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Finding love across the Koreas: A matchmaker's tale

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Matchmaker unifies North and S. Koreans
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Choi Young-Hee matches South Korean bachelors with female defectors from the North
  • She believes that the pairings are key to reuniting the Koreas
  • She has paired nearly 500 couples, with three divorces among them
  • Choi, a defector from the North says she knows North Korean women and South Korean men want

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- There's an old saying among Koreans: South Korean men are known for their looks and North Korean women for their beauty.

Choi Young-Hee took that adage and turned it into a business model. Choi is a matchmaker, bringing hundreds of South Korean bachelors and single North Korean female defectors together.

It's an idea that on the surface appears hopelessly flawed, given the current geopolitical status between the North and South. But Choi had a hunch when she opened her matchmaking agency five years ago that this sort of pairing would work.

She was right.

Nearly 500 marriages later, with only three divorces among them, this self-made Cupid is seemingly a statistical success. Proof, says Choi, that the main barrier to reunification and peace on the Korean peninsula is not the Korean people but politics.

"As I wed each and every couple and the people around them see them living happily together," says Choi, "I think they'll realize they may not like the Kim Jong Il leadership, but they'll know that regular North Koreans are not like that. I think that it's the most important thing in speeding up reunification."

See more of CNN.com's coverage of the Koreas

Choi Hyung-Min (unrelated to Choi, the matchmaker) was one of the matchmaker's eligible bachelors. She matched him with one of her North Korean defectors, and they fell in love and married.

"They say that if you wed three couples you go to heaven ... so I guess I have a seat reserved."
--Choi Young-Hee, matchmaker
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CNN met them as they celebrated the first birthday of their daughter, Ye-Ran. The North Korean defector said CNN could not air her picture or reveal her name, fearing that Pyongyang would punish her remaining family in the North.

But she does have a message to share with CNN's viewers and readers.

"From the bottom of my heart, I really hope for reunification," she says.

"We talk about this all the time," says her husband, who has never met her extended family. "Visiting her hometown after reunification."

The North Korean defector says her marriage shows that despite the political differences and years of warlike disputes between the two nations, there is hope for a peaceful peninsula.

"There may be differences with the policies and institutions of the two countries. But we're all the same people, right? We're the same people."

To say that the unions are borne of a desire to reunify the country would ignore a reality in the matches.

North Korean women, says Choi, desire the automatic acceptance and stability a South Korean husband offers. South Korean men want a traditional Korean wife, believes Choi, which North Korean women offer, unlike modern South Korean women.

In crisp blue and yellow file folders, eligible bachelors are noted for their height, education, and job status. But that's not as important as a proper personality match says Choi, who then takes those South Korean men and matches them to North Korean women in her database.

Choi matches couples personally. When pressed what makes a match a marriage, she can't quite say.

Choi's colorful clothing, a leopard fur print jacket and sparkle headband, reveals little of the dark story of her defection out of North Korea.

In 2001, she slipped out of the North into China with her 11-year-old daughter. Her tale is filled with complicated twists and turns, she says. The end result was that a year later, after spending some time in a Mongolian prison, she and her daughter made it to South Korea.

Choi, like many North Korean defectors, suddenly found herself needing to make ends meet in a new capitalist society with not much of a support system. What she knew, she says, is what North Korean women and South Korean men want.

"They say that if you wed three couples, you go to heaven," laughs Choi, "so I guess I have a seat reserved."

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