South Korea's president arrived in the capital of hermit North Korea on Tuesday to cheering crowds and an unsmiling leader Kim Jong-Il for only the second summit between Cold War-era foes who remain technically at war.
Roh Moo-Hyun has billed his first trip to the communist North as a chance to end animosity born with the partition of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War Two.
But his critics say the visit is aimed more at domestic politics and expect him to tiptoe around the sensitive issues of nuclear weapons and mass human rights abuses.
North Koreans dressed in their finest waved pink and red plastic flowers and cheered on cue when Kim arrived at a main square in Pyongyang, repeating the greeting minutes later as Roh stepped out of an open car supplied by North Korea.
A portly Kim, in his trademark drab zip-up jacket and wearing platform shoes that made him appear taller than the dark-suited Roh, shook hands unsmilingly with the South Korean leader and his wife.
The two shared greetings of "nice to meet you" and then barely spoke to each other, pool reports from Pyongyang said. The pair reviewed a military guard of honor.
Kim's cool greeting was in sharp contrast to his effusive welcome for the South's then president, Kim Dae-Jung, at the first summit in 2000. Then, the two leaders rode together in cars, embraced, and harmonized in singing patriotic songs.
Roh did enjoy a moment in the spotlight when he rode through Pyongyang in an open car with the North's nominal number two leader, Kim Yong-Nam, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands lining the streets, waving plastic flowers and shouting "hurrah" and "reunify the fatherland".
"The streets of the capital city were wrapped in a festive mood," the North's official KCNA news agency said.
This week's meeting comes against a backdrop of regional negotiations to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions in return for massive aid and an end to its status as an international pariah.
With just five months left in office, Roh has said he wanted to use the summit to press for peace and eventual arms reductions on the peninsula where some 2 million troops face off, most of them near the border.
While the first summit in 2000 was seen as a landmark event that led to an easing of tensions, the latest meeting has met a far more muted response, due to a vague agenda and doubts that 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 one.
"The visit also helps Kim Jong-Il's legitimacy. By agreeing to once again go north, South Korean leaders help play to the (North's) 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.
CROSSING THE FORBIDDEN LINE
While Kim Dae-Jung flew from Seoul to Pyongyang, Roh began his trip by walking across the heavily fortified border and then driving in a long motorcade to the Northern capital.
"I am crossing this forbidden line of division," Roh said as he stepped over an 80-cm (31-inch) yellow strip on the road on which were written the words "peace and prosperity".
"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."
Analysts say South Korea may pledge billions of dollars to help raise its communist neighbor's ruined economy.
Roh held a formal meeting with Kim Yong-Nam, president of North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament, who was later to host a dinner for him. Kim Jong-Il was not scheduled to attend but might show up, pool reports from South Korean media said.
Surveys show South Koreans favor the summit and eventual unification, but want the process to be gradual, fearing that the cost of absorbing the impoverished North would wreck their own economy, Asia's fourth largest.
Critics accuse the unpopular Roh of using the summit to fan dreams of unification to improve the fortunes of his liberal camp, which is trailing badly in opinion polls ahead of December's presidential election.
Roh is constitutionally barred from running again, and the North's official media routinely blast the opposition conservative party, hot favorites to win the presidency, with promises to be tougher on an errant Pyongyang.
First official talks between the Korean leaders are scheduled for Wednesday, with Roh due to return home on Thursday.
(With additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Jessica Kim)