A frail, elderly tycoon brought 500 head of cattle into hungry North Korea on Tuesday, crossing the world's most heavily guarded border on a mission to promote peace, pay back a debt to his dead father--and maybe do a little business on the side.
Chung Ju Yung, 82, founder of the giant Hyundai conglomerate and South Korea's richest man, shuffled into the North through Peace House, the long, squat border building where the truce was signed that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
As he emerged from the northern end of the building supported by family members, Chung was greeted by North Korean officials and bouquet-bearing women in long, flowing traditional gowns. "You are really, really welcome," one of the officials said.
Minutes earlier, 50 white Hyundai trucks loaded with 500 prime cows and bulls lumbered across the border, the first civilian vehicles to make the crossing since 1945.
Chung's visit, dubbed "Operation Rawhide," comes as the new government of President Kim Dae Jung is trying to open up its reclusive northern neighbor to the outside world. Seoul has already lifted virtually all restrictions on nongovernmental exchanges.
North Korea is suffering from a famine brought on by inefficient farming methods and three years of alternating drought and floods that destroyed large areas of farmland.
Sixty-five years ago at the age of 17, Chung sold one of his family's cows, stole the money and fled to the South.
He went into business and built Hyundai, South Korea's largest conglomerate. "I am now returning back to my hometown to pay back the debt owed to my father," Chung said in his statement.
Hyundai officials said he also planned to look into joint-venture investments made during his first trip to the North.
The cattle are part of an $8.5-million gift Chung offered in exchange for the visit.