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.