SEOUL, Sep 30 (Reuters) South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun heads to Pyongyang this week for only the second ever summit between leaders of the rival Korean states, hoping to end his unpopular presidency with a major achievement.
In some ways, the straight-talking Roh is the polar opposite of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader he will cross their heavily-armed border on Tuesday to meet.
While Kim was born into privilege as the son of the communist North's founding leader, the 61-year-old Roh's humble farming background meant he had to take on low-paying jobs to fund his education.
And Roh's stress as president on what he calls a participatory government in a country that has known only a few years of democratically elected leaders is in sharp contrast to Kim's autocratic rule.
Born in a small village near the big southern port city of Busan, Roh seems to have been eager to express his views from an early age. He once told reporters that he did occasionally regret his outspokenness.
A note from his first-grade teacher said: ''Talents in all subjects, especially presentation of his opinions.'' In 1960, he led a boycott against mandatory essays praising South Korea's first autocratic president.
And in 1987 he went to jail for three weeks for supporting an illegal strike.
When he was almost 30, Roh finally passed his bar exam and in 1981 began a career as a human rights lawyer.
A few years later, he moved into mainstream politics and, though he failed in several attempts to win office, he helped lead the successful presidential campaign of long-time pro-democracy activist Kim Dae-jung.
In 2002, he surprised most of the electorate by winning the presidency himself. His term ends in six months.
But barely had he taken over the presidential Blue House than Roh faced impeachment, led by the conservative opposition.
The attempt failed but in the final years of his rule, Roh's popularity has plunged, his policies repeatedly attacked by a resurgent political right wing and the conservative-dominated press. His popularity rating has usually stayed below 30 per cent, sometimes much lower.
Even when he announced the summit with North Korea, he was widely accused of using the meeting to play domestic politics and give the sagging left-wing a new lease on life ahead of a presidential election in December which the conservative candidate is expected to win.
But Roh has argued that the summit is a chance to calm the tension that has dominated the divided peninsula for more than half a century, not to mark any historic turning point.
''I'm not going to get unreasonably ambitious at the meeting,'' he said after the summit was announced.
REUTERS SZ RK1131