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(photo credit: AP)
South Korea's president walked across North Korea's border Tuesday on his way to Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong Il, pledging to foster peace on the divided peninsula in the second-ever such meeting between its leaders.
Roh Moo-hyun and his wife Kwon Yang-sook stepped across a yellow plastic strip marked with the words "peace" and "prosperity" and laid across the Military Demarcation Line that divides the Koreas in the middle of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone.
Crossing near the North Korean city of Kaesong, the South Korean delegation was greeted by North Korean officials and women in traditional Korean hanbok dresses bearing bouquets.
"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. "This line will be gradually erased and the wall will fall. I will make efforts to make my walk across the border an occasion to remove the forbidden wall and move toward peace and prosperity."
The presidential motorcade will make the entire 200-kilometer journey from Seoul to Pyongyang. For the first summit between the Koreas in 2000, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung traveled by plane, although land crossings by other officials are not rare.
This week's summit comes almost exactly a year after the North tested a nuclear bomb, rattling regional stability and leading to a dramatic turnaround in the previous hard-line US policy toward its longtime rival.
Since then, Pyongyang has shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor that produced material for bombs and has tentatively agreed to disable its atomic facilities by year-end in a way that they cannot be easily restarted.
Before leaving the South Korean capital earlier Tuesday, Roh said he would build on the achievements from the first North-South summit and "hasten the slow march" in reconciliation between the two countries, which remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire.
"I intend to concentrate on making substantive and concrete progress that will bring about a peace settlement together with economic development," he said.
Roh acknowledged Tuesday that ridding the North of nuclear weapons and establishing a peace treaty could not be realized by the two Koreas alone.
Pyongyang has participated in international talks including the US and other regional powers on its nuclear program that were set to reconvene Tuesday. A peace agreement to end the Korean War would require participation of the US and China, which also fought in that conflict.
But the South Korean leader said, "I believe the determination of the two Koreas is more crucial than anything else when it comes to outlining the basic direction and picking up the pace of the movement forward."
Roh said he would work to establish a concrete agreement on "building military trust and addressing humanitarian matters."
North Korea's UN ambassador, Pak Gil Yon, said Monday that his government is looking to the summit to ease tensions and improve relations. He told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, the meeting resulted from "the good atmosphere" between the two governments.
South Korean officials have declined to give specifics on what Seoul seeks at the summit, given the unpredictable nature of talks with North Korea's Kim. They have sought to play down expectations, asserting that simply having any meeting is valuable.
"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.
Accompanied by industry leaders, politicians and cultural figures, Roh will spend hours in dialogue with Kim and tour the North, even taking in a massive propaganda spectacle with thousands of synchronized performers glorifying North Korea's communist regime.
Roh leaves office in February. The conservative opposition has criticized the summit as a political ploy aimed at bolstering Roh's sagging popularity, along with that of liberals aligned with him, just two months before a presidential election to choose South Korea's next president.
The North's Kim is also angling to keep the conservatives from power in Seoul, fearful they will reverse the South's policy of engagement and massive aid to its neighbor.
The first summit won former South Korean President Kim the Nobel Peace Prize for his "sunshine policy" pursuing warmer ties with North Korea, but the achievement was tainted by revelations of some $500 million in secret payments to Pyongyang.
Since then, the two Koreas have reconnected rail and road links across their border and established a joint industrial zone in a North Korean border city. Thousands of Korean families divided between North and South have also met in brief and emotional reunions.