How a Vietnamese Man and North Korean Woman’s Forbidden Love Waited 40 Years for Marriage
"In the end, love beat socialism."
About 48 years ago, Pham Ngoc Canh, a Vietnamese man who was sent to North Korea to study during the Vietnam War, met Ri Yong Hui, the woman he’d marry nearly four decades later.
Canh was one of 200 students that Vietnam sent to North Korea in 1967 to gain the skills needed for rebuilding the country once the war with the United States was over, according to Reuters.
Their love story began several years later after arriving in North Korea when Cahn, who was a chemical engineering apprentice at a fertilizer factory on North Korea’s east coast, spotted Ri working in a laboratory. It was love at first sight for both of them. “From the moment I saw him, I was so sad because I felt it would be a love that could never be realized,” Ri, who is 70 years old now, told Reuters.
Cahn was determined to marry Ri the moment he laid his eyes on her.“I thought to myself, ‘I must marry that girl,'” the 69-year-old Vietnamese man said. He recalled how he eventually managed to muster up the strength and courage to approach Ri and ask for her address.
“As soon as I saw him, I knew it was him,” Ri said of Cahn. “He looked so gorgeous. Until then, when I had seen so-called handsome guys I hadn’t felt anything, but when he opened the door, my heart just melted.”
Unfortunately, things did not end well for the both of them. At the time, Vietnamese and North Koreans were not allowed to date foreigners. But this strict rule did not stop them from being together.
Cahn, treading carefully after hearing a comrade had been beaten for being caught with a local girl, decided to dress up as a North Korean, travel for three hours on a bus and walk for two kilometers (1.2 miles) just to see Ri. He did this monthly until he went back to his home country in 1973.
“I went to her house secretly, just like a guerrilla,” he said.
“I just couldn’t agree with a socialism that stops people from loving each other,” Cahn, a son of a high-ranking cadre, said after he refused to join the Communist Party when he returned to Hanoi, Vietnam.
After five years, Cahn was again able to go back to North Korea when he asked to join a trip to the hermit nation in 1978. There, he finally met Ri once again, but the latter became more heartbroken with the thought that they might never see each other.
Cahn, desperate to be with Ri, brought a letter he had written in which he’d beg North Korean leadership for permission to marry her. However, he decided to not send the letter and asked Ri to wait for him.
“When she saw the letter, she asked: ‘Comrade, do you intend to persuade my government?” Cahn said.
Unfortunately, things ended up disastrous. Later that same year, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, which triggered a border war with China. However, North Korea took Beijing’s side in the war, preventing them from writing to each other.
Ri was so devastated that even her mother noticed she missed him so much. “My mother was crying while caring for me,” she said. “I think she knew that I was lovesick.”
Years after the war, Cahn went back to North Korea as a translator for a Vietnamese sporting delegation, but he was not able to meet up with Ri. However, upon returning back to Hanoi, he found that she had sent him a letter letting him know that she was still in love with him.
Then in the late 1990s, when North Korea was hit by a devastating famine, Cahn decided to pull through donations from friends and raise seven tons of rice to donate to the hermit country when Vietnam, which had undertaken major economic and political reforms and started to engage with the west, refused to give them aid.
Luckily, the North Koreans heard of his act of generosity and finally agreed for the both of them to meet. More importantly, the North Korean regime agreed for them to marry and live in another country, as long as Ri maintained her North Korean citizenship.
Both Ri and Cahn were able to get married in 2002 in the Vietnamese embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea, and they lived their lives together in an apartment in Hanoi where they still live now.