North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il dourly greeted a smiling South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun Tuesday at the start of a much trumpeted three-day summit in Pyongyang.
The two leaders have ostensibly met to discuss "peace and economic cooperation," according to the South Korean government. But the real agenda and details of the summit are being withheld from the public, citing North Korean concerns over the security of their "Dear Leader Kim."
Earlier, Roh crossed the heavily fortified border between the north and the south on foot, the first leader from either side ever to do so since the countries were divided in 1953.
Roh's walk across the border's demarcation line was widely publicized via a live television broadcast and touted as a symbolic event organized by the South Korean government. As he stepped across the border Roh pledged to make his visit an effort to "remove the forbidden wall" between the north and south.
"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 before crossing.
Roh and his three hundred strong entourage then drove two hours northward into the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, where hundreds of thousands of citizens lined the streets cheering the South Korean delegation's arrival: "One Nation! Unification!"
The last leg of the journey was a four-mile open limousine car parade during which the South Koreans waved back to the mechanically enthusiastic North Korean women dressed specially for the occasion in colorful traditional costumes and waving bright pink and dark red artificial flower bouquets.
The motorcade was greeted by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il himself, standing in front of Pyongyang's Cultural Center. This new destination was a surprise to the South Korean delegation, who had been told the event would take place at another location, and Kim's appearance had not been confirmed in advance. The reclusive North Korean leader is rarely seen in public and has not been shown on television for some months.
After a brief handshake, the two leaders walked the red carpet towards the viewing stand for the military parade. In a noticeable contrast to the first north-south summit in 2000, when Kim emotionally greeted the then South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, the North Korean leader this time appeared reserved and impassive, walking with a slight limp. Analysts said Kim's health seems to have deteriorated, heightening rumors of heart and kidney problems that are possibly the result of long-term diabetes.
"Kim is definitely going through a chronic disease." Kim Chul-Joong, medical reporter for Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean daily newspaper, told ABC News.
"With the diabetes he has a hard time lifting his right ankle and suffers from a frozen shoulder. That's why he is standing unbalanced and walking with a limp. I can also tell that his abdominal obesity has worsened," Joong added after analyzing today's video of the 65-year-old leader. A no-show from the "Dear Leader" at this evening's summit dinner added to the speculation that Kim's health is deteriorating.
His South Korean counterpart on the other hand appeared to enjoy the moment, strutting about with a wide grin and waving back to the cheering North Korean citizens.
But while Roh's health may be better than Kim's, his political standing is fragile and the expectations for this summit are not high. The lame-duck South Korean president is likely to be voted out of office next February and the opposition Grand National Party is expected to win by a majority vote in the coming December elections, according to local opinion polls.
"This administration is desperate to utilize and politicize the summit to boost single-digit public opinion polls," said Kim Taeo-Hyo, professor of Political Sciences at Sungkyunkwan University.
"And the north has nothing to lose from this. At the most, they'll get more economic assistance from the south, large-scale tangible projects."