Viet Nam News
by Xuân Thu
HÀ NỘI — One day in April 2002, Phạm Ngọc Cảnh wrote the ultimate love letter of his life.
But he did not write it to the love of his life.
Instead, he poured his heart out to then Foreign Minister Nguyễn Dy Niên, about to leave on an official visit to North Korea, as part of the entourage of the then President Trần Đức Lương.
He said in the letter that he had been in love with a North Korean woman for 31 years, and pleaded that the Foreign Minister intercede with the North Korean authorities on his behalf and allow him to marry her.
North Korea did not allow its citizens to marry foreigners then. It does not do so now.
Cảnh gave the letter to his father, a high ranking official in the Foreign Ministry, and asked him to give it to the Minister.
And for good measure, he had a friend, another senior official, deliver a similar letter to the President himself.
On May 5, when the Vietnamese delegation returned from their North Korean visit, Cảnh spoke to another friend, who was then the President’s interpreter.
His friend told him that both President Lương and Minister Niên had mentioned his case, and the DPRK Government had said they would consider the case and provide the response later.
Four months later, on September 4, Cảnh got a message from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry that the DPRK authorities had agreed to let Cảnh get married to Ri Yong Hui, and that she was free to choose where to live.
After 31 years of not knowing if he would ever be able to reunite with his love, Canh could bring her home as his bride.
Cảnh and Ri’s wedding was also held in Việt Nam in December 2012. — Photo Courtesy of Phạm Ngọc Cảnh
The odds were always slim
In 1967, Cảnh was among the 200 Vietnamese students sent to North Korea to study and help rebuild the country after the American War ended.
In 1971, when he was working as an intern at a fertilizer factory, Cảnh met Ri. She was working as a lab technician in the factory.
“She looked so gentle and graceful and I thought to myself: I wish I could marry her,” Cảnh said.
Besotted, he went to great lengths to increase the chances of contacting her.
“When I saw that she might have to walk out of the lab to take something, I pretended to be walking from the oppposite direction just to see her in the hallway and give her a nod as a hello,” he said.
After a while, Cảnh sent Ri a letter, confessing his love.
Luckily, Ri reciprocated his affection, even though the odds were high that they would never be able to pursue their affair and get married.
“Love just comes naturally for young people, even though I knew I shouldn’t love this person, I could not suppress the feeling,” Ri spoke in Korean, sitting in the couple’s apartment in Hà Nội.
Their affair flourished for two years despite the extreme difficulties involved. For two years, Cảnh traveled every month to Ri’s house in disguise, a journey of three hours by bus and 2km by walk.
In 1973, Cảnh had to return to Việt Nam.
It broke Ri’s heart, but she’d known it would happen from the very first day.
“When I started, I always knew that it would be difficult and full of struggle and sadness,” she said, adding that she was sure that things would never work out after the separation.
But Cảnh did not give up. He kept writing her letters, telling her that “love knows no boundary”.
In 1978, they had a chance to see each other again, when Cảnh was on a business trip with his chemical engineering institute to North Korea. But the three months he was there passed very quickly and they had to part again.
When he returned to Việt Nam, Cảnh asked to move to work at the Hà Nội Department of Sports, despite his engineering background, because North Korean experts were invited to teach Taekwondo there, and it gave him the hope that he could contact Ri in some way.
In 1991, Cảnh initiated the establishment of a Việt Nam-North Korea Friendship Club to connect people who had studied in North Korea.
A year later, more than 20 years after he had first met and fallen in love with Ri, Cảnh had a chance to go on a trip to North Korea as a translator for a sports delegation from Việt Nam, but he was not able to meet her.
Upon his return after the trip, he got a letter from her saying she still loved him, and it kept him going.
In 1997, he learnt that a Vietnamese team would go to North Korea to deliver some food aid. Cảnh immediately contacted his friends in the Việt Nam-North Korea Friendship Club and solicited their support in raising donations.
He raised VNĐ14.2 million (US$617), and gave it to the North Korean embassy.
The same year, Cảnh tried sending a letter with his story to the then Foreign Minister Nguyễn Mạnh Cầm when the latter visited North Korea. The minister agreed to help him, but things didn’t work out.
Five years later, luck finally smiled on the couple.
Phạm Ngọc Cảnh and Ri Yong Hui when they were still young, in North Korea. — Photo Courtesy of Phạm Ngọc Cảnh
Is this for real?
“I thought it was a dream,” Ri said, recalling the moment she heard she would be able to marry Cảnh and go to Việt Nam.
It was not a dream.
On October 20, 2002, after 31 years of hoping against hope, the couple got married in the Vietnamese embassy in Pyongyang. She was 55, he was 54.
The wedding was simple, more like a small party, with guests comprising the staff of the Vietnamese embassy and some officials from the DPRK Foreign Ministry and National Assembly Standing Committee. Dishes served were made with food that Cảnh had bought at the Beijing railway station.
“The wish to marry her was the wish of my whole life. I spent most of my youth trying to persuade a nation to allow me to fulfill my personal wish, because I believe love should not be forbidden,” Cảnh said.
Today, Cảnh and his wife hope that a better future awaits North Korea after the upcoming DPRK-US Summit that takes place in Hà Nội this week.
Ri said: “I hope that the US-North Korea relationship gets better and the US will lift sanctions and help North Korea so the country can develop.”
Reflecting on their incredible story, Cảnh said he just thought he was determined to follow his way.
“There are so many kinds of revolutionaries in this world – proletarian revolutionaries, socialist revolutionaries; I think I am a love revolutionary – willing to do everything for love.” — VNS