A better way: a defector’s journey from hardship to happiness

Contentedness does not always come quickly to defectors resettling in the South. That’s the hard lesson that 50-year-old Kim In-sil has learned over her ten years in South Korea. Mrs. Kim escaped from the North and arrived in the South in 2004. She now works as a team manager at a cafe called “Dutch Forest,” and has found success and happiness by rising to a series of new challenges at the ripe old age of 50.

To run a cafe that serves beverages like coffee, a barista’s certificate is required. Mrs. Kim learned her coffee-making skills in 2015, earning two certifications. She then learned that the Hanawon resettlement facility was providing three years worth of ‘start-up business assistance,’ and resolved to get together with six fellow defectors and start a cafe.

The cafe was named from the outcome of a public contest: Dutch Forest. The simple menu and unique flavor of the coffee attracts customers of all ages.

Dutch coffee is brewed using a special method of extracting flavor from beans with cold water over 24 hours. Due to the longer brewing time, it is less bitter and has a milder and smoother flavor. Such flavors can only be achieved through patience, and the cafe has become popular.

In South Korea, knowledge is a valuable asset

At the end of the three-year support period, Mrs. Kim aimed to take over ownership of the shop. She emphasized how important learning is to succeed in South Korea.

When Mrs. Kim first arrived in the South, she was first offered work in a department store making dumplings by hand. The work didn’t require any special skills, but it was her first experience earning money in the South and she looked forward to it.   

But the reality was different to her expectations. Standing up in a public kitchen all day long making dumplings was difficult, and she was also made to do various chores. When there were lots of customers, orders piled up and she wasn’t even able to go to the bathroom.

Her exhaustion forced her to quit the job and she focused on regaining her strength, resolving to find another job. She next worked at a gas station, standing on her feet every day from 7am to 7pm.

One day, she began to cry. She was expecting to find happiness in South Korea, but it turned out that her new life was just as tough as her life in North Korea. The fact that she couldn’t imagine a better way forward was particularly disheartening. She began to drink and became depressed for a while, before resolving to find a better way forward.  

Opening doors through education

Mrs. Kim concluded that it would be difficult to find employment at an office, considering that she didn’t know how to use a computer. Those who complete a six month computer training course at Hanawon receive assistance in getting further computer education for free, but this took quite a bit of time, so she decided to go another way. She attended a two-month class at the Korea Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, where she earned certificates in Microsoft Office applications.

After earning the certifications, it took an additional few months for Mrs. Kim to get a job. She applied to work at a university-affiliated hospital, but was slightly discouraged because the interviewer was only able to select two out of eleven applicants. Within the candidate pool, there were individuals who already had industry knowledge and experience, making it hard for Mrs. Kim to make the cut. She realized that the more certifications and experience she had, the wider the net she could cast with her applications.

In the end she got the job. Her duty was to manage a database at a hospital with over 3,000 patients, but she become accustomed to the grueling work within three months. Mrs. Kim also got some experience working at a materials factory, overseeing sales. Her initial salary was raised after three months, in recognition of her performance and effort.

Today, Mrs. Kim manages her cafe and is also studying social welfare on the side. She says that working at the cafe has helped her to find confidence and hopes to work in social welfare after unification. To learn more about social welfare, she serves as a volunteer in her spare time. Another long term goal of hers is to open up a coffee shop in North Korea after unification, so she can serve refreshments to friends and family in her hometown.    

*This article has been brought to you thanks to support from the Korea Press Foundation.

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