SEOUL—More than half a century after she met and fell in love with her North Korean husband, an elderly Romanian woman is hoping to be reunited with him before she dies, following four decades of enforced separation by authorities in the isolated Stalinist state.
Georgeta Mircioiu, 75, met Cho Jeong Ho in 1952 when he was in Romania on an educational assignment to take care of thousands of North Korean war orphans billeted there.
“We waited for five years to have our marriage approved by the North Korean authorities. One of the conditions they put forward was that the wife should follow the husband, and consequently we went to North Korea together.”
“We never considered not going to North Korea, as we were hoping that those conditions might be relaxed after a few years, but obviously that was not the case.”
I lived a happy life in Pyongyang, by my husband’s side.
She remembers: “My husband was an honest man, working with great devotion for the children entrusted to his care. He never rested, he even volunteered his time during the breaks, playing sports and spending time with the children.”
“On Saturdays, we used to go to a dance together, enjoying some sweet treats and having a wonderful time. One day, he told me that he wanted to introduce me to his parents, and he wrote me a letter asking for my hand,” she told RFA’s Korean service in 2005.
The two fell passionately in love, but for five years their application for a marriage certificate was approved by neither the Romanian, nor the North Korean authorities, as the two countries didn’t encourage their citizens to make international marriages.
After a five-year wait, both governments gave the go-ahead, and they were married on April 12, 1957, in Bucharest.
Later, they moved to Pyongyang, their daughter Cho Miran was born. For awhile, Mircioiu said, they enjoyed the serenity of a tranquil married life.
“I lived a happy life in Pyongyang, by my husband’s side. The people I knew were very affable. Nevertheless, strangers I met in the street appeared suspicious of me, because I was a foreigner. Another difficult aspect was that my daughter and I were given almost no food rations at all,” she recalled.
In 1962, Mircioiu took the couple’s one-and-a-half-year-old daughter back to Romania for treatment for severe calcium deficiency, inadvertently beginning the couple’s long separation and Cho’s ordeal in a labor camp for being associated with a foreigner.
She was refused a visa to return to North Korea repeatedly by consular officials in Romania, who told her at different times that Cho was dead, missing, or “needed by North Korea.”
The two managed to maintain correspondence until 1966, when she received the last letter from her husband.
In his last letter, he told her that he had been assigned as a teacher in a school outside Pyongyang, and that he was later sent to work in a coal mine. In his letter, he said he was working in a coal mine because that was where the Workers’ Party and fatherland needed him.
But Mircioiu felt she knew the true reason for his misery, and felt terribly guilty that he had ended up doing hard labor in a coal mine just because he was married to her.
“For a while, I exchanged letters with my husband through his brother, who was a professor of engineering in the South Hamgyong Province. However, once the letters from my husband stopped coming, my letters were also returned,” she told reporter Sookyung Lee.
“In his last letter, my husband said that it was his duty to reunite our family. He thought that if he did his best working in the coal mine our family would one day be able to meet again. He said that was his wish and his duty.”
“I believed in him, and I believed what he said, and 45 years later I am still waiting for him.”
Mircioiu isn’t alone among her countrywomen in having married into North Korea. Last year, a Romanian newspaper claimed to have identified a Romanian woman, kidnapped in 1978, who married the U.S. Army deserter James Dresnok—reportedly the last U.S. defector still living in North Korea.
In its March 20 issue, the Bucharest-based Evenimentul Zilei reported that the late Doina Bumbea, a Romanian sculptor and painter born in 1950, was abducted in 1978 from Italy to North Korea.
There, she married an American soldier who had deserted his unit by fleeing across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea.
In his Japanese-language memoir To Tell the Truth , another American defector, Charles Jenkins, describes a woman named Doina, a Romanian abductee, who died of cancer in January 1997.
Bumbea’s younger brother Gabriel travelled to Japan in April to meet Jenkins and hear stories of his sister and nephew and their lives in the self-described Workers’ Paradise.
“Charles Jenkins and his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, knew many personal things about my sister because they practically lived together with her and her husband, James Dresnok. While watching a CBS documentary, I saw James Dresnok’s son, Gabriel Dresnok, realized the resemblance with my sister, and was in total shock, and I immediately sensed that he was my nephew.”
Bumbea said he would like to meet his two nephews in North Korea, urging that the North Korean authorities grant him approval to visit them:
“The reason why I have visited Japan is that I want to put some pressure on the North Korean authorities to allow me to visit my two nephews. I am really keen on seeing that dream come true.”
Bumbea has repeatedly requested the Romanian authorities to help him meet his nephews in North Korea, but according to him the government has been absorbed in internal political disputes, and has shown little interest in his problem.
The meeting between Bumbea and Charles Jenkins was also attended by Nishioka Tsutomu, vice president of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea.
“According to Mr. Jenkins, Doina Bumbea had been struggling with lung cancer, and was hospitalized for 40 days before she requested, in January 1997, to be taken home, as that was where she wanted to die. Eventually, she passed away in her own home,” he told RFA.
Gabriel Bumbea has also pledged to do what he can to help reunite Japanese families with long-lost relatives abducted by North Korea.
As for Georgeta Mircioiu, she knows she has a fellow sufferer in Germany, in the person of Renate Hong, 70.
Hong travelled to South Korea in August to win support for a reunion with her North Korean husband Hong Ok Geun, who has been reported to still be alive by the German Red Cross.
She delivered a petition to President Roh Moo Hyun, asking him to raise her case—and those of other German women longing for word about their North Korean husbands—when he meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Oct. 2.
An unknown number of Japanese and South Koreans have been abducted by agents of the North Korean government since the end of the Korean War (1950-53).
Most of the kidnappings of Japanese were clustered in the period between 1977-83. The Japanese government recognizes 16 abductees, eight men and eight women, although unofficial reports say as many as 70 or 80 people may have been taken.
The North Korean government has officially admitted kidnapping 13 citizens.
And in South Korea, government figures claim that 486 of its nationals have been abducted by North Korea since the end of the war, most of them captured while fishing near border areas. The government has been accused of neglecting the issue of abductees.
Original reporting in Korean by Sookyung Lee, Sungwon Yang, Naeri Kim and Grigore Scarlatoiu. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translation from Korean and Romanian by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.