SEOUL, SEPT. 4 (TUESDAY) -- North Korea's prime minister crossed into South Korea today for the first high-level talks between the rival nations since the peninsula's 1945 division at the beginning of the Cold War.
North Korean Premier Yon Hyong Muk was met at the border village of Panmunjom by South Korean Unification Minister Hong Sung Chul, who declared, "A Korean proverb says a thousand miles start with a first step." A motorcade then took the North Koreans on a 45-minute ride to Seoul.
South Korea cautioned that the talks were unlikely to result in improved relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, bitter enemies since the 1950-53 Korean War. Aside from a brief exchange of separated families in 1985, the two countries have had no reciprocal visits of officials or families and have not permitted any exchange of mail or phone calls in four decades.
Still, even if the talks fail to yield concrete results, they are being seen as symbolically important because they open a channel of dialogue that could help ease tensions on the highly militarized Korean Peninsula, where 40,000 American troops are deployed in the South.
The talks also mark Communist North Korea's implicit recognition of the South Korean government, which Pyongyang has historically viewed as illegitimate and a puppet controlled by Washington.
The prime ministers' meetings here are a result of the end of the Cold War. North Korea, one of the world's last Stalinist governments, has come under increasing pressure from the Soviet Union to adopt a more flexible stance toward South Korea, an economically vibrant country emerging from decades of military rule. The Soviets recently established consular relations with Seoul.
The four-day talks -- with formal negotiations beginning on Wednesday -- will be held between Yon, who arrived with a delegation of nearly 90 people, and South Korean Prime Minister Kang Young Hoon. The prime ministers are not the top leaders in their governments, which are led by powerful presidents. Yon is scheduled to meet Thursday with South Korean President Roh Tae Woo.
Yon will be joined in all formal talks by four senior North Korean officials and two generals. The rest of the delegation will include government aides, support staff and nearly 50 people listed as journalists. A South Korean delegation of about 90 people is scheduled to visit Pyongyang next month for a second round of talks.
Unification Minister Hong told reporters that Seoul does not expect significant progress at the talks, in part because "there is deeply set mistrust and hostility between the two sides." He added that rapid unification of the peninsula was "hardly imaginable."
Hong also made clear that Seoul would reject the key arms-control demands that the North Koreans are expected to make here. Hong, one of six senior South Koreans who will join the formal talks, said the two nations must first conduct economic and family exchanges to establish trust before agreeing to troop cuts or withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"Agreements may not come out of this meeting but we have earnest hopes that relations between the two sides will be brought up to a normal track," he said.
North Korea agreed to the talks as it seeks to retain its remaining allies and attract foreign investment to prop up its sagging centralized economy. According to diplomats and political observers, Pyongyang needs at least to appear to be adopting a moderate foreign policy even though it remains one of the world's most repressive nations.
North Korean President Kim Il Sung, 78, is in the process of passing power to his son, Kim Jong Il. Some analysts said that strong South Korean opposition to the younger Kim could hamper his search for international credibility and undermine his domestic standing.
The political picture also is complex in South Korea, where many government leaders, including Roh, are former generals Roh -- whose ideas were shaped by a military establishment that still believes North Korea will invade if South Korea lets down its guard.