Korean Summit Begins With Historic Walk, Unexpected Greeting

Kurt Achin

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun strolled across the heavily militarized border with North Korea and later received an unscheduled greeting from the North's leader Kim Jong Il. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the ceremonies mark the start of a three-day summit in the North Korean capital.

South Korea has already erected a small stone monument near the spot where President Roh Moo-hyun on Tuesday began his trip into North Korea.

After a short drive, Mr. Roh and his wife stepped out of their car and walked over the border separating the two Koreas.

The South Korean president prefaced his walk by reflecting on the pain the division has caused Koreans - and by looking forward to a future of unity.

He says more people will one day cross the border, just as he is doing, and the wall between North and South will fall.

The two Koreas remain technically at war, 57 years after North Korea invaded the South. A 1953 armistice halted three years of fighting.

This is only the second meeting of the leaders of the two countries. In 2000, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il. That meeting led to increased contact between the two countries, fueled in part by hundreds of millions of dollars of South Korean aid and investment sent to the impoverished North. 

Less than an hour before Mr. Roh's motorcade was scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang Tuesday, South Korean reporters learned of a change in the summit's agenda.

North Koreans erupted into coordinated cheers as their leader, Kim Jong Il, emerged to greet President Roh personally at a Pyongyang landmark.

Mr. Roh's staff had said earlier that no meeting with Mr. Kim had been formally scheduled for Tuesday.

A North Korean military officer - heard here calling out a lengthy list of Kim Jong Il's official titles - said the North Korean leader welcomed President Roh's visit. The two leaders then walked a red carpet past military officers and civilians waving bouquets.

President Roh says seeking a permanent peace mechanism to replace the armistice is his primary reason for this week's summit. He has said he does not expect to spend much time discussing international efforts to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons programs.

No international media organizations were allowed to join the small media team that went to Pyongyang for the summit. Hundreds of South Korean and foreign correspondents are covering the event using video sent by domestic South Korean broadcasters to a government media room in a Seoul hotel.

The summit is not without controversy. Many South Koreans see it as an attempt by President Roh to win support for his favored candidate in presidential elections later this year. Some critics fear that Mr. Roh, in his eagerness to improve relations with Pyongyang, may offer too many benefits and receive too little in return from the North in terms of ending its nuclear weapons programs or improving its human rights record.

Mr. Roh is expected to return from Pyongyang Thursday.

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