This couple shared their symbolic engagement photos to show that their love transcends the political boundaries and physical barriers of North and South Korea.
In 1999, Joseph, formerly known as Chui, fled to China after escaping North Korea. He sought asylum in South Korea in 2003 and decided to make a new life for himself in Seoul.
While settling in to his new surroundings, Joseph converted to Christianity and opened a chain of cafes, where he employed other North Koreans. Soon after, he fell in love with a South Korean woman.
“When I met Juyeon’s gaze in the corridors of the bank, I thought God put her in my way,” he said.
It appeared to be love at first sight, but Juyeon explained that a union between a South Korean woman and North Korean man was frowned upon. Her friends tried to persuade her to find a nice South Korean man to marry, but her love was unwavering.
“They said, ‘There are so many interesting South Korean men, why date a North Korean one?'” Juyeon recalled. “I answered that I loved him, I wanted to build a family and have three children with him. I did not give up.”
Still, the stigma of marriages between North and South Koreans exists. In 2014, a poll by match-making firm Bien-Aller showed that 84% of South Korean women felt “somewhat negative” on the idea of marrying a North Korean man. On the contrary, 69% of South Korean men felt “somewhat positive” on the question of marrying a North Korean woman.
Their engagement photographer, Eric Lafforgue, commented on the judgmental views that others have of North and South Koreans dating. He said:
“It is acceptable for South Korean men to marry North Korean women in an emotional distress — dating agencies abound in this niche — but a South Korean girl who flirts with a North Korean defector? That’s a whole other story in this very conservative society.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, there is a demand for match-making services between North Korean women and South Korean men. By 2014, more than 26,000 North Korean refugees who have settled in South Korea were women who sought South Korean husbands to help with adjustment to life in the South as well as companionship.
In honor of their love, the pair decided to have their engagement photos taken at Imjingak Peace Park, which is located on the border of North and South Korea. It was Juyeon’s first time seeing North Korea.
The couple also added a symbolic colored ribbon to the thousands that are hanging on the barbed wires. Despite the tensions and animosity, people still have hope for peace and reunification of the two countries.
Joseph believes there is a great misunderstanding, however, as he sees his former home from the opposite side of the fence, he said:
“Don’t forget that only one percent of the population do politics in North Korea. Ninety-nine percent lead normal lives, work, have a family, a proper culture. North Korea isn’t just a nuclear threat and a political leader, the country hosts 25 million human beings!”
Thinking back on his time in North Korea, Joseph recounted a chance encounter he had with the outside world. It so happened that a train full of recycling waste had stopped in his village and he managed to salvage a half destroyed audio tape from it.
“I patiently glued the strips, then I feverishly introduced the tape in the player. Some heavy metal music came out! I was horrified by the howling foreign music and threw the tape immediately in the fire.”
When he left North Korea, he brought with him two family photos as his mother chose to stay back in the village. He says that he wants to record a video to remember this special moment and to introduce his wife to his mother.
“I know she will see the video when the two Koreas are reunified. She will never leave the North, as my father, who died of cirrhosis, is buried in her village.”
Joseph is waiting for the day when there will be peace between the two Koreas. His mission now is to launch projects that will help North Korean defectors, like himself, adjust to life in South Korea and find sustainable employment.