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Story Of Forbidden Love: North Koreans Rarely Marry Foreigners


Next we have a love story in Vietnam. We do not mean a love story between the presidents meeting there today, although it is true that President Trump has said of North Korea's Kim Jong Un, quote, "we fell in love." This story involves a different couple in Hanoi, a boy from Vietnam and a girl from North Korea, whose love was forbidden by authorities for decades. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Ri Yong Hui is stalling. She doesn't want to talk and busies herself first with the dishes, then putters around the couple's modest Soviet-era apartment in Hanoi, looking for things to tidy up. But when she finally sits down and describes her first meeting with Pham Ngoc Canh, her face lights up. She's almost giddy.

RI YONG HUI: (Through interpreter) It was love at first sight for me. I fell for him immediately.

SULLIVAN: Pham Ngoc Canh was smitten too when he first saw her at the fertilizer factory near the North Korean coast, where he was interning in the early '70s.

PHAM NGOC CANH: (Through interpreter) I was standing, working on the manufacturing line, and I saw her working in the lab. I said to myself, I'm going to make her my wife.

SULLIVAN: Canh snuck into the lab one day and asked her if she had a boyfriend. She said no. He asked her if he could visit her at home. She said yes. But he had to be very careful.

PHAM: (Through interpreter) I had to take seven buses to get there, and then I had to walk about three kilometers from the last bus station to her house.

SULLIVAN: He visited her as often as he could for the next year or so, furtive trips that always ran the risk of her being punished by the authorities if they were caught.

RI: (Through interpreter) They didn't allow it, yes, but I wasn't strong enough to resist Canh. I knew I should stop loving him, but I couldn't.

SULLIVAN: Several months later, he had to return to Vietnam.

PHAM: (Through interpreter) Kill me, she said. But I told her we loved each other. I told her I would try my best to find opportunities to come back to her as soon as possible.

SULLIVAN: And he did try, wrangling invitations to be part of visiting delegations to North Korea. They sent letters too, surreptitiously.

RI: (Through interpreter) Of course I had my doubts. But I started this love being fully aware it would be difficult, even from the beginning.

SULLIVAN: She was distracted in part, she says, by the daily struggle of just staying alive in North Korea in the 1990s - a time of famine that took many lives, including her mother. But all the while, back in Hanoi, Canh was still scheming.

PHAM: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "I had to build my personal credit with North Korea," he says. So he set up a Vietnam-North Korean friendship committee, raised money for a seven-ton donation of rice, and then in 2001, he made an audacious play. He used his father's connections at Vietnam's foreign ministry to deliver a letter pleading his case to the president, who was about to embark on a trip to North Korea.

PHAM: (Through interpreter) I think after I heard that the president raised this issue, I thought, that's it. I've done all that I can.

SULLIVAN: It was enough. In 2002, the couple were married in a brief ceremony in Pyongyang. She's now 70. He's 69. But as the couple sits on the sofa together, they look every bit as in love as they described being back in 1971, when they first met.

RI: (Laughter, speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: "I don't regret anything," she says, laughing. "If I hadn't met him, if I hadn't come here, I would have been dead long before now. But I feel sorry for him because he waited so long for me," she says, "we couldn't have any children."

PHAM: (Speaking Vietnamese).

SULLIVAN: "No regrets," he says, smiling. "I still feel the same now as I did then. And," he says, "I was able to take on a country with nuclear weapons and get it to change its mind." He hopes President Trump and Kim Jong Un are open to change too. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Hanoi.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S "HILLS ARE FLOATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.