South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun walks across the border into North Korea on Tuesday on a mission that analysts expect will be long on symbolism but short on deals – and is sure to arouse consternation among South Korea's many conservatives.
The source of that concern is not his step across the North-South line in the truce village of Panmunjom before going by road to Pyongyang.
Rather, it's Mr. Roh's decision to lead his 200-person delegation to a performance in Pyongyang's May First Stadium of the Arirang Festival in which tens of thousands of North Koreans portray propaganda scenes, flashing cue cards and parading and dancing on the field.
The festival "idolizes North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and his son and incumbent leader Kim Jong Il," editorialized the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest-selling daily. "It is unbelievable that the president would sit watching such a performance and politely applaud at the end."
The South's unification minister, Lee Jae Joung, says an advance team found it "lyrical and magnificent." He notes that the show has no embarrassing references to the missiles launched by the North in July 2006 or its underground nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006, that preceded the February accord to end its nuclear program.
Roh and Mr. Kim may issue a statement espousing denuclearization, but the "road map" to that goal rests in the hands of six-party talk negotiators in Beijing.
The latest round of those talks ended Sunday in a two-day recess that allows envoys to go home and consult on a draft of a "common document."
The US envoy, Christopher Hill, calls the document "comprehensive," but does not say if it touches on such contentious issues as North Korean aid for Syria's nuclear program or development of nuclear warheads with uranium at their core, all of which the North has denied.
South Korean officials see the controversy surrounding Roh's attendance at the Arirang Festival as a small price to pay for three days of summitry.
The two leaders "will make some dramatic agreement like a declaration of peace and an end of the Korean War," says Choi Jin Wook at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "The Arirang Festival is controversial, but just another gesture of friendship."
The government, says Mr. Choi, "wants to help the presidential election" in December, in which the conservative candidate, former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung Bak, a critic of Roh's policies, leads. Soon after Roh's return here Thursday, liberal and leftist factions must settle on a candidate to try to succeed Roh, constitutionally barred from a second five-year term.
The summit "might have a negative impact if the government oversells it," says Choi. But, he says, "the peace mood will be positive rather than negative."
The summit's peace agenda, says the vice unification minister, Lee Kwan Sei, will cover "efforts for the two Koreas to work together toward a common peace agreement" – the peace treaty that North Korea badly wants to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
On the economic front, Mr. Lee says, the leaders will attempt "to remove obstacles to economic cooperation."
On unification, which many South Koreans view with suspicion, Lee says the aim will be "to increase the level of confidence between the two Koreas and recognize and respect one another."
The summit is not expected to have the same historical impact as the only other North-South summit, when Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, flew in 2000 to Pyongyang and was greeted with a hug at the airport by Kim.
There's no guarantee Kim will be on hand to greet Roh. "Maybe there will be no result," says Dong Yong Seung, head of North Korean research at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. "Maybe North Korea will be a very difficult situation" because the North has yet to embrace sweeping change, though private markets have existed for several years.
Still, Mr. Dong believes the two leaders will introduce key topics. One is a proposal for a new economic zone, probably around the port of Nampo. Another is revision of the Northern Limit Line set by the UN Command in the Yellow Sea but challenged by North Korea in bloody battles in 1999 and 2002 demanding access for fishing boats in the crab-rich waters.
When it comes to a peace regime, says Kim Yeon Chul, an expert at Korea University, "more important than a peace treaty is military trust between North and South Korea." The leaders may talk about "peaceful use of the demilitarized zone" as park land and a free-trade zone.
South Korea's defense minister, Kim Jang Soo, is accompanying Roh. "With expansion of economic cooperation," says Unification minister Lee, "we need military assurances and guarantees."