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50-year friendship via hand-written letters

Linked by Korea Herald, Korean, Swede transcend distance for five decades

The word “pen pal” might seem ancient for those accustomed to social networking sites.

But these sites did not exist 50 years ago, so the steadfast friendship between Chang Key-kwan and Gunnar Sildevon was shared through letters.

When Chang sent his first letter to Sildevon in 1962, Chang was a junior at Yonsei University and a subscriber to the Korean Republic; later The Korea Herald. One day he spotted an advert placed by Swedish student Gunnar Sildevon on the reader’s opinion page, looking for a pen pal based in Seoul.

Since then, the two have maintained a half-century-long friendship solely through hand-written letters. Chang says he and Sildevon will continue writing each other until “death parts them.”

“I feel that if we are blood brothers,” Chang told The Korea Herald over the phone. Chang is now 71 years old; Sildevon is 68.

The idea of pen pals was popular in Korea in the ‘60s. It was practically the only way most college students could communicate with foreign friends, and a number of college students used letters for brushing up on their English skills while making new friends. The idea of a pen pal had excitement in waiting for a reply, a feeling rarely experienced in online instant messages today.

The pair have kept in touch not only through sea mail and air mail, but tried contacting each other over the phone and through email. But due to English being a second language for both, they chose to keep writing. “We found writing letters much more interesting and comfortable for both of us,” Chang recalls. “Besides, we both thought that writing hand-written letters was far more meaningful and sincere than emails,”
Chang Key-kwan (right) and Gunnar Sildevon stand together in downtown Stockholm in 2007 during Chang’s visit to Sweden. (The Korea Herald)
Chang Key-kwan (right) and Gunnar Sildevon stand together in downtown Stockholm in 2007 during Chang’s visit to Sweden. (The Korea Herald)

They have been writing one to two letters per month, and more frequently during special occasions, like Christmas and birthdays.

“I’m pretty sure we are nearing 50 Christmas cards and birthday cards,” Chang says.

On one Christmas, Sildevon sent a Swedish carol LP as a Christmas gift. Chang says he still plays it for their family gatherings at Christmas every year. “My sons and daughter know these carols by heart now, even though it’s in Swedish,” Chang says.

In the early years of their friendship, Chang had also considered studying in Sweden after college. Full of excitement, Sildevon sent a Swedish-English dictionary for Chang. Unfortunately, due to family reasons, Chang could not fulfill his hopes of studying there. Their first opportunity to see each other had to be delayed.

When Chang was serving his duties in the ROTC as a commissioned officer, Sildevon sent him shirts and a tie from Sweden.

“I still remember everyone in my troop being jealous of my friendship with a foreign friend back then,” he says, chuckling.

Later, despite Chang going through business difficulties, and being in the middle of making a big decision to migrate to the U.S., he did not forget to write to his life-long friend.

Although their friendship has lasted for half a century, it was only six years ago that they first met in person. Chang and Sildevon met in Thailand, where Sildevon runs his travel business.

“We always thought about meeting up ever since we started writing to each other, but as we both had jobs and were busy, we just couldn’t find the right time and venue to meet each other as both were busy with our businesses until then.” Chang says. It was only when Chang finally retired from his work, about eight years ago, that he was afforded the time to finally meet his friend.

Their second encounter was when Sildevon and his brother came to Chang’s house in New York. Their most recent visit was in Sweden in August 2007.

Chang, his wife and his daughter visited Sweden, on their third visit. “We enjoyed playing golf near his hometown, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life,” Chang recalls. Chang’s daughter even calls Sildevon her uncle since the visit. “The more we met, we closer we felt. Since I am an only son, I really feel that if he is my real brother by blood.”

Their fourth encounter was scheduled for last week in Seoul, but due to Sildevon having heart surgery in Thailand, the visit had to be canceled. However, they are still planning to meet in Seoul, after Sildevon’s recovery.

“I am very worried about him, but I am sure he is going to get better and eventually meet again. I want to show him around my hometown, where I first started writing him as a college student.”

Chang says that there was a particular reason for writing to a Swedish friend: his good impression of Swedes who helped war refugees after the Korean War.

“In 1961, I caught a glimpse of the Swedes who established a Scandinavian hospital in Euljiro 6-ga where they helped out with refugee relief through adoption. I found that extremely philanthropic, and developed a good impression of the Swedes at that time. Around that time, coincidentally, I found the pen pal advert in the Korean Republic, and I felt that I had to write him.”

Chang also exchanged letters with an American friend, but he says that the letters only lasted a year, and he lost touch as the friend stopped writing back.

In the earlier letters, they mostly talked about their daily life, but as they grew older, the subject often turned to health issues.

“But we never really tried to get into each other’s private lives, I never asked him about his marital status, nor about his job, but I only assumed. Only recently did I find out that he worked at a travel agency called the Thailand Travel club, when I went to visit him few years back.”

That is probably why Chang had never even asked why Sildevon’s last named changed from “Svensson” ― the last name that Sildevon had been using in the early years their friendship.

“Our 50-year friendship has not only developed only as a friendship but a brotherhood. The secret to maintaining our long friendship is love, patience and trust. We are never going to let that go away.

“For all I know, having a pen pal is the best way of conducting ‘non-governmental diplomacy,’ therefore I urge everyone to start a friendship through a hand-written letter.”

By Hwang Jurie  (