace and prosperity" written on it.

"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."

With just five months left in office, Roh has said he would use the summit -- only the second in the history of the two Koreas -- to press for peace and an eventual arms cut for the states.

Aid Pledges

Analysts say the South may pledge billions of dollars to help raise its communist neighbor'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 favor the summit and eventual unification, but want the process to be gradual. They fear the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to absorb the impoverished North would wreck their economy.

"I do think it will help in the unification process and economics," said Kwon Deuck-ki, 35, an interior designer. "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 faltering liberal camp, whose leading candidates are badly behind in opinion polls for December's presidential election.

Roh is constitutionally barred from a second term in office.

The first summit in 2000 was seen as a landmark event that led to an easing of tensions on the divided peninsula. The latest summit 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 is again in Pyongyang, despite an agreement in 2000 that Kim Jong-il would head South for the next summit.

"The visit also helps Kim Jong-il's legitimacy," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think-tank. "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," Cossa said.

Ride North

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.

As he crossed the border, Roh was handed flowers by North Korean women in traditional dress before getting back into his car and heading to Pyongyang.

As he headed into the secretive North, television coverage was cut off.

A road trip to Pyongyang is almost unheard of, as North Korea makes every effort to hide the desolation and impoverishment of its countryside from outside view, and that may indicate North Korea's increased confidence in opening up.

TV coverage was restored when Roh arrived in Pyongyang, where South Korean broadcasters can beam images via satellite using links provided by Seoul specially for the visit. The summit will last through Thursday and the first official talks between the leaders scheduled for Wednesday.