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Defector's story

Defector plans to help others through expansion of restaurant business

Kim Ji Seung  |  2017-11-03 16:20

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.

To better understand the successes and difficulties experienced by defectors in the process of resettlement, Unification Media Group is publishing a series of accounts by defectors, covering their experiences in employment, establishing businesses, and studying, as well as documenting stories where success has remained out of reach.

Not long ago, the typical price for a reasonable lunch at a restaurant in South Korea was about 5,000 won. These days, however, it seems we have entered the era of the 10,000 won lunch. 

Enter Joo Soo Jin (pictured above). Joo is originally from the North Korean city of Hoeryong in the country's far northeast and first came to the South in 2010. Targeting the many customers seeking an affordable meal in the midst of an overwhelming number of pricier restaurants, Joo decided to open her own restaurant business, where the main dish costs only 3,900 won. 

Selling mainly sundae (blood sausage) stew, Joo opened her restaurant called 'Gwangmyeong Beef Sundae Stew' in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi Province. Joo notes that "due to the many people who are unemployed or going through tough economic times, I knew that it would be hard to earn a lot of money at that price point, but I'm keeping it this way. Even as the price of ingredients and other expenses go up, I intend to keep the price at 3,900 won."

"What I offer is a generous serving of sundae stew and a bottle of soju at an affordable price, and a lot of customers have expressed their thanks to me for this. I can say that I feel the happiest at those times. I've been able to receive a lot of regular customers too, and I hope to continue serving all of my customers for a long time to come," she explained.

Her restaurant's specialty is in making the sundae sausages with beef instead of pork, giving the broth a cleaner, less oily feel. As someone who grew up in North Korea, it was not easy for her to immediately discern the palate of South Koreans, and Joo says her recipe went through hundreds of iterations before arriving at the final product. 

She is also thankful for the help she received along the way. Before opening her own place, Joo learned the ropes and received substantial support from a mentor who brought with them many years of experience in the restaurant industry. This helped Joo become more familiar not only with South Korean taste and menu management, but also with sales and other business aspects. 

Before entering the food business, Joo worked at a gas station earning just 1,200,000 KRW per month, which was not enough to pay all of her bills on top of living expenses for herself and her daughter. Joo is thankful to the restaurant owner who gave her a chance to learn and eventually open and manage a second location on her own. 

Inspiring others through her struggle

From the beginning of her journey to escape North Korea, Joo says she had to remain vigilant and plan her moves carefully, knowing that she had to first and foremost rely on herself and not expect anyone else to look after her. 

She also knew that hard work leads to opportunities and a chance to meet good people. In this way, she progressed from earning minimum wage at a gas station to running her own business, becoming a source of inspiration to her neighbors in the process. 

"Though North Koreans often come to the South hoping for a better life, some do not work hard enough or think that it will be easier than it really is." Joo hopes defectors do not come to the South "searching for luck." She understands how difficult it is to get on when constantly thinking about family still living in the North, but says that at the same time, such thoughts will not help a person succeed in their new life.

Guarding against thoughts of despair and hopelessness while keeping her eyes open for opportunities, she actively sought out opportunities and carefully considered the suggestions of others. 

Now, as she manages her restaurant, she is not afraid to talk about her history. Joo acknowledges that there may be some customers who remain wary of North Koreans, and is determined to break the stereotypes. Joo says her focus now is on developing a dish that will keep her South Korean customers coming back. 

Opening a new location, aiding other defectors

Recently, Joo has been preparing to open a third location of Gwangmyeong Beef Sundae Stew. More than simply to expand the business, Joo hopes to help other defectors like herself. She is seeking the right individual to directly manage the new location, perhaps giving a chance to someone who cannot afford to open their own franchise. Joo says that her door is always open to other defectors with dreams and ambitions like her own. 

Joo believes in the importance of warmly greeting her customers and maintaining good rapport with her regulars. She wants to spread this culture as her business expands, giving more defectors the opportunity to work at a stable and rewarding job where they will play a direct role. She is also expecting to hire more defectors in the future to help run other aspects of her business, such as in distribution and accounting, as well as inside the restaurants, greeting customers and showing them the same warm hospitality that she does. 

*This article was made possible in part from funding by the Korea Press Foundation.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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