S. Korea's Roh Enters The North For Summit

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

SEOUL, Oct. 2 -- The lame-duck president of South Korea, Roh Moo Hyun, traveled north on Tuesday to a summit with Kim Jong Il, the unpredictable North Korean leader whose closeted government last year exploded a nuclear bomb but this year is flashing intermittent signals of peace.

The summit coincides with a rare season of promise in four years of six-nation negotiations over when and how North Korea might agree to abandon its nuclear program. The Bush administration, rewarding progress on the issue, is sending fuel to the North and is considering removing it from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The summit also comes as experts say North Korea's imploding economy is in desperate need of aid, trade and investment -- from prosperous South Korea as well as from the United States and the rest of the world.

Still, the summit's timing -- two months before a presidential election in South Korea -- has provoked bitter cynicism in the South and among U.S. conservatives about the motives behind it. Some also doubt whether the meeting can produce lasting results on key issues such as family reunification, human rights in the North and reduction of military forces along the border.

Roh, traveling by road to the North's capital, Pyongyang, on Tuesday morning, got out of his limousine to cross the famously militarized border.

Just before he left Seoul, Roh said that "clearly there will be some limitations" to what he can achieve at the summit "given the limited days remaining in my term."

Still, he said, "Even if we do not achieve many agreements, if we could narrow our differences and strengthen our mutual trust, that in itself will be an important result." His advisers, who are predicting that substantial trade and investment deals will emerge from the summit, said the symbolism of Roh's walk across the border would be "historic and moving."

Before he stepped across the border, Roh said: "When I return from this trip, I hope more people will make the same trip and maybe eventually and gradually this forbidden line will be erased."

The leaders of the two Koreas, Roh smiling and Kim looking dour, met at noon in Pyongyang in a square surrounded by hundreds of thousands of cheering North Koreans waving pink paper flowers. They made no statement and their first discussions were not scheduled until Wednesday.

For Roh, an unpopular and term-limited leader, movement in public opinion is something his ruling party badly needs to head off what polls indicate could be a disastrous showing in the presidential election.

Roh's party, the Uri Party, has yet to choose a presidential candidate. Low voter turnout in party primaries (around 10 percent) suggests that whoever gets the nod is unlikely to win in December.

The front-runner for the presidency is Lee Myung Bak, a former mayor of Seoul who is the candidate of the opposition Grand National Party. Lee has said he would be much less amenable than Roh to giving economic assistance to North Korea.

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