Refugee lives the South Korean dream
When he opened a takeout store last April serving North Korean snacks to university students in northern Seoul, a string of television appearances at home and abroad seemed to mark him out as one of the few success stories among thousands of North Korean defectors trying to rebuild their lives here.
But as outside pressures threatened to stunt his business growth, Jong folded his restaurant within 49 days of opening.
Armed with his dreams of entrepreneurial success, the 38-year-old defector decided not to throw in the towel. He simply reinvented himself once again.
Since arriving in Seoul in 2000, Jong has tried his hand at inventing gadgets (from massage chairs to ‘stamina underwear’), writing scripts for adult movies, match-making for other defectors and running computer training courses.
Now he’s back on his feet with “Nalle Nalle” ― a new restaurant named after the North Korean phrase for “quick quick” ― in another trendy district north of the Han river.
“I took what was good and left what was bad. Unpopular dishes were removed,” he said of his latest brainchild.
Sponsored by a band of investors, Jong is again attempting to bridge the divide between the two Koreas and bring its all-but-unreachable culture to young southerners, this time in the crowded district surrounding Hongik University.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jong plays the role of manager, waiter and sales clerk, as well as coming up with all of the recipes.
“I’ve been fooled, and I’ve learned from that. If they look down on me now, I’ll deal with them with a ‘business mind’,” he said.
Not so before, however, when his failure to read the small print enabled investors to exclude him from the right to run franchise stores of his first restaurant, named “Dalagram.”
His new restaurant is three times bigger, is open 24 hours a day and serves over 20 northern dishes, compared to six on the previous menu. The dishes include North Korean rice balls and dumplings the size of a fist ― a far cry from the pizza malls and pubs in the bustling Hongdae district.
“One bite into a mushroom releases its own scent and flavor. Gourmets would be able to tell,” he said, adding that he deliberately tones down the flavors to retain an authentic taste.
Although language is one handicap defectors like Jong do not have to deal with in the South, he said he has struggled to learn English ― even pestering the police officer who supervises him on the meaning of words.
Essays about his adjustment to life in Seoul even earned him prizes from the Voice of America, a U.S. government radio station, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
But is this enough to satisfy Jong’s burning ambition? Hardly. Another restaurant is in the pipeline, he says.
At times, it feels as if the budding businessman is trying to fill his time, plug a gap, and leave no time to reflect on his past. A sense of sadness fills the space between his sentences.
“I left behind my wife and (11-year-old) daughter at my hometown,” he said, referring to the city of Onsong in North Korea’s North Hamkyong Province.
“They must be having a hard time. When (the two Koreas are) unified, I want to pay them back, and in order to do that I have to build my reputation and become rich,” he said.
by Kim Hyun