Love Across Borders

Have you ever fallen in love? Not the kind where you want to be with someone every minute of the day, but the kind where you would wait for that person every minute of the day. Perhaps, people experience these feelings more often as they move farther apart chasing after dreams or journeying in search of themselves in the transnational world we inhabit. But Pham Ngoc Canh, a man from Vietnam, had fallen in love with a woman he had met when he had studied chemistry as a university student. As Mr. Canh reminisces about his sweetheart, he recalls that he first caught a glimpse of her through a laboratory door. Even in that moment, he had wished to marry her, but something beyond his control kept them from being together for thirty years.


In 1971, Mr. Canh had traveled to North Korea to study. Although there had been no formal establishment of cultural exchange between North Korea and Vietnam and no Korean language institute in the former North Vietnam at the time, many young students from North Vietnam, like Mr. Canh, had been traveling to study in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea as early as the late 1960s. In Hamhung, Mr. Canh had met the woman he hoped to marry, Ri Yong-hui. However, his stay in North Korea was only temporary. Mr. Canh returned to Vietnam in 1973. Nevertheless, their relationship did not end after he had left North Korea; on the contrary, he kept up a correspondence, writing letters to her in Korean for the thirty years after they had been parted. Over the years, Mr. Canh worked as a translator for athletic teams. His job enabled him to visit North Korea a few times. However, when he went in search of Ms. Ri Yong-hui, some had told him that she had either married or died. Nevertheless, Mr. Canh remained steadfast, refusing to accept the stories that he had heard from other people because Ms. Ri Yong-hui had described their love as “forever young” in her latest letter to him in 1992.

Unfortunately, the North Korean regime had not supported Mr. Canh’s hopes to marry Ms. Ri. Therefore, unsure of what other measures he needed to take in order to reunite with Ms. Ri, Mr. Canh gathered the forty love letters he had collected over twenty years and brought them to the North Korean embassy in Vietnam. Moreover, he did not only approach the North Korean embassy appealing for the sake of his own romantic interests, but also went into the embassy campaigning for the unification of the Korean peninsula. Perhaps there are others like Mr. Canh who have fallen in love with someone in North Korea, but had no way to stay with them. There are definitely others of Korean heritage who have similarly waited for the day they could reunite with their loved ones in North Korea. Perhaps Mr. Canh appealed to the North Korean embassy with all of those people in mind. Unification is not an issue that concerns the Korean peninsula alone, it shapes the lives of many – South Koreans, Korean-Japanese, Korean-Chinese, Korean-Russians, Korean-Americans, temporary visitors who have fallen hopelessly in love.

Fortunately for Mr. Canh and Ms. Ri Yong-hui, the Vietnamese political delegation made a visit to Pyongyang in 2001. He repeated his appeal to Vietnam’s president and foreign minister, hoping that this final effort would unite him and his love in North Korea. After waiting for thirty years, Mr. Canh finally received the response that he had been hoping for all those years. The North Korean regime had given Mr. Canh permission to marry Ms. Ri Yong-hui. After meeting Ms. Ri Yong-hui in Pyongyang and returning to Vietnam together, Mr. Canh married his sweetheart in Hanoi the following year, 2002. Having heard the story of their romance, hundreds attended Mr. Canh and Ms. Ri’s wedding where they were brought to tears witnessing the two finally have their chance to be together.

Now they live a simple life in Hanoi. So, if you ever find yourself in love with someone and something beyond your control tears you apart from that person, think about Mr. Canh and Ms. Ri. Perhaps with time and persistence you will have the fortune to reunite as they did. If the still enigmatic North Korean regime could let down its barriers for the sake of love, perhaps you may also overcome the barriers that keep you from someone you cherish be it pride, prejudice, tradition, religion, culture, or fear. Perhaps, as in this case, even when it crosses boundaries, love is written…

For the original article, more photographs, and original photograph source, please refer to the BBC News Asia webpage.

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