Restaurateur finally finds success

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Restaurateur finally finds success

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Kim Yong, a North Korean defector, greets customers at his restaurant Morangak, which is packed with customers on the evening of May 8 in Ilsan, Gyeonggi. By Cho Yong-chul

After Kim Yong, 50, escaped from North Korea and settled in South Korea in 1991, he seemed to have turned his life around.

He was in demand as a television personality and a singer and was one of the most popular and influential North Korean defectors in the South. In addition to the resettlement subsidy provided for North Korean defectors by the South Korean government, Kim quickly scooped up a fortune.

But he lost everything in 1993 when he was defrauded twice by scam artists who went after his money. He also lost his property.

It was one of his hobbies that soon catapulted him into his next venture.

Kim, who liked entertaining, often invited his friends to his house. He would cook them Pyongyang naengmyeon, a chilled North Korean-style soup with buckwheat noodles.

His friends really liked his naengmyeon and suggested that he open his own restaurant.

In June 1996, Kim opened his first naengmyeon restaurant, Morangak, in Ilsan, Gyeonggi, and it was a huge success.

Three years and seven months later, he had 94 restaurants in Korea, Japan and the United States.

“There was a time I paid 1 billion won in tax per year,” Kim recalled, describing his success.

He put his earnings into the bank and in 2000 he was awarded a Prime Minister’s Prize on Savings Day.

Kim then donated his part of the profits, which by that time amounted to tens of millions of won, to orphanages, senior centers and facilities set up for North Korean defectors.

He hit another wall in 2001 when he took a trip around the country to check the quality of the food at his restaurants and express his gratitude to the franchise owners. What he discovered changed his life again.

Some of the restaurants were using Kim’s picture but not selling Kim’s brand of naengmyeon.

To save his brand and his reputation, Kim overhauled his business and terminated contracts with franchises that were in violation of their contract agreement.

As a result, many of the franchises closed and his revenue declined dramatically until the business collapsed altogether in 2005.

“Back then, I slept for four straight days to forget about what was going on,” Kim said.

Kim was in despair after his business collapsed, but his employees encouraged him to persevere.

“Some of my colleagues told me there was a way out even if I didn’t have any money because my brand, Kim Yong and Morangak, still existed in people’s minds,” Kim said.

In 2006, he rallied his business partners and re-launched a large 300-seat Morangak restaurant in Ilsan, Gyeonggi. It was an instant success.

The company’s frozen naengmyeon and kimchi naengmyeon products are now exported to the United States, Canada and Australia. In Korea, they have been the No. 1 naengmyeon products on a local home shopping channel for three consecutive years.

Kim recently expanded his business and ventured into the ramen industry when he opened a ramen restaurant chain called “Yong Ramyeon.”

Meanwhile, commenting on the Cheonan disaster, Kim said he hopes that North Korea is not behind the sinking of the South Korean Navy vessel and that the North will eventually reform their economic system.

“I hope there’s a way that my [business] experience can help the North Korean economy,” Kim said.


By Park Tae-kyun, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]




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