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Leaders of divided Koreas to hold formal talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s president will hold formal talks with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Wednesday, after the second summit of two states technically still at war got off to a cool start.

Roh Moo-hyun has said he wants the summit to ease tensions between the foes along the Cold War’s last frontier and help the economy of his northern neighbor, which is in international talks to give up its ambition to be a nuclear weapons power in exchange for massive aid and an end to its pariah status.

Kim barely spoke to Roh on his arrival in Pyongyang on Tuesday as only the second South Korean leader to visit the communist state.

The greeting was in sharp contrast to Kim’s effusive welcome for South Korea’s then-president, Kim Dae-jung, at the first summit in 2000. Then, the two leaders rode together in cars, embraced, held hands and sang patriotic songs.

Roh’s critics say the visit is aimed more at domestic politics and expect him to avoid the issues of nuclear weapons and human rights abuses so as not to offend his paranoid host.

In a step forward in the negotiations, the United States said it had approved a tentative deal reached in the six-party talks, hosted by China, that would disable facilities at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex by the end of the year.

“We have conveyed to the Chinese government our approval for the draft statement,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a news briefing on Tuesday.

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Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. negotiator, said he expected China to issue a joint statement in the next day or two that “relates very directly to how we can move forward in the coming months on a certain timetable.”

Hill also said he hoped to know by the end of the year how much fissile material, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has produced.

Beyond the two Koreas, China and the United States, the other two members of the six-party talks are Japan and Russia.

ELUSIVE PEACE

Roh’s meeting with Kim on Wednesday coincides with a day of commemoration in both states marking the legend of the foundation 4,300 years ago of the Korean nation.

That nation was ripped apart after World War Two, when U.S. 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.

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Roh, with just five months left in office, has said his priority is to bring peace to the peninsula and may seek to sign some sort of peace statement with the North.

South Korea’s ability to seek a peace treaty is limited because it refused to sign the 1953 armistice agreement. The pact was signed in its stead by Washington on behalf of the United Nations Command, grouping forces of more than a dozen countries who had battled the North Korean and Chinese armies.

U.S. President George W. Bush has said he is ready to discuss a peace treaty once the reclusive North scraps its nuclear arms and so removes one of the region’s greatest security threats.

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Officials said Roh may propose new projects to rebuild the North’s infrastructure and develop joint economic zones where its manufacturers could further exploit cheap land and labor.

Many analysts say the Seoul government is less fearful of the North’s military threat it has lived with for decades than of its neighbor’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. Several top businessmen are among the 200 or so South Koreans who traveled with Roh to Pyongyang.

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 on Thursday.

With reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in New York

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