N. Korean defectors receive microcredit
By Kim Young-jin
When Lee Yeon-geum opens her hair salon each morning in a quiet suburb of Seoul, she carries a secret: Neither her staff nor clientele know she is a North Korean defector. For now, she wants to keep it that way.
Lee, 38, bought the franchise store earlier this year with the help of a new microfinance program for defectors and so far, business is good. But fearing it could slow if her identity were revealed, she tells people she hails from the southern countryside.
“There is still a lot of discrimination against North Korean defectors here,” she said during an interview in a back storage room of the shop, out of the earshot of customers. “I just don’t want to get discouraged.”
Lee was one of 27 defectors selected for a microfinance program launched in August by Hyundai Motor and the Ministry of Unification.
The program allows successful applicants to receive a loan of up to 50 million won from a Hyundai fund to open or expand a business. Microfinance targets underserved communities and those with low credit and little access to lending companies.
Participants in the program are given rigorous training, including site visits to successful small businesses. Their enterprises range from restaurants and cosmetic shops to daycare centers, clothing boutiques and a pool hall.
But despite the success, the upward mobility of Lee and other defectors remains limited due to a festering problem in South Korean society: indifference toward those from the North.
Negative perceptions about defectors — that they lean too heavily on government support — are seen as a major factor in their high unemployment rate, which at 13.7 percent is fourfold that of South Koreans.
The problem is so pronounced that government officials say it was a core reason that Seoul has nearly quadrupled its 2011 budget for defector affairs to 24.8 billion won from 6.5 billion won last year.
Learning to dream
Growing up in North Hamgyeong Province, Lee hoped to one day work in a posh office. “I wanted to wear a sharp-looking suit,” she said.
Instead, she ended up working at a mine in Musan, digging up iron ore.
Overwhelmed by hunger, she defected in 2005 with a group of friends, via China, leaving behind her parents and two siblings.
“I thought at the time I would see them again,” said Lee, who lives on her own. “I realize now it was quite childish to think so. But as the saying goes, ‘When you’re starving, you can’t see.’”
Counselors at Hanawon, the mandatory government resettlement center in Gyeonggi Province, advise defectors to seek work in factories or technical fields, where employment is readily available and they can adapt with comparative ease.
Lee took the advice, earned certification as a stylist and found a job at a neighborhood salon. Her monthly wage was decent but after sending cash to her family back home, she was barely making ends meet.
Knowing she could earn more as a proprietor, Lee began saving up to open her own salon. Just as she began realizing it would take years to save enough, she came across an advertisement for the microfinance program on a defectors’ website.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I thought, ‘Finally, my dream is coming true.”
For Lee Sung-il, 52, learning about excellent customer service has been a liberating experience.
Since defecting five years ago, Lee had been floating through part-time jobs, mostly assembling electronics components, until the work dried up. Doing so, he managed to make a handful of contacts in Seoul’s wholesale electronics markets.
So when he heard about the microfinance program, Lee knew he had the know-how and connections to assemble his own goods and sell them on the cheap.
“I’m getting up there in years, so to have this kind of stability, I’m really happy when I go to work,” he said of his new business selling credit card scanners and touch-screen monitors to small enterprises in southern Seoul.
Lee, despite his warm nature, doesn’t immediately tell people he is a defector, believing they might assume his products to be inferior.
Such sentiment, he said, increases when tension arises between the two Koreas, as in the aftermath of the North’s deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November.
But if the subject comes up, Lee, a former seafood supplier in the North, is willing to share his story. And, increasingly, he finds those in his line of work to be receptive, even recommending his services or inviting him out to lunch.
The reception has emboldened Lee to become more extroverted and customer-friendly, a transition he called difficult after years of living under authoritarian rule.
“I can’t honestly say my products are that much better than other companies, but I do know that I can do my utmost to give the best service possible,” he said.
Lee hopes his efforts will play a small part in changing misperceptions about North Koreans. “It’s really important for us defectors to build positive relationships with the people around us,” he said.
Still, the father of two — whose wife and children still live in the North — says he is still adjusting to capitalist society.
“The competition never ends,” he marveled. “So I’m always thinking about how to attract new customers. That takes getting used as we couldn’t make our own decisions in the North.”
‘Important role in the South’
The Lee administration believes bolstering services for defectors is about more than short-term improvements.
As an immediate measure, addressing society’s ambivalence toward defectors is seen as an important step, and the Unification Ministry has launched a public service campaign in schools and workplaces to raise awareness and acceptance.
But the administration also sees better conditions for defectors as a prominent factor in its longer-term vision.
“Defectors have an important role in the South,” a ministry official said. “By helping them to settle down better, we can deliver a positive message to North Korean citizens about reunification.
“And when the time for reunification comes, defectors who have succeeded in South Korea can help North Koreans adjust to the new situation,” he said.
Among other measures, the government has pledged to expand employment-related services, mental health care, homeless and women’s services and reinforce its programs targeting youth.
In addition, an initiative called the New Hope Project will help more new defector enterprises get up and running.
The business of hope
Hairstylist Lee’s secret is getting easier to keep. She has weaned away her provincial accent, and her pretty looks and mild manner blend easily with those around her.
Beneath all that is a streak of pride that drives her to success, but also makes it necessary to veil the truth — for now.
“If I were to tell people I opened this business through a microfinance program, I’m sure they’d all say behind my back that I was only able to succeed through government help,” she said.
If business remains steady, however, she plans to open a second shop after paying back her loan. And when she does, it will finally be time.
“Then I can tell people with confidence where I am from,” she said. “I want to show people that I’ve made it on my own. Then I can be proud of being from North Korea.”
After that, there’d be only one place left to expand, a place she thinks about every day.
“First thing I’ll do if there’s ever reunification is open a business in my hometown,” she said. “That is my dream.”
Korea Times intern Kim Eun-jung contributed to this article
탈북자들 미소금융 대출 받아
이연금(38)씨는 미소금융 프로그램의 도움을 받아 연초 유명 미용실의 분점을 샀으며, 지금까지 사업은 잘되고 있다. 그러나 이씨의 신분이 들어날 것을 두려워 사람들에게 시골 출신이라고 말한다.
이씨는 “아직도 많은 한국 사람들이 탈북자들을 차별해요,”라며 “저는 그런 소리를 듣고 상처받을 자신이 없어요,”라고 손님들이 들을 수 없는 미용실 뒤 창고에서 이야기 했다.
이씨는 통일부와 현대자동차가 협력한 미소 금융 프로그램에 선정된 27명의 탈북자 중 한 명이다.
이 프로그램은 탈북자들의 창업을 위해 최대 5,000만 원의 대출을 해준다.
꿈을 향한 배움
북한에서 멋진 정장을 입고 사무실에서 일하는 모습을 꿈꾸던 이씨지만, 사실은 무산 광산에서 철광석을 캤었다. 그녀는 2005년 배고픔을 이기지 못해 탈북했다.
이씨는 하나원에서 기술을 배워야 한다는 이야기를 듣고, 미용 자격증을 땄다.
그녀는 창업을 꿈꿔왔지만 현실은 힘들었다. 그녀는 인터넷에서 탈북자를 위한 프로그램을 발견한 순간 “드디어 내 꿈이 이루어 지는 구나,”라고 생각했다고 한다.
이성일(52) 씨는 5년 전 탈북해 미소금융을 통해 카드 단말기 및 터치 스크린 등을 조립하는 사업을 시작했다.
이씨는 사람들이 자신의 제품에 하자가 있다고 여길지도 모른다는 생각에 탈북자라는 것을 직접 말하지는 않는다.
그는 연평도 사건 등 남한과 북한간의 고조된 갈등으로 인해 이러한 차별은 더 늘어났다고 말했다.
이씨는 “난 내 제품이 다른 큰 회사들보다 더 낫다고는 말할 수 없지만, 고객에게 최고의 서비스를 제공하겠다는 것을 자신 있게 말할 수 있다,”고 말했다.
그는 그의 노력이 북한 사람들에 대한 잘못된 인식을 바꿀 수 있는 계기가 됐으면 좋겠다고 했다.
남한에서의 중요한 역할
통일부 관계자는 “탈북자들은 남한에서 매우 중요한 역할을 하고 있다,” 며 “그들이 남한에서 잘 정착하게 도와 줌으로써, 우리는 북한 주민들에게 긍정적인 메시지를 전달 할 수 있다,”라고 말했다.
“또한 통일이 됐을 때도, 남한에서 성공한 탈북자들이 북한 사람들이 새로운 환경에 적응 할 수 있도록 도와줄 수 있을 것 이예요,”라고 전했다.
사업에 대한 희망
헤어 디자이너인 이씨는 “지금은 미소금융 프로그램을 통해 가게를 열었기 때문에, 당당하게 말할 수 없어요. 사람들이 우리가 정부의 특혜를 받았기 때문에 쉽게 창업을 했다고 생각 할 거예요. 그렇기 때문에 대출을 다 갚은 뒤, 두 번째 가게를 제 힘으로 열었을 때, 당당 하게 밝힐 거예요. 그럼 북한에서 온 제 자신이 자랑스러울 거 같아요,”라고 했다.
그녀는 또한 “만약 통일이 된다면, 우선 제 고향에 내려가서 사업을 시작할 거 예요. 그게 제 꿈이에요,”라고 밝혔다.