The founder of the Hyundai conglomerate, a self-made billionaire who left North Korea in 1933 at the age of 18 to seek his fortune, returned on June 16 driving 500 fattened cattle in 50 open trucks, an offering to help feed his famine-ravaged homeland. Another 500 cattle were expected in later weeks along with a donation of 50,000 tons of corn.
Chung Ju Yung, 83, led the convoy of cattle from his adopted country of South Korea across the demilitarized zone to become the first civilian to cross without a government escort over the heavily-guarded border between the two Koreas since World War II.
North Korea had refused humanitarian aid from the south even when in desperate need. Chung was raised the son of a poor farmer in what is now North Korea. His homecoming and donation, estimated to be worth over $10 million, is a “remarkable symbol of improving relations,” according to Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post Foreign Service.
“I sincerely hope that my visit to North Korea will not remain an isolated event, but will lay the cornerstone of reconciliation and peace between North and South,” Chung said before embarking on his eight-day visit.
The two countries, which both approved Chung’s plan, have been in a relationship of deep hostility until recently. The inauguration of Kim Dae Jung in February, 1998 has marked the initiation of Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” that calls for moderated efforts aimed toward constructive engagement and tolerance.
Many more business leaders are now allowed to pursue collaborations with the north. Some North Korean literature, music and video is being welcomed into the south for the first time alongside other exports.
Relations are improving already between their citizens, as illustrated by Sullivan’s reporting that, during the first cattle crossing, some of the drivers (wearing Hyundai coveralls) were nervous about setting foot in North Korea. But their nerves were calmed when their northern counterparts gave them each a gift bag containing bottles of liquor and cartons of cigarettes. Then, “It was a natural feeling to talk to them,” said driver Son Bu Ik. “They are just like us”!