South Korean president crosses to North for summit

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NORTH-SOUTH KOREA BORDER, Oct 2 (Reuters) South Korea's president today stepped across the heavily armed border with the North to start a summit aimed at ending a half-century of animosity born in the Cold War.

Critics say Roh Moo-hyun's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang is symbolic at best, prompted by domestic political concerns, and will skirt the North's nuclear arms programme and its widely criticised human rights record.

''I am crossing this forbidden line of division,'' Roh said as he become the first South Korean leader to walk into the reclusive North, stepping across an 80 cm-wide (31 inches) yellow strip with the words ''peace and prosperity'' written on it.

''There is nothing in sight but this line is the wall that has left our nation divided for half a century. Because of this wall, our nation has suffered so much pain.'' With just five months left in office, has said he would use the summit -- only the second in the history of the two Koreas -- to press for peace and an eventual arms cut for the states.

Still technically at war, analysts say the South may pledge billions of dollars to help raise its communist neighbour's ruined economy.

''I intend to concentrate on making substantive progress that will bring about a peace settlement together with economic development,'' Roh said in a televised address before departing.

Surveys show South Koreans favour the summit and eventual unification, but want the process to be gradual, fearing that the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to absorb the impoverished North would wreck their economy.

''I do think it will help in the unification process and economics,'' said Kwon Deuck-ki, 35, an interior designer.

''However, the summit has political purposes, particularly with the presidential elections coming up.'' Critics accuse the unpopular Roh of using the summit to fan dreams of unification to improve the fortunes of his faltering liberal camp, whose leading candidates are badly behind in opinion polls for the December presidential election.

The first summit in 2000 was seen as a landmark event that led to an easing of tensions on the divided peninsula. The latest summit has been greeted with a far more muted response, due to a vague agenda and doubts Roh will be able to achieve much.

It has not helped that the meeting is again in Pyongyang, despite an agreement in 2000 that Kim Jong-il would head South for the next summit.

''The visit also helps Kim Jong-il's legitimacy. By agreeing to once again go north, South Korean leaders help play to the domestic image of Kim Jong-il as the 'real' Korean emperor, with Roh (gifts in hand) being seen as playing a tributary visit,'' said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think-tank.

RIDE NORTH The crossing helped shares in Seoul in early trading with construction firms up in anticipation of landing major contracts to improve the North's creaking infrastructure.

As he crossed the border, Roh was handed flowers by North Korean women in traditional dress before getting back into his car and heading to Pyongyang.

As he headed into the secretive North, television coverage was cut off. It will not be restored until he arrives in Pyongyang, where South Korean broadcasters can beam images via satellite using links provided by Seoul specially for the visit.

For the last summit in June 2000, then President Kim Dae-jung flew to Pyongyang where he was greeted by a beaming Kim Jong-il. It is not clear if he will do the same for Roh.

The summit will last through Thursday and the first official talks between the leaders scheduled for Wednesday.

Reuters MP VP0737

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