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North Korea allows a separated couple to reunite after 47 years

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Aug 05,2008
Hong Ok-geun, 74, left, and Renate Hong, 71, right. Courtesy of Renate Hong

JENA, Germany - After 47 years of tragic separation, Renate Hong, a German woman who married a North Korean scientist during his study abroad in 1960, has traveled to Pyongyang to realize her lifetime wish for a reunion, her family, friends and diplomatic sources told the JoongAng Ilbo.

It is the first time that North Korea’s reclusive regime allowed a foreigner to enter the country on a private trip for a family reunion.

According to the Hong family and diplomatic sources in Germany, Renate Hong, 71, and her two sons arrived at Pyongyang on July 25.

The family left Frankfurt on July 24 and traveled to Pyongyang via Beijing, they said.

Renate Hong, originally from East Germany, married the North Korean chemist Hong Ok-geun in 1960.

She came to South Korea last year to seek Seoul’s support in her search for her long-lost husband.

The two were separated in 1961 when North Korea ordered all of its students abroad to return home.

“I’m so excited. No words can express this feeling,” Renate Hong told the JoongAng Ilbo on her way to the airport on July 23. The family’s trip was uncertain until the last minute because their visas were not issued until the eve of their departure.

“Today, my dream is finally realized,” she said.

“It really feels strange to think that I will see my father for the first time in my life,” said Peter Hong, the first son of the couple. “I cannot imagine what my father looks like now. I will probably be speechless when I see him.”

“This visit was arranged at the North Korean Red Cross’s invitation,” a friend of Renate Hong said. “She would celebrate her birthday on July 27 in North Korea, and I believe she will meet with her husband in Pyongyang.”

While Renate Hong waited for her husband, Hong Ok-geun, 74, remarried and has been living with his North Korean family in Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province. After decades of separation, the couple was able to exchange letters last year with the help of German authorities.

The JoongAng Ilbo obtained copies of the letters in August last year, but withheld reporting about them until the couple’s reunion due to the sensitive nature of the event.

Renate Hong sent her first letter to her husband in the North in March of last year and received the first reply on July 27 last year. It was her 70th birthday.

She said it was the first time in 44 years that she had heard from Hong Ok-geun since her last letter came back with an “address unknown” stamp. Since then, the North Korean scientist has sent four letters to Renate Hong.

“When I received the first letter, my heart stopped beating,” Renate Hong said. “I hurriedly opened it and saw the familiar handwriting of my husband. I could not hold back tears. It felt like the sorrow, deep inside my heart, just exploded.”

In his first two-page letter to Renate Hong, written in German, Hong Ok-geun wrote “I was really touched when I received your letter. I had hoped that you would be my companion for life.”

The North Korean husband said East Germany had stopped his wife from leaving the country to go to North Korea. “Politics sometimes makes a foolish error,” he wrote.

A diplomatic source in Germany said the German Foreign Ministry and the country’s national Red Cross Society have engaged in active diplomatic efforts to arrange the family reunion after the love story of the couple was made public.

North Korea informed Germany January last year that Hong Ok-geun was alive in Hamheung, but did not accept Berlin’s request for a reunion. The German government continued its diplomatic efforts to arrange the visit since then, and the international community’s attention to the story contributed in Renate Hong’s trip to Pyongyang. Many international leaders including Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general; Kim Dae-jung, former South Korean president; and Richard von Weizsacker, former German president, urged North Korea to allow the reunion.

“It is beyond our imagination that North Korea allowed the family reunion to take place in Pyongyang,” a Red Cross official said. “We really look forward to see how this trip will affect the issues related to separated family reunions in the future.”


By Ryu Kwon-Ha JoongAng Ilbo/ Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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