SEOUL, Oct 2 (Reuters) South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun takes a historic step across the heavily armed border with the communist North today for only the second Koreas summit, billed as a chance for peace along the Cold War's last frontier.
South Korean officials have made clear that to keep the mood from turning sour in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Roh will step around the paranoid state's nuclear weapons programme and widely condemned human rights record.
Roh, with just five months left in office, has said he would use his talks to press for peace and an eventual arms cut for the states -- technically still at war -- and may pledge billions of dollars for the North's beleaguered economy.
''I intend to concentrate on making substantive and concrete progress that will bring about a peace settlement together with economic development,'' Roh said in a televised address before leaving the South Korean capital, Seoul.
He is leading a motorcade today morning that includes some 200 business leaders, poets and clerics. He will step out of his bullet-proof German-made limousine to become the first leader from the South to walk across the fortified border that has split the peninsula for over half a century.
He then drives about 150 minutes on to Pyongyang, where the states held their first summit in June 2000. The summit runs through Thursday.
The talks come amid the latest round of negotiations among regional powers to persuade the North to give up nuclear weapons in return for aid. South Korean officials said Roh would urge Kim to stick to his pledges to denuclearise.
US KEY South Korea's ability to seek a peace treaty is limited because it was not a signatory to the ceasefire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. US-led forces signed the agreement.
''The issue of denuclearisation and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula cannot be ultimately resolved only through an agreement between the North and the South,'' Roh admitted in his address.
US President George W Bush has said he is ready to discuss a peace treaty once the reclusive North scraps its atomic arms and so removes one of the region's greatest security threats.
In addition, Roh's government has said it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, making it awkward for him to sign some sort peace understanding while the North still has a nuclear weapons programme.
North Korea has stationed most of its 1.2 million-man military near the border with the South, which has about 670,000 troops backed by about 28,000 US troops.
Although South Korea has lived for decades with the military threat, some analysts say its greater fear is that the sudden collapse of Kim's autocratic government would create enough instability to badly damage its economy, Asia's fourth largest.
North Korea's economy has become a shambles under Kim while his neighbour's has surged. Hit hard by UN sanctions for its October 2006 nuclear test and massive summer floods, North Korea depends on food and oil handouts.
''South Korea's economic cooperation is aimed at reducing military tension,'' said Jeong Hyung-gon, an expert at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. ''A peaceful peninsula has a direct impact on South Korea's economy.'' The first summit broke the ice in the two states' Cold War rivalry and launched economic and humanitarian projects.
Officials said Roh might propose new projects to rebuild the North's dilapidated infrastructure and develop joint economic zones in the isolated state where its own dynamic manufacturers could further exploit cheap land and labour.
Reuters MP VP0655