Smile - please! Kim Jong-il's welcome for his guest has been seen as chilly [GALLO/GETTY] 

"Did you sleep well?" Kim Jong-il asked his South Korean guest as they met on Wednesday morning.

 

With these words, there was a hint of a thaw in the somewhat chilly welcome the North Korean leader had given his visitor a day earlier.

 

Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean president, had arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday, to be greeted by a formal handshake and only the barest hint of a smile.

 

In 2000, at the start of the first inter-Korean summit, the then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was welcomed by a beaming Kim Jong-il, who enthusiastically bear-hugged his guest on the tarmac at Pyongyang airport.


Roh's wife did not appear to be
enjoying the formalities [AFP]

This time around Kim, dressed once-again in his zip-up khaki boiler suit, spent barely 12 minutes with his guest, exchanging only a few words before disappearing from the scene.

 

A few hours later North Korea's 'Dear Leader' did not even bother to show up for an evening banquet thrown in honour of Roh and the South Korean delegation.

 

Roh put his best face on the apparent affront - even offering a toast to the "good health" of the absent host.

 

But photos of the South Korean first lady told a different story.

 

What a difference seven years – and one atomic bomb test – makes.

 

Nevertheless, as the two leaders got down to business the next morning, the snub was delicately swept under the diplomatic carpet.

 

Softly-softly

 

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Bland pool reports noted that Roh had responded to Kim's enquiry of his first night in Pyongyang, saying he had slept well and found the state guest house accommodation to be "very satisfactory".

 

Such is the softly-softly world of inter-Korean summitry.

 

Eager to break the ice with his host, Roh had brought with him a few carefully-chosen gifts – the star attraction being a bookcase stuffed with 150 DVDs.

 

Kim is known to be an avid film buff and is said to have a personal movie library running into the tens of thousands of titles.

 

Surely, the South Koreans hoped, such a gift was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

 

For a short while though the North Korean leader was giving nothing away. He examined the DVDs, as well as books and a laquer screen the South Koreans had brought along as well.

 

Eventually, as the cameras rolled, Kim broke into a smile and shook hands with Roh and his wife.

 

Happier times: Kim and Kim at the first
summit in 2000 [GALLO/GETTY]
The gifts had gone down well and the South Koreans could breathe a small sigh of relief.

 

The North Korean leader went on the praise Roh's "significant" decision to make an overland road trip from Seoul to Pyongyang, noting that Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, had flown to Pyongyang for the first summit.

 

The land journey takes just over three hours and traverses one of the most heavily fortified patches of earth on the planet.

 

It is a journey that in 50 years few Koreans - and now only one president - have made.

 

"He flew over but you came overland. The meaning is significant," Kim told the South Korean president. "I'm glad that you came overland this time."

 

For his part Roh responded that he appreciated Kim's appearance at the Tuesday's welcoming ceremony.

 

'Impressive'

 

"The people's warm welcome was very impressive and I thank you very much for appearing at the ceremony," he said.

 

Kim, who is rarely seen in public and had not previously been seen on live television in more than seven years, responded that he had made a special effort for his guest.

 

"The president came and I don't need to stay at home lazing around when I'm not even a patient," he said - possibly a cryptic sideswipe at rumours over his health.

 

It was a tiny symbolic crack in the ice that has existed on the Korean peninsula for five decades.

 

But after more than 50 years of living on the brink of war, many Koreans will be hoping that for all the small talk something of substance will emerge from the summit.

Source: Al Jazeera