Roh sets high goal for North talks
S Korean leader will step across border hoping to take stride for peace
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun today steps across the world's most heavily fortified border into North Korea, hoping to secure the removal of the guns which guard it.
His mission to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim-Jong-il for only the second North-South summit is dogged by low expectations and diplomatic uncertainty, but Mr Roh insisted yesterday that a peace deal was his ultimate goal.
'Many issues will be discussed but I will put a priority on the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula,' he told soldiers in a nationally televised speech to mark Armed Forces Day. 'Without confidence in peace, we cannot promise co-prosperity and unification.'
The two sides have technically been at war since the end of the Korean conflict six decades ago, and there remains a strong military presence on both sides of the 248km demilitarised zone. The border also marks a division between the North's bankrupt economy and that of the booming South, whose output, at US$900 billion, is now more than 20 times the North's. Thirty-five years ago the North was considered the richer state.
Government officials in Seoul privately acknowledge Mr Roh faces a difficult three days, given how awkward dealing with the world's last Stalinist state can be.
While economic co-operation and investment as well as peace are up for discussion, handouts from Seoul are unlikely to have many concrete results.
Footage of the meeting will be beamed direct to Seoul, offering a rare live sighting of Mr Kim, one of the world's most secretive leaders, who took over from his father, Kim Il-sung, and is reportedly preparing for his succession.
No formal agenda for the summit, which has been delayed more than a month by floods in the North, has been released. Even Mr Roh's transport arrangements have been complicated. Seoul was keen to use an expensive new rail link, but Mr Roh will now travel by car - and take with him his own fuel supplies. Mr Roh, his wife and 13 aides will walk across the border before.
Members of his 300-strong delegation will be looking to negotiate big aid and investment deals. On the table will be South Korean infrastructure spending and investment estimated to be worth US$20 billion in the next 10 years.
In the delegation will be leading South Korean industrialists, and the group will visit the Kaesong industrial zone, where South Korean firms employ North Korean workers. Development there has been slow, and South Korean government and business officials are eager to kick-start it.
Fewer than 100,000 workers are employed there, but the South hopes that within five years 450 South Korean firms will have plants there employing 750,000 - to the possible detriment of Southeast Asian workers.
The summit - the first since then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung travelled to Pyongyang in 2000 - is also a big political event. Mr Roh is eager for tangible results to burnish the legacy of his five years in office, which end in January, as well as helping political allies in his Uri Party compete against opposition candidate Lee Myung-bak and his conservative Grand National Party.
It is widely believed Kim Jong-il agreed to the meeting to influence December elections in favour of pro-engagement candidates.
South Korean officials say the talks will not affect the six-nation effort to denuclearise North Korea, which tested its first nuclear weapon in October last year.
The six nations - China, the US, Russia, Japan and both Koreas - are still trying to agree on the next steps in implementation of a February agreement for Pyongyang to verifiably abandon its nuclear programme in return for aid and diplomatic normalisation.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said the summit could only help the wider talks.
'We will be trying to solidify a new order to bring peace to the peninsula,' he said, and the six-party effort had a common goal. 'We are talking about a peace regime ... as a broad term,' he said.
Two sides of the coin
The North-South summit will be only the second since the peninsula was divided. Six decades after the war, the numbers show just how different the two sides are
GDP (per capita)
Active troops 1.1m
Nuclear warheads (estimate) 2-15
Imports (per capita) US$116
Exports (per capita) US$57
Internet service proviers 1
GDP (per capita)
Active troops 687,000
Nuclear warheads 0
Imports (per capita) US$6,306
Exports (per capita) US$6,646
Internet service providers 15.9m
Estimates by US officials vary. A 2005 estimate by the US military's Defence Intelligence Agency put the figure between 12 and 15. The CIA gave a range of 2 to 3.
SOURCE: NATION MASTER, CIA WORLD FACTBOOK, CDI, GLOBALSECURITY