Separated by fiat, a German awaits North Korean spouse
JENA, Germany ― Renate Hong, a 69-year-old German woman, was crying over the last letter her husband sent her 43 years ago.
“Dear Renate, How are you? I wonder whether the children are doing well. I cannot write anymore. Today I just want you to know that I am alive. Take care. Ok-geun. February 26, 1963. From Korea,” the letter said.
▶ Hong Ok-geun and Renate Hong with their first son, Peter, in March 1961, one month before Mr. Hong returned to North Korea. Provided by Renate Hong
In a small apartment in this eastern German city, the North Korean’s wife looked back on her life for the past 45 years since she last saw her husband at a train station, preparing to leave for his communist homeland. Five months pregnant with her second son at the time, she thought her husband would soon return. But the reunion has been delayed for over 45 years.
“I will soon submit a petition to the North Korean Embassy in Germany to request a tourist visa or ask the government to allow my husband to visit here,” she said. “I should be able to pay the expenses, but if it is too much, I will ask for help from the German Red Cross,” continued Ms. Hong, who has kept the last name of her husband.
The two first met in 1955 in a chemistry class at Jena University, East Germany. Renate fell in love with Hong Ok-geun, a handsome and humorous 21-year-old student who courted the 18-year-old at a freshmen welcoming party with wonderful waltz steps. “He was so romantic and cheerful,” she sighed.
But no one celebrated the couple’s love. Her parents did not attend their daughter’s wedding to an Asian man. The two tied the knot in April 1960 in a lonely ceremony with no guests present.
The couple soon greeted their first son, Peter, and the next year, Renate was pregnant with her second son, Uwe. But their short married life together ended on April 15, 1961, when the North Korean authorities suddenly ordered students in East Germany to return.
North Korea had sent groups of students there from 1952 to 1954 to study chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering. Mr. Hong was one of the last group of students who arrived in Leipzig, East Germany, in September 1954. But as an increasing number of East German people crossed the boarder to West Germany and some North Korean students saw their chance to defect as well, the North Korean government recalled them all.
I know about 10 couples who had to separate because of the North Korean government’s order,” she said.
Renate did not leave as well because the two-week train trip would have been too much for a pregnant woman, she thought, and she also believed that the separation would be only temporary.
Ironically, the East German government began building the Berlin Wall, cutting off the easiest escape route to the West.
Mr. Hong sent his wife more than 50 letters in the first two years they were apart. But suddenly the letters stopped; hers were all returned.
She says she turned down several marriage proposals in the intervening years. Peter is now a dairy worker and Uwe is an engineer with a doctoral degree in chemistry, the subject his father studied in East Germany.
“My husband was the third of 10 children of a farmer. He was so healthy that he did not even catch a cold for six years while he lived in Germany,” said Renate. “My husband is alive and I believe that he will meet me and his two sons someday.”
by Ryu Kwon-ha