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Defector's story

Defector-restaurateur seeks to promote better understanding of modern North Korea in the South

Kim Ji Seung  |  2017-09-06 17:15

There are now 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, but some are finding it difficult to adjust to life in the South. Despite the challenges, many are hoping that their efforts, driven by a sense of responsibility to set a positive 'preview of unification,' will help set the stage for a future unified Korean peninsula.

"Hamhung is famous for its potatoes. If you have a bowl of naengmyeon (Korean cold noodles) made of chewy potato starch noodles and sweet and sour sauce, you will feel refreshed during the hot summer days," said Park Jung Ae, a defector originally from Hamhung who specializes in this dish at her restaurant in South Korea.  

The Hamheung dish is renowned for its chewy noodles and heavy meat broth, and is a popular summer choice said to revitalize body and soul during the hottest days of summer. Park Jung Ae's restaurant, Ryukyongok, is located near Inha University in Incheon and reportedly has long lines of people eager to try the dish in the hot weather. The eatery, which claims to have reproduced the unique flavor of Hamhung noodles, offers a new dish to South Koreans, and a taste of home for North Korean defectors. It has been noted that a number of separated families who have family members in North Korea often visit the place. 

Unlike standard Korean noodles made of buckwheat flour, Hamung cold noodles are characterized by transparent and thin cotton noodles, which are chewy because they are made from potato starch. Unlike South Korean spicy noodles, Hamhung cold noodles must first be mixed with chili sauce, which is then poured on with the meat broth. Pollack sashimi is added as a garnish on the noodles mixed with the red pepper sauce, before the noodles are ready for eating.

Park, who defected from North Korea in 2006, has been operating restaurants selling traditional Hamheung food for more than 10 years in Seoul. Park credits the skills learned from her mother and grandmother as the reason for her success. After being advised to use the words 'original,' or 'the first' in the name of her restaurant, she received support from power bloggers and gourmet celebrities, and was able to overcome social prejudices toward traditional North Korean food.

She faced many challenges while opening the restaurant, but was eventually selected as a beneficiary of a support project from the Seoul metropolitan council for social enterprises run by North Korean defectors in 2007. The beneficiaries of the program receive financial support amounting to 80% of the estimated annual income. Park, who previously operated a Hamhung sundae (Korean blood sausage) restaurant, seized the opportunity. After thorough preparation, she received outstanding scores for creativity, management style, and feasibility, and was able to open Ryukyongok. As all of her employees are from Hamhung, her restaurant has been certified as a social enterprise for alleviating the employment needs of North Korean defectors.

"If Hamhung cold noodles are attractive to the citizens of both Koreas, I can dream of running a franchise business after reunification. Because I am a third generation restaurant owner following my mother and grandmother, I hope to expand the business by adding further franchises in Seoul," Park said.

North Korean defectors seek understanding

Park says that South Korean citizens often have misunderstandings. Because the mass starvation of the North Korean people in the mid-1990s is widely known in South Korea, defectors entering South Korea at the time were naturally seen as hungry and poor people, and were mostly treated with pity. But Park argues that those circumstances are a thing of the past. She says that although it is true that there is a difference in income between the two Koreas, no one is starving to death in todays North Korea. She also adds that the general standards of life of the North Korean people has improved considerably, and it is not widely known that there are many wealthy people.

Park had many opportunities to interact with South Koreans while attending church in the early days of her settlement. Among those she met was an individual who showed great interest in North Korea and took good care of her. "One day, the person gave me clothing wrapped in a cloth package, saying, 'These are expensive clothes, wear them or discard them if you cannot accept them.' I tried my best not to misunderstand the gesture, knowing that South Korean people sometimes share things with close friends. But when I came home and saw the obviously used clothes like running shirts and underwear in the package, I felt offended because I only received them because I came from North Korea, even though I was grateful for her caring mind. Groundless pity for North Koreans can lead to unnecessary misunderstanding, so I want the people of South Korea to recognize this, she said.

Park is from North Koreas upper class and worked as a professor at a university in Pyongyang. Life in South Korea does not actually match up to her upbringing, as she spent 40 years of a privileged life in North Korea. However, she enjoys the freedom of life in South Korea, saying, "In North Korea, you dont have true freedom to study, nor the freedom not to study." In addition, she noted that volunteering in North Korea is unimaginable. She notes that even though North Korea espouses the superiority of socialism, sacrifice and volunteer work is for collective integration in North Korea, not for individual values. Park emphasized that this difference shows the maturity of South Korean society, and that she hopes North Korean defectors will learn more about this.

This article was written with the support of the Korea Press Foundation.
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