For a few precious days, divided Korean families see their loved ones again

Over sixty years ago, Kim Dong-yul said goodbye to his two-year-old daughter and walked out of the door, intending to return a week later.

That was the last time he saw her. After the Korean War of 1950-53 erupted, he found himself stranded in the South. When the conflict ended, his country was split into two bitterly opposed Cold War enemies – and his home was in the North.

This morning, Mr Kim (82) will embrace the child – who is now a pensioner herself – whom he last met in 1949. He is one of about 450 people from South Korea being allowed across the DMZ for the first North-South family reunions in over a year, during which some people thought the two sides might go to war again.

As if to underscore the fragility of the situation – technically speaking, the war has never ended – shots were fired yesterday from the North Korean side of the border, the first since 2007, and met by immediate return fire from the South. No injuries were sustained in the South.

Whether the exchange was triggered as a deliberate provocation – Pyongyang had threatened a "merciless physical retaliation" last week over Seoul's refusal to hold military talks – or simply a mishap was unclear last night. South Korean officials insisted that the reunions would not be affected. For Mr Kim, any further wait would surely have been intolerable.

"I never thought it would take this long to see her again," he told South Korea's Yonhap news agency before he left yesterday for Sokcho city, a stopover before the reunions at the North Korean resort of Mt Kumgang. "This is the greatest moment of my life."

The reunions are wrenching, and controversial. Elderly and desperate to meet their loved ones again before they die, people like Mr Kim spend a few days at a purpose-built centre in Mt Kumgang, struggling in front of cameras to reacquaint with family members they hardly know. When it is over, they are whisked back across the Cold War barrier and never see each other again.

Still, he considers himself fortunate to be selected. Over 90,000 South Koreans and an unknown number of people north of the border are waiting to see relatives lost during the war, according to the Korean Red Cross, which brokers these reunions. About 21,000, many selected by lottery, have met over the last decade since they began as part of the so-called sunshine policy of rapprochement. The humanitarian group has fought hard to keep politics out of the meetings, with limited success.

In 2008, the reunions were scrapped after North Korean guards shot and killed a southern tourist at Mt Kumgang. Seoul furiously cancelled lucrative package tours to the resort, reportedly worth $30m a year to Pyongyang, which retaliated by seizing the facility and demanding that the tours be resumed before more families could reunite. The March sinking of a South Korean warship, allegedly by a torpedo fired from a Northern submarine, has again left stranded families watching helplessly from the sidelines.

The latest round of meetings, initiated by the North, is being seen as a sign of thawing relations, but it has also run into controversy. Pyongyang is demanding 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser in return for a request that families be allowed to meet once a month. "We long for the trips to become regular but it is difficult because of the circumstances," said Han Yun-kyeon of the Red Cross. Seoul, which prefers to keep the reunions separate from aid issues, has again reacted angrily to that demand.

"The North seems to be under the impression that it has done South a great favour by proposing family reunions," a Reunification Ministry official told the daily Chosun Ilbo newspaper this week. "For 10 years under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, we gave the North 255,000 tonnes of rice on annual average. It's nonsense to demand double the amount in return for family reunions."

Like most of the participants, Mr Kim just wants the bickering to end. Now remarried, he left Young-Heung city in what is today North Korea in 1949, hoping to pick up his wife and daughter later. Instead, war between the US-backed South and China-backed North broke out, ending in the death of perhaps 3 million people and the permanent separation of millions of families. He has prepared a gift of underwear – scarce in North Korea – to bring with him on his trip to meet his daughter. He knows that many more will die waiting for the same opportunity. "I feel so sorry for those people who can't meet their loved-ones," he said. "I am so lucky."

The 60-year embrace

Tom Rowley

North Korean agents abducted Kim Joung Nam at the age of 16 when he was on a beach in Kusan, South Korea. Forced to spend 28 years in the country, the authorities finally allowed him to be reunited with his mother, now wheelchair-bound, in 2006. At the meeting, his 82-year-old mother, Choi Kye Wol, burst into tears as she met her grandchildren for the first time. Mr Kim told his mother: "Stop crying. Why are you crying on such a happy day?" She said: "I have nothing left to wish for now."

American soldier Charles Jenkins defected to North Korea in 1965, a decision he now describes as "the biggest mistake I ever made". Jenkins, now 70, made the transition in 1965 when, drunk and unhappy, he crossed over from his post on the border. His Japanese wife, who had been abducted, was allowed to return home, but Jenkins was not. After considerable media attention the couple were reunited in 2004. They now live in Japan with their children.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there