PYONGYANG, North Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il welcomed South Korea’s president to Pyongyang displaying scant enthusiasm Tuesday while orchestrated crowds cheered the start of the second-ever summit between the divided Koreas since World War II.
The greeting was a stark contrast to the first North-South summit in 2000, when Kim greeted then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung with smiles and clasped both his hands tightly in an emotional moment that softened the North Korean strongman’s image to South Koreans and the world.
This time, Kim appeared reserved and unemotional, walking slowly and occasionally clapping lightly to encourage the crowd of thousands at the outdoor welcome ceremony, who waved red and pink paper flowers. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun appeared to revel in the moment, waving and smiling broadly before reviewing a goose-stepping North Korean military honor guard wielding rifles with bayonets.
Roh has said his goal at the summit is fostering peace between the North and South, which remain technically at war since a 1953 cease-fire halted the Korean War. But he has not given any specifics about what he will propose or get in return, prompting criticism from conservatives at home that the summit is an ego trip for Roh seeking to establish a legacy for his unpopular administration that ends in February.
‘Too many hardships’
Earlier during the 125-mile journey by road from Seoul, Roh stepped out of his vehicle to walk across the border that divides the Koreas in the center of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone – the first time any Korean leader has crossed the land border. In the first summit between the Koreas in 2000, the South’s Kim flew to Pyongyang.
‘This line is a wall that has divided the nation for a half-century. Our people have suffered from too many hardships and development has been held up due to this wall,’ Roh said before crossing.
‘This line will be gradually erased and the wall will fall,’ he said. ‘I will make efforts to make my walk across the border an occasion to remove the forbidden wall and move toward peace and prosperity.’
This week’s summit, which runs through Thursday, comes a year after the North conducted its first test detonation of a nuclear bomb. The explosion catalyzed world opposition to the regime but soon led to a reversal of Washington’s hard-line policy on the North.
In July, Pyongyang shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor that produced material for bombs and the country has tentatively agreed to disable its atomic facilities by year-end in a way that they cannot be easily restarted.
Before leaving the South Korean capital, Roh acknowledged that the two Koreas alone could not totally resolve the nuclear standoff or bring peace to the peninsula.
The North is involved in international talks with U.S. and other regional powers on its nuclear weapons program. A peace settlement to the Korean War would require the participation of the U.S. and China, countries that also fought in that conflict.
‘Even if we do not reach an agreement in many areas, it would still be a meaningful achievement to narrow the gap in understanding and to enhance confidence in each other,’ Roh said of the meeting with Kim.
Washington expressed skepticism the summit would lead to progress on the nuclear standoff and noted that the peace issue was also being discussed at the international arms negotiations known as the six-party talks.
‘I certainly am not looking for those inter-Korean discussions to change the basic facts on the ground or the six-party talks,’ U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Monday.