It so happens that on Sunday I met Nikola in person, for the first time, in Seoul, and spent much of the day with him and others at an event. Despite never having seen his picture, I knew it was him from the moment he said his name and his country, recalling the blog (Nimedi.blogspot.com), which is still listed in my browser's bookmarks, buried somewhere down there. I told him I'd been his reader. He was surprised. He said, "Why didn't you ever leave a comment?" I replied that German was not my native language, which was pretty inadequate as an answer. He is very close to me in age, perhaps the same age. Nikola is now working at some kind of Green Energy thing. I didn't get the details on his job. He co-runs another blog called Kojects I've also occasionally read, but said his boss is pressuring him to end his Kojects website project. I asked him about TOPIK. He said he'd got Level 6. He said he still feels he is always learning. (I got a Level 4 and have a hard time with the evening news.)
I spoke a minimal amount of German to Nikola, but everyone in the group spoke English to each other and I was happy to do so. In fact, despite his considerable language skills (Croatian, German, Korean all fluent, English is his fourth-best language [I presume]), the language of business at the office, he told me, is....yes, English.
There were several Canadians and a couple of other Germans in the group, one of whom had spent some time in North Korea as a German-Korean translator on official business (I didn't get the details), which greatly impressed me. I had invited two people, Jared, my longest-running friend in Korea from whom I learned much of what knew about Korea in the early days; and J.E., an impressive Korean friend with degrees from the California and Cambridge and who has lived abroad a long while. The main figure of the gathering was an editor for the Korea Times, a White Canadian in his late 30s. (He told me there are four foreign native-English-speaker editors who clean up the Korean reporters' grammar in their original reporting. I think his other general task is to serve as a liaison to the actual living, breathing, English-speaking community in Korea the Korea Times ostensibly serves (though in fact the direct readership is likely to be mainly Koreans).
Towards the end of the day, what was left of the group was: The Canadian Korea Times guy, Nikola, the older German man who'd been north as a translator, my friend J.E. whom I had also invited, and a Polish-Canadian young woman who worked for curriculum development for a hagwon chain -- were drinking magkeolli rice wine [막걸리] at some place I'd never seen before in Jongro, the old heart of Seoul. I am not an advocate of alcohol, but I recognize its purpose in alcohol cultures, of which most European cultures definitely are: When the alcohol is out, it is the Germans' time to shine. That's the way it is. They told great stories and had fantastic insights on things. The man who had been in North Korea commented something worth putting down here. He said that the differences between North and South have been greatly exaggerated. He had a few examples from his experience.
At another point over the rice wine, the Germans brought up and commented on the story of Renate Hong, an East German woman. I'd never heard the story before. I'll let Nikola tell the rest of the story, by way of my translation of his post on this subject, from 2013:
By Nikola [original German] / January 2nd, 2013
Translated into English by Me / March 2016
Yesterday on Korean television, I saw a rather romantic and tragic story which relates to Germany and North Korea. As a student, Renate fell in love with a North Korean who had been sent to Jena in the German Democratic Republic [East Germany]. They got married and had two sons. The children were even given Korean names in case the family wanted, in the future, to go to North Korea. Then, the husband was ordered back, leaving Renate alone with the children there, without any contact and without the possibility of traveling to North Korea to see her husband. Her story has become known worldwide and there is a documentary in English with the title, "I Hope to See You Again," which can be seen at Myvideo.
There was also an article in Spiegel from 2007, in FAZ, and in Deutsche Welle. In the last article, the severity of the summons back home and the consequences for Renate's love are illustrated:
350 students and graduates had to leave overnight. Renate's love was one of them. He had to leave his five-months-pregnant wife and his small son. Renate Hong and another friend pleaded with the Foreign Office for help -- without success. The answer was: "There is nothing we can do. There are diplomatic implications." Renate Hong found out, eventually, that her husband had been sent to the chemical factory at Hamhung [North Korea]. For three years, Hong Ok Guen sent her letters and tried find a way to be reunited with her and the children. Then, total silence.
After 46 years, in 2007, she received a letter from him, and in 2008 she visited North Korea with her two sons. There, she did, in fact, meet her husband, who had since remarried, and the two sons met their half-sister for the first time. A family photo of the reunited can be seen here [below]. The documentary I saw was very up-to-date; it had scenes from last September: In 2012, the husband wrote that his health was not good and that he would love to see Renate and his sons one more time. Before the preparations could be finalized, another letter arrived from the North. It wasn't from the husband but from the Red Cross. Unfortunately, he had died. Renate and her sons went on with the trip anyway and she visited the grave of her spouse. By this point, my girlfriend, her mother, and I were all teary-eyed. It was very moving. Her story represents the stories of those many relationships not originating in political systems and ideologies but, rather, destroyed by them.
[Original in German]