At opening of Koreas summit, North’s leader gives South’s president a chilly reception



By Jae-Soon Chang

SEOUL, South Korea – The first summit between the divided Koreas in seven years opened Tuesday to rapturous cheers from hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, but their leader gave the visiting South Korean president a chillier reception.

The words “I’m glad to meet you” were apparently the only ones North Korean leader Kim Jong Il uttered to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun during their first encounter in the North’s capital Pyongyang – a 12-minute welcoming ceremony to launch the three-day summit. The two did not have substantive talks.

This week’s summit is only the second time leaders of the North and South have met since the Korean peninsula was divided after World War II.

Kim did not hold more meetings with Roh. Instead he let his deputy, the country’s nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, deal with the South Koreans for the rest of the day. They held talks and the North hosted a banquet where Roh offered a toast to Kim Jong Il’s health.

The North Korean leader’s apparent snub came after the welcoming ceremony, where he showed scant enthusiasm and seldom smiled.

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That contrasted with a friendly reception that the North’s leader gave to Roh’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, at the first-ever summit in 2000.

During an airport reception at that time, Kim Jong Il greeted his South Korean counterpart 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.

In the first summit, the two leaders also rode together in a limousine to central Pyongyang and held about a half-hour of talks on the first day.

This time, it was unclear what made Kim appear less enthusiastic about the summit in what could be an ominous sign for two rounds of official talks between the two leaders scheduled for Wednesday.

The White House said it hoped the talks would contribute to peace and security.

“Ultimately, it needs to lead to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday.

A top North Korean diplomat said the summit will open up new possibilities for “peace, co-prosperity and the reunification” of the Korean peninsula.

“Nothing is more urgent and important than the reunification of our nation, (which) has been living for more than half a century with the sufferings of territorial division imposed by outside forces,” Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Choe Su Hon told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.

Kim had already seized a dominant position in the talks by only agreeing to a summit in the North, going back on a promise in 2000 to pay a return visit to the South.

Roh has said he wants to use this week’s summit to start a genuine peace process with North Korea instead of the current reconciliation track, which has seen halting progress in reducing military tension on the Cold War’s last frontier.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since a 1953 cease-fire ended the Korean War, despite seven years of warming ties.

Roh has not given any specifics about what he will propose or seek, prompting criticism from conservatives at home that the summit is an ego trip for the South Korean leader to establish a legacy for his unpopular administration, which ends in February.

Both Roh and Kim also hope to keep the surging conservatives from winning South Korea’s December presidential election. They hold a commanding lead in opinion polls. The main opposition Grand National Party is more skeptical of relations with the North, insisting aid be conditional on nuclear disarmament and reforms in the country’s centralized economy.

Roh’s eager embrace of the North has also caused friction with Seoul’s ally Washington, which wants improvement in relations between the Koreas to only follow progress in the North scaling back its nuclear ambitions.

The South Korean leader sought to play down expectations before departing from Seoul.

“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 summit.

Roh made the 125-mile journey to Pyongyang by road, pausing in the center of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Koreas to walk across the border – the first time any Korean leader has crossed the land frontier.

“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.”

Upon entering Pyongyang, Roh switched to an open-top car and was joined by the North’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam. Both rode for some 20 minutes through the North’s showcase capital, waving to hundreds of thousands of residents who cheered and chanted “Reunification of the Fatherland!” and “Welcome!”

The summit, which runs through Thursday, takes place amid rare optimism at international talks on the North’s nuclear programs that include the U.S. and other regional powers.

North Korea shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor in July that produced material that could be used in bombs, and has agreed in principle to disable its atomic facilities by year-end in a way that they cannot be easily restarted.

The progress after years of tortuous talks followed the North’s first-ever nuclear bomb test a year ago, which prompted the U.S. to reverse its earlier hard-line policy on Pyongyang and offer concessions in exchange for disarmament.

A senior State Department official said the U.S. and North Korea are working on the planned removal of the North from the U.S. terror sponsorship list.

Associated Press writers Burt Herman and Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.