Koreas start summit, North close to nuclear deal

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SEOUL, Oct 3 (Reuters) The leaders of the Koreas began talks today after a cool start to a summit between two countries divided by decades of animosity, but news of a deal on unwinding Pyongyang's nuclear arms programme could lift the mood.

South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun has said he wants the summit with Kim Jong-il to ease tension between the states, technically still at war, and help his impoverished neighbour.

The summit comes as the international community is set to agree a deal that should lead to massive aid for the communist North and end its isolation if it finally gives up its ambitions to become a nuclear weapons power.

Yesterday, Washington said it had approved a tentative deal reached at six-party talks in Beijing that would disable North Korea's Soviet-era nuclear complex by the end of this year.

The chief US envoy to nuclear talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia the United States said he expects a draft statement in the next day or two that relates to a timetable.

The latest nuclear deal, almost exactly a year after the North conducted its first nuclear test, eases pressure on Roh to force disarmament concessions out of Kim.

Roh has argued the meeting will foster peace between old foes since the Cold War began six decades ago, and help the ruined economy of his neighbour which maintains one of the world's largest standing armies, mostly stationed near their border.

But, in the final five months of an unpopular presidency, Roh faces heavy pressure to come home with results from a summit widely criticised in the South as unlikely to achieve much.

South Korean officials say only a holistic approach will end one of the region's biggest security threats and bring the North in from the cold.

They point to the need to build up the North's economy, which has come close to collapse under Kim who became leader in 1994, inheriting his position and personality cult from his father.

SHARP CONTRASTS Roh, greeted by a glum-looking Kim in Pyongyang a day earlier, today shook hands with a far more affable North Korean leader ahead of formal talks, television footage showed.

Film-buff Kim's face lit up when he saw gifts from Roh: a painted room screen, high quality tea and a DVD collection that included a drama about a royal court cook starring one of Kim's favourite South Korean actresses, Lee Young-ae.

Most South Korean newspapers compared pictures of Kim's smiling expression when he met then President Kim Dae-joung for the first summit in 2000 to a dour one seven years later.

Roh's critics say the visit is aimed more at domestic politics and expect Roh to skirt the nuclear weapons issue and mass human rights abuses so as not to offend his host.

The formal talks coincide with the day both states mark the legend of the foundation of the Korean nation 4,300 years ago.

That nation was ripped apart after World War Two, when US and Soviet troops occupied the two halves of the peninsula.

Millions later died in the fratricidal 1950-53 Korean War, for which a peace treaty has yet to be signed.

Many analysts say the Seoul government is less fearful of the North's military threat it has lived with for decades than of its neighbour's collapse and the impact that would have on its own economy, Asia's fourth largest.

That in turn means that Seoul sees spending billions on the gradual rehabilitation of the North Korean economy as in its own best interests.

Roh is expected to witness one of the North's typical mass games extravaganzas featuring goose-stepping soldiers, dancing schoolgirls and a large flip card animation section that promotes unification under the North's communist banner.

He returns to South Korea tomorrow.

REUTERS SG HT1015

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