The eyes of the protagonists in Sung-Hyung Cho’s “Loved, Engaged, Lost” reveal that their roots do not lie in the former German Democratic Republic, at least not entirely. They grew up with their mothers in the ex-Communist nation, but their fathers come from North Korea.
The men were sent to East Germany by the North Korean government during the 1950s – some of them during the Korean War – to attend university and later use their knowledge to re-build their war-torn nation.
During their stay, however, some of the men entered relationships with East German women. But the children born out of these relations did not see their fathers for long, as the men were ordered to return to their homeland in the 1960s, resulting in a break-up of the families.
A documentary film made by Sung-Hyung Cho, which premiered in Germany on June 25, tells the stories of these families and takes a look at their lives. Although there is no precise figure on the number of families affected, the director is aware of 18 such cases. In a DW interview, Sung-Hyung Cho talks about the idea behind the film and her experiences in making it.
Sung-Hyung: ‘It wasn’t easy at first to win over the support of the protagonists’
DW: What was the idea behind the film?
Sung-Hyung Cho: The story of Renate Hong was very popular in South Korea. In 2006, her story became the talk of the town after a South Korean historian – who had conducted some research in Jena about the relationship between North Korea and East Germany – met Renate Hong by chance.
She narrated her story, and he propagated it on the Internet. The response was overwhelming. The Koreans were blown away by the sad but beautiful love story.
Most Koreans, myself included, know the story. Moreover, I was greatly interested in knowing and better understanding former East Germany. I also wanted to know more about North Korea, even if only indirectly.
How did you manage to find the films’ protagonists?
It wasn’t easy at first to win over the support of the protagonists, especially given that this is both a painful subject and an unsolved issue for most of them. It was especially hard for them to reminisce about their past relationships.
As a result, many didn’t want to be reminded of it, let lone talk about it. In addition, they were cautious and distrustful of the media.
However, the fact that I’ve been regularly attending the meetings of these German-Korean families helped me in terms of slowly earning their trust. A couple of years later, they probably asked themselves when this Korean woman would finally shoot the film about them.
Do you know of stories in which children got to meet their fathers and their love for each other stood the test of time?
The Hong family eventually managed to track down the father. Renate and her sons ultimately traveled to North Korea for what turned out to be a very emotional, touching but also peculiar reunion following so many years of separation.
In your view, how do these children, who are now grown-ups, feel about their North Korean fathers?
Just like anywhere else, this depends on the child. What they all have in common is a longing to get to meet their respective fathers or at least learn something about their lives. They are very curious, asking themselves who the man is, what he has achieved and whether he is even alive. But tracking these men down is often extremely difficult.
How do the women mostly remember their former partners?
In different ways. Some decided at some point to distance themselves emotionally and go about their lives as if their partner had died. Others, however, tried to keep the memory alive and to simply come to terms with the situation. And then there are others who decided to actively track them down.
The story of Renate Hong was very popular in South Korea
To which extent does the children’s Korean background play a role in their daily lives?
Those are their roots. And even though some of these parents remain unknown to them, these roots remain and simply do not disappear. It sometimes plays a bigger role and sometimes a lesser one. But the father’s influence is always reflected in the children’s physical appearance.
Have you yourself tried to track down and contact one of the fathers?
This was mainly done by the children. There are even German-Korean associations to assist in this regard.
Is there a single story that has touched you in a special way?
Each story is extremely touching in its own way, so I can’t just pick one. The story of the Hong family was the first one I ever heard, but then came so many others and each one of them was moving and touching.
Born in South Korea, Sung Hyung Cho is a Germany-based editor and director, known for Full Metal Village (2006), Endstation der Sehnsüchte (2009) and 11 Freundinnen (2013).