Couple reunited in North Korea after 47 years
By Choe Sang-Hun
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
SEOUL: Among the handwritten Korean expressions she had kept in a dog-eared notebook, Renate Hong had repeated one particular entry countless times in the past half century: dasi bopsida - "Let's meet again."
It's a commonplace Korean expression. But for Renate, a 71-year-old German grandmother, it expressed a yearning never satisfied until July 25, when she met the North Korean man she married but had last seen 47 years ago.
"He asked me why I took so long to come to see him," Renate said in an interview through a translator, describing her reunion with Hong Ok Geun, 74.
Renate returned to Germany on Tuesday after a 12-day reunion with her long-lost husband in North Korea - a highly unusual episode given the Communist government's policy of keeping most of its people without mail or telephone links to the rest of the world, not to mention the Internet.
Traveling with Renate were their two sons. Peter Hyon Zol was 10 months old, and Renate was pregnant with Uwe, when the family broke up in the vortex of the Cold War.
Renate Kleinle and Hong Ok Geun met in 1955, when they attended the same freshman chemistry class at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, East Germany. Hong was a humorous exchange student from North Korea, then East Germany's Communist ally.
They fell in love. Because both governments frowned on marriages between North Korean students and East Germans, the couple married in 1960 in a rural town where the local authorities were unaware of the national government's policy. There were no guests.
The couple's happy time lasted only one year, however. In 1961, the Pyongyang government recalled all 350 of its students in East Germany, a measure believed prompted by a few North Korean students' defections to the West. Hong was given 48 hours to pack.
Holding 10-month-old Peter, Renate bid a tearful farewell to Hong at the Jena train station.
Their only communication was by letter. But even that was stopped. In his last letter from North Korea, dated Feb. 26, 1963, Hong asked whether Uwe, the son he had never seen, could walk. After that, Renate's letters were returned as undeliverable. Her appeals to the North Korean Embassy to be reunited with her husband were dismissed.
Renate never remarried.
When Renate's tragic love story reached South Korea last year, it resonated with many on this divided peninsula, where thousands of aging people long to meet their spouses in the North before they die.
Renate visited South Korea last year on a trip sponsored by the local JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
Meanwhile, Renate began appealing for help to the German government and Red Cross societies in Germany and South Korea. Early last year, the German Red Cross found out that Hong Ok Geun was a retired government scientist living with his new family in a town on the east coast of North Korea.
With the help of the German government, she sent a letter to Hong in March last year. Four months later, on her July 27 birthday, Hong's letter was delivered to her, the first word from him in 46 years, with photos enclosed.
"Our international love brought us much pain," Hong wrote in the handwritten German that Renate could still recognize. "I dearly wanted to see you and my sons. I never gave up hopes that if I lived long, one day I would be able to see you again.
"I had wanted you to be my life partner," he wrote. "But politics do stupid things."
Faithfully following a Communist Party line, Hong added that he and other North Koreans were suffering economic hardship because of the Americans' policy of "stifling" North Korea.
On her trip, she brought Hong books, clothes, vitamins and a camera.
Her husband gave her a ring and a shirt. They could see each other every day while she was in Pyongyang - and even had an overnight outing to a mountain resort - though they stayed in different places.
"Because he didn't have a chance to speak German for 47 years, he first found it difficult to understand me. But he quickly recovered his language skill," Renate said. "He was an old man now but I saw no change in his manners and the way he spoke. We had private time just between two of us."
Hong had one daughter and two sons with his North Korean wife. The daughter joined the reunion. Hong's North Korean wife wanted to meet Renate but could not join the reunion because of an illness, Renate was told.
When the couple parted, Hong said he wanted to see her again next year, but it remained unclear whether North Korea would allow a second reunion.
For now, Renate said, her long-held dream has come true: meeting her husband and letting her two sons meet their father. She brought along albums of photographs of her sons so her husband could catch up on the many years of their lives he had missed.
"My husband said he was sorry for leaving everything to me and thanked me for raising the two children," she said. "He said it was his great honor in his life to meet me."