For North Koreans, working in South can be a challenge

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For North Koreans, working in South can be a challenge

In a dimly lighted beer hall in the north Seoul neighborhood of Sanggye-dong, the muffled voices of two middle-aged men can be heard in a corner. Scenes of a singing group appear on the screen of a small television set attached to one wall. The music bears little resemblance to the pop music so well liked by Korean youngsters. Instead, the song being performed has a slow tempo. A woman behind the bar nods her head in time with the music, and taps on a calculator.
“Hmm...not great, but getting better,” says the woman as she computes the month’s expenses. Glancing briefly at her wristwatch, she mutters, “Almost time.” Then, in a louder voice, she barks: “Time to get ready!”
It’s 5:30 in the evening, and for Lee Yae-seon, 38, another day running a hof has just gotten under way.
This is the first beer hall she has operated. Then again, she can count many “firsts” to her name.
Ms. Lee is a defector from North Korea who escaped to China before coming to South Korea last January. After finishing her two-month-long re-education program at Hanawon, a government center that helps North Koreans acclimate to life in the South, Ms. Lee and three other North Korean women decided to try running a hof. Daedong River opened its doors in August.
The women are part of the growing number of North Koreans who are attempting to integrate into South Korean society and adapt to a vastly different economic system from that in the isolated communist state.
With a monthly rent of 1.25 million won ($1,000), the business has still managed to make a small profit. It may not be much, she says, but the sheer thrill of earning some money ― and being allowed to keep it ― has brought new vitality to Ms. Lee’s spirit.
In the North, Ms. Lee worked as a stage performer in the Baekdusan theater group, which is operated by the army to provide entertainment and a healthy dose of propaganda for its troops. She held a rank equivalent to a sergeant in the U.S. Army.
She also appeared in several movies, including “Leaving the Command Post,” where she portrayed Kim Jeong-suk, the wife of North Korea’s late leader Kim Il Sung. Her other film credits include, “The Long March” and “Operation Strike Back.”
In spite of her colorful past, living in a country with a market economy provides new experiences and challenges for Ms. Lee and her comrades every day. Currently, she must deal with the expected suspension of her license to run the tavern because she had served alcohol to underage patrons.
“Apparently, some other guests noticed that they were underage. But we really had no clue,” Ms. Lee says in a pleading tone. “The clothing is different. The makeup is different. We just didn’t know.”
But even the government officials who monitor and assist her told her that there is nothing they can do to stop the suspension. She plans to file a petition with the local district office asking for leniency.
She must also remove her karaoke equipment because the building’s owner complained that the singing was too loud. Kang Yae-jeong, another of the hof’s owners, thinks all of these things are happening because business is going well. “First, they told us it’s too loud. Then they said we can’t have karaoke because this is a hof. They are just jealous.”
Still, afraid of making the situation worse, Ms. Lee acknowledges with a sigh that she will get rid of the karaoke machine.
Since the hof is run by North Koreans, some might think that it would be a focal point for the North Korean community here. So far, that has not happened. When asked whether many North Koreans come to her establishment, Ms. Lee shakes her head.
“Not at all. They don’t come here and we don’t want them. When someone makes it, they are just jealous. Trouble starts to brew, you know?”
While fewer than 10 North Koreans came to the South each year up to the early 1990s, their numbers surged after 1994, following Kim Il Sung’s death and a series of poor harvests that led to famine.
In 1999, 148 North Koreans made the dangerous journey to the South. Last year 1,140 North Koreans defected, and another 1,119 arrived in the first 11 months of this year. According to the Ministry of Unification, 3,153 North Koreans now call the South their home.
With such an increase in the number of North Koreans trying to earn a living in a society that is virtually an alien culture to them, one would expect a system to be in place to re-educate and resettle them. There is one, but for the most part, North Koreans have failed to integrate into the South’s society enough to lead what is considered a middle-class lifestyle.
Based on a survey of 553 North Koreans conducted in 2001 by Dongposarang, an organization that helps North Koreans adapt to life in the South, the average monthly income of a former North Korean was 980,000 won. According to the Ministry of Labor, the average salary for South Koreans that year was 1.7 million won.
Yoon In-ho, 28, a former skier in the North who came to the South in 1999, has been trying to break into the entertainment business. He models part-time while trying to complete a degree in business at Korea University. He temporarily quit his studies as he wandered from job to job, first as a security guard, then trying his luck at a dry- cleaners. After appearing in a fashion show in September, he now says there is a slim chance that he will land a role in a spy thriller called “Claymore.”
“Sometimes, when I meet North Koreans who have just finished their initial [resettlement] education, they will tell me that they have heard of me,” he says.
Pausing for a moment, he adds, “I don’t know what they have been told, and I may look like a success, but the fact is that I barely get by.” Mr. Yoon says that none of the North Koreans he has met works at one of the Korean jaebeol, or conglomerates, the yardstick used by many North Koreans to measure success in the South.
Earlier this month, the labor ministry and Dongposarang co-sponsored a job fair for North Koreans living in the Seoul area. It was the second of its kind, the first one having taken place last December. But without participation by large companies, the fair mostly consisted of smaller companies, offering low-paying jobs.
Ahn Hyo-deok, an official with Dongposarang, says there is still a large gap between the expectations of North Koreans and the jobs that South Korean companies are willing to offer. “We screened the companies so that those that didn’t meet certain criteria weren’t allowed to participate. Still, it seems that big companies are hesitant to employ them.”
An estimated 250 North Koreans showed up at the fair but, according to the official, only 13 landed jobs.
The comments of Han Young-sook, a unification ministry official who is responsible for assisting North Koreans, should serve as a reality check for those who have come South expecting a warm welcome.
“We can’t give preferential treatment to these North Koreans. This is how our system works. With minimum help they have to compete like anyone else. They have to learn to stand on their own.”
Until 1993, the government operated a program that guaranteed employment to North Koreans at government organizations or government-owned companies.
Today, New North Korean residents get initial settlement funds and other assistance such as help in getting an apartment or continuing their studies ― but no job guarantees. Lee Yae-seon says she received about 37 million won from the government, an amount a government official confirmed is within the range typically paid to North Koreans this year, but which varies from case to case.
For North Koreans, settling in the South is a process of trial and error. When they first set foot on the South’s soil, a life full of propaganda and suppression may be over, but the South’s freewheeling economic system can be just as hard.
“During my initial training, I learned how to open a bank account but when I realized that I was really on my own I was just so scared,” says Lee Yae-seon.


by Brian Lee
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