June 18, 2024

Entrepreneurial Empowerment for South Korea’s Disenfranchised

SEOUL — They left, they said, not because of the jackboot repression in North Korea, and not because of Kim Jong-il’s secret police or other political strangulations.

“It was the eating problem,” said Lee Young-geum.

“I was starving,” said Son Hyang-sun.

These two women, like most defectors from the North, made harrowing journeys to get to South Korea. Their transition to life in the South has not been easy either, and they have endured the same slights and humiliations that cause many defectors to feel unwelcome and marginalized here.

But these are women not easily deterred. Indeed, both recently started their own businesses using loans from a new corporate-sponsored credit foundation.

Ms. Lee, 38, bought the Blue Club, a barbershop in Seoul. Ms. Son, 40, opened a fish market in the eastern seaport of Donghae. She named her shop the Future.

The credit program, financed by Hyundai, is one of several such efforts by some of the chaebol, South Korea’s mammoth family-controlled corporations. The conglomerates have been instructed by President Lee Myung-bak to become more philanthropic as part of his push for what he calls “a fair society.”

“Lee Myung-bak seemingly wants a political legacy and his brand to be increasingly predicated on the ‘fair society’ mantra,” said Jasper Kim, a professor of law and business at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul. “So the president needs — and will demand — that the chaebol return any favors they may owe politically and economically.”

LG Electronics, for example, has pledged 2.5 billion won, or $2.3 million, to nutrition campaigns run by the World Food Program. Samsung has focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at its semiconductor and LCD factories, while its employees have donated time to working with meal programs for the poor, tutoring underprivileged children and cleaning up streams and woodlands around Samsung’s major plants.

The chaebol are clearly hoping to generate good will with both the president and the public, and recent polls suggest they could use some image enhancement. Most South Koreans now consider South Korean society decidedly unfair, partly because of arrogance and persistent nepotism among the chaebol.

Another sore point: Mr. Lee has granted pardons to scores of chaebol executives convicted of crimes ranging from tax fraud to brawling. Among those let off were South Korea’s two wealthiest men: Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of Samsung Electronics, and Chung Mong-koo, the chairman of Hyundai Motor.

Hyundai Capital, the financing arm of Hyundai Motor, manages the credit program that helped Ms. Lee and Ms. Son. (Hyundai Capital, which mostly makes car loans and unsecured personal loans, is 43 percent owned by GE Capital.) The automaker has committed 20 billion won a year to the program for the next 10 years.

“We want to help underprivileged people stand on their own,” said the program manager, Han Dong-il, whose father was born in North Korea. “Among that group, we saw North Korean defectors as having the most difficulties.”

Hyundai’s loan to Ms. Lee was 50 million won at 2 percent interest. The loan is payable in five years, although she expects to pay it off in 18 months. Then she will buy a second shop.

“I want to be a C.E.O., not a housewife,” she said. “I don’t want an ordinary life.”

Already her life has been far from ordinary. A former truck dispatcher at a state-owned steel factory in North Hamgyong Province, near the Chinese border, she escaped from North Korea in 1997 by wading across the Tumen River into China.

The North was in the throes of a full-blown famine — “the eating problem” — and Ms. Lee was about to become one of its victims. She first began to think about defecting when she heard that people in China routinely fed their dogs leftover rice and soup. At the time, she had been trekking into the mountains for wild greens to boil into an edible mash.

One day, skin and bones, she just left.

She married an ethnic Korean man in China, divorced him because of his gambling and brawling, borrowed $7,000 from her former in-laws and hired a broker who got her to the South Korean Embassy in Mongolia. She sought asylum there and was put on a flight to Seoul, her first plane ride ever.

Ms. Lee went through three months of debriefing and political education at the South Korean facility called Hanawon, a kind of halfway house used by the authorities to ferret out possible spies and infiltrators. After her release, as her government subsidies ran out, she held a string of low-skill jobs.

Finally, she found an apprenticeship at the Blue Club. She learned barbering, watched how the shop was managed, then used her loan and her savings to buy out the owner. She has not told her employees or customers about her background, wary of their reaction.

Ms. Son, by contrast, has been candid about her odyssey from the North. The reaction among her customers and fellow shopkeepers has been mixed.

“Some people look down on us,” she said. “They think, ‘Low class.”’

But after the rigors of her journey, she said with a wise smile, a little nasty gossip is hardly worth mentioning.

Before Ms. Son defected, in 1996, at the age of 25, she had started eating grass to stay alive.

Government food rations had ceased at her factory, which produced glass ampules of morphine, and there was no salt or sugar. Until she defected, she said, she had never eaten fish or beef.

After crossing the river into China, Ms. Son dyed her hair and pierced her ears — small proclamations of emancipation. But before long, she was apprehended by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea. She spent the next four months in prison.

“With my hair and my pierced ears, the North Korean government thought I was mentally ill and that I would infect other people,” she said.

“So they tortured me with an electric stick” — she searched for the right term — “yes, a cattle prod. They stuck it everywhere.”

She did her time, then bided her time. Eventually, she ducked her police tail and again crossed into China. She met a North Korean man who wanted to get to South Korea, and they walked into Vietnam, then Cambodia and on to Thailand, where they boarded a plane for Seoul in May 2003.

After a series of workaday jobs and the birth of a daughter, the couple made their way to Donghae, renowned for its clams and scallops.

They found the small fish shop for sale — the family now lives upstairs — and fitted it out using a Hyundai loan of 40 million won.

Times are tight, but business is good, and honguh — dried skate — is selling particularly well right now.

Despite their promising new ventures — made possible by a famously robust capitalist system — Ms. Son and Ms. Lee both admit to a certain nostalgia for North Korea, even though they know they cannot safely go back until there is a change of government or reunification.

“You can earn money here, but it goes so fast — 100 in, 200 out, it’s hard to keep up,” said Ms. Son. “There’s more food here, a lot of it, but it’s too sweet.

“Sometimes I think just a small bowl of soup every day would be O.K,” she said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f1ca078c0e0a4981c725b4d75e012d97

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