GLIDING across the border in a 30-limousine convoy, Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea's president, will on October 2nd visit Pyongyang and meet North Korea's capo, Kim Jong Il, for three days of talks. It is only the second summit between the two sides since their estrangement in a civil war over half a century ago.
The first, seven years ago, was between Mr Kim and Mr Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, who launched a “sunshine policy” towards the North. The meeting generated euphoria among South Koreans and won their president a Nobel peace prize, but produced little else. Kim Jong Il never came to Seoul, as he promised he would. Relations deteriorated between North Korea and the United States, South Korea's protector. And last year the North tested a nuclear bomb, to the region's dismay. As for the summit itself, it later transpired it was bought with cash passed under the table to the Dear Leader.
Mr Roh knows things have changed. The national mood towards reconciliation is subdued, even sceptical. Lacking Kim Dae-jung's charisma, his own political authority is at rock-bottom, after an ineffective presidency; he stands down at the end of the year. The only constant is that the summit's agenda is whatever Mr Kim decides it will be, and that he is not letting on: so, as one of Mr Roh's advisers delicately puts it, the summit is “open-ended”.
While dampening expectations, Mr Roh clearly hopes for a breakthrough in one or more of three areas: in reducing tensions and furthering peace on the Korean peninsula; deeper economic co-operation with the benighted North; and reconciliation of the many thorny issues—such as the tens of thousands of families separated since the Korean war—that might bring the distant goal of unification a tad closer. Above anything, Mr Roh appears to want to come home waving a scrap of paper with “peace” written on it.
Hawks, particularly in America, say that Mr Roh's ambitions risk running ahead of the “six-party” process in which America, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are hoping to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Too much offered by the South might lead the North to hope for aid without scrapping its nuclear programmes. It is not certain that Mr Roh will even bring up the nuclear issue with Mr Kim. Meanwhile, say some of Mr Roh's critics, peace with the North is a matter for all the former combatants of the Korean war, China and America included.
Mr Roh's men deny there is any risk. The president's hopes for economic co-operation and reconciliation are being entertained only because of progress on denuclearisation, they say; in July, North Korea closed its Soviet-era reactor at Yongbyon and has since promised to declare and disable all its programmes by the end of the year. They argue that it will do the liberal Mr Roh no favours if he returns with a deal that is unacceptable to his successor as president (the clear favourite is Lee Myung-bak, whose right-wing Grand National Party has a harder line towards North Korea). As for economic co-operation, says a close adviser, it has been far too one-sided to date, with North Korea simply taking South Korean money, fuel-oil and rice, much of which finds its way to the armed forces. From now on, the South expects much more—starting with the chance to invest in the North's rich mineral resources and cheap labour. To press home the point, two-dozen business executives will accompany Mr Roh.
Some expect the North to go surprisingly far. Chung-in Moon of Yonsei University, an architect of the “sunshine policy”, argues that decrepit North Korea is on the brink of opening up just as China did three decades ago, because Kim Jong Il recognises that his legitimacy now rests on future prosperity.
But outside help is hard to imagine without progress on the nuclear issue. The United States classes North Korea as an enemy; it also brands the country as a state sponsor of terrorism. Both hobble North Korea's ability to trade. America offers to lift these curses in return for a real disablement of North Korea's nuclear capabilities.
On September 27th the six-party talks reconvened in Beijing. Their outlook was clouded by a mysterious recent Israeli air strike at a Syrian target that some claimed was a North Korea-assisted nuclear facility. North Korea vigorously denies this and American diplomats say they have seen no intelligence confirming it. Negotiators, wanting nothing to distract North Korea from a timetable for denuclearisation, are inclined to gloss over the matter. For the timetable, as it is, involves some quite devilish details.