Han Ham-youn vividly remembers the day in December 1950 when his family broke apart.
China had entered the Korean War, and as its forces stormed south, refugees were boarding ships at the Heungnam port in North Korea. There wasn't much room, and priority was being given to soldiers and war supplies. Han, being fit, single and 17 years old, was placed on a boat and headed to a new life in South Korea, leaving his parents behind.
"That was the last time I saw them," he said, breaking into tears.
There are tens of thousands of people like Han in South Korea, who haven't heard a word about their families for 55 years. There are no mail, phone or e-mail connections across the world's last Cold War frontier. Han assumes his parents are dead, but wonders about the fate of other relatives.
Things were supposed to change after the historic summit of June 15, 2000, between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the then South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung. An agreement was struck that led to brief reunions of nearly 10,000 separated relatives, and the deeply emotional encounters encouraged the world to imagine that after 50 years of hair-trigger tensions, the two countries had finally turned a corner.
time running out
But there have been no further summits, the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions is worsening, and the reunions are now on hold -- the last held 11 months ago. Of the 120,000 people in South Korea who seek to be reunited with relatives in the North, most are elderly and time is running out.
"We still get calls from separated families asking when the next reunion is, but the reunion issue is stalled at the moment," said Choi Young-woon, an official dealing with the separated families issue at the South Korean Red Cross.
In November, the Red Cross societies of the two sides met at a North Korean mountain resort and agreed to study opening a permanent reunion center there. But just a day before work was to start in December, North Korea said it was shelving the plan indefinitely.
At talks in May -- the first inter-Korean contact in 10 months -- the resumption of family reunions took a back seat to North Korea's dire food shortage and efforts to lure it back into nuclear disarmament talks.
Now South Korea's Unification Ministry and Red Cross are launching a project to film messages from families here and put them on the Internet. But Web access is tightly controlled in North Korea and personal computers are few.
Han, now 72, is planning to sign up for the project along with his elder brother, Kyeong-hak, 83, who escaped by a separate route in the war. The Han brothers built successful lives in South Korea. Now both retired, Ham-youn was a university professor and Kyeong-hak ran a trucking company. They still hope to be reunited with their younger brother and other relatives.
"What sin did I commit to live like this, separated from my family, never to see them?" Han Kyeong-hak asked, also breaking into tears.
His daughter-in-law, Kim In-sook, 49, said emotions are especially raw on special occasions, when he has no parents to visit.
"I feel his emptiness," she said.
Han Ham-youn said that when the summit took place "we were really excited. But now, we don't want to get our hopes high, because that means the disappointment will be bigger."