A chilly early morning at the South Korean side of the border facing north, Shim In Ku anxiously filled out the immigration papers for his long-awaited journey home. Shim, at age 67, left his hometown in North Korea when he was 11, during the Korean War.
"I was on my way home but got swept away by the crowd of refugees fleeing south from the northern communists. Then the war ended. My hometown became a part of North Korea. I never saw my family again," recalled Shim, who is traveling with a new family of his own: wife, children and two grandchildren.
The Shims are among the first batches of more than 300 South Korean visitors now offered a one-day tour of Gaesong, North Korea, just 50 miles north of Seoul. The rare glimpse of the world's most reclusive nation is the second tourism project spearheaded by Hyundai Asan, a South Korean company associated with the industrial conglomerate Hyundai Group.
The first project started nine years ago at Kumkang Mountain Resort on North Korea's eastern coast, that has attracted 1.72 million tourists so far. Hyundai Asan's development projects, which include an 815-acre industrial park in Gaesong area, have been endorsed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.
But with a location closer to Seoul, both Hyundai Asan and North Korean authorities expect the new Gaesong City project to lure even more visitors and generate more cash. North Korea takes $100 from the $195 paid by each tourist. With an average of 300 visitors a day expected, the North Koreans, who are in dire need of cash, could pocket at least $300,000 every day, excluding profits from souvenir sales.
Gaesong, with its scenic waterfalls, historic Buddhist temples and tombs of kings is home to many legends and story tales. The tour includes a luncheon prepared "Gaesong style" at its main restaurant, called Unification, in the city center that's overshadowed by the gigantic gold statue of North Korea's late-founder, Kim Il-Sung, on top of a nearby hill.
The trip is carefully orchestrated and restricted. South Korean visitors are not allowed to take pictures of local residents going about their daily lives. One man who rode with ABC News took photos of the outside view from his bus seat, and North Korean authorities confiscated his camera. In every bus, three North Korean guides, or rather "minders," to be more accurate, keep their eyes on the visitors so that images of barren lands, cracked chimneys, and crumbling buildings in Gaesong do not get exported. When leaving North Korea, the security authorities searched all video and still cameras.
As the tour group was ushered into buses traveling from one historical sight to another, both South Koreans and North Koreans gazed curiously at one another. Many South Koreans on the bus, speechless at the sight of the poor conditions, waved to passersby, so were well-dressed but walked with uneasily straight backs, their eyes fixed dead to avoid our glances. Some simply turned their backs at the sight of the entourage, standing still until the buses disappeared. But occasionally, we saw, hidden behind curtains with broken windows and ruined buildings, curious locals, most often children, watching as we passed by.
"We live so close but how could it be so different? It's another world, here. No buildings, no electricity, no cars. Everything looks so depressed here. We are one nation, so we must help them," said Kim Gyung-Tae whose hometown is close to Gaesong.
But a gaping generational divide exists among the South Koreans. "The younger generation did not experience the Korean War, so they are more rational," said Shim's son, Sun-Il. Although reunification has long been a goal of all Koreans, North Korea's isolation and its nuclear threat to the global community led its rich southern citizens to rethink the costs and consequences involved.
Ideologies or economics aside, Shim says his last wish has now come true. "See that tree? It's the same as I remembered," he shouted in excitement. "This is where I used to tumble and play with my brothers. At that time, it was all grass." Shim's daughter said she is surprised because her father did not talk about his childhood in the north. It was an unspoken rule in the household not to bring back the deepest sense of longing for a family lost 56 years ago.
She believes her father never allowed himself to mourn his past; when he arrived in South Korea, he was forced to fight for his survival. As North Korean minders pushed the crowd to get back in the bus, Shim resolutely lined up his family members, facing the spot where his house once was.
"Kids, wish your ancestors well," Shim commanded as he bowed at the knees twice, an infrequent Korean custom that honors the deceased. While his 6-year old grandson whined over orders to kneel on the ground, Shim fought back tears. "Leave me alone. I don't want to cry."