North Korean refugees test their startup dreams

Ahn Myeong-hee, a 31-year-old defector from North Korea, was overwhelmed by hard-working people, rapidly changing social phenomena and the highly competitive environment when she first arrived in the South .

“One day, I was standing in a subway station and I was watching people walking fast. It made me think that I really would have to live my life to the fullest to be successful, ”Ahn said. “At the same time, I enjoyed that you can see the result as much as the amount of effort you put in.”

After fleeing North Korea as a teenager, she began to dream of becoming a trader while working in a sewing workshop in China.

“In China, if your identity is unclear, you can’t imagine a bright future, so I chose to come to South Korea to make my dreams come true. Perhaps because of the difficulties I encountered, South Korea seemed like a land of opportunity to me, ”she said.

In 2019, she started fashion startup Ryu Ae with her sister, who works there as a designer.

With her experience in the textile industry, she is looking for business opportunities in the baby clothing market. “The number of newborns here continues to decline here, but ironically the market is growing as family members, including uncles and aunts, give out more gifts and spend large sums on babies. “

Ahn and his team of four launched a baby clothing brand in March 2020, mainly producing organic cotton baby onesies. They are currently available through a dozen retail channels, including open marketplaces like Gmarket and Auction.

The brand uses 100% organic fabrics, certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard and made without bleaches, dyes or other toxic chemicals.

Unlike typical baby clothes, organic cotton products feature subtle earth tones instead of bright colors.

“They might not be as eye-catching as other companies’ products, but I know I’m on the right track,” she said.

Ahn is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors looking to stand on their own feet by launching startups.

No exact number is available to document the number of North Korean defectors running startups or the size of their operations, but the growing number of startup accelerator programs is an indicator of a slight increase in this trend. Currently, a handful of organizations, including the Bridge and the Asan Nanum Foundation, offer support programs for North Koreans aspiring to found a startup.

The Bridge, a Seoul-based nonprofit that empowers social entrepreneurs in developing countries and South Korea, launched a startup accelerator program for North Korean defectors five years ago. The Asan Nanum Foundation, run by conglomerate Hyundai Group, runs Asan Sanghoe, a four-month entrepreneurship boot camp program for North Korean resettlers and foreign-born participants who speak Korean.

Their goals are to foster entrepreneurship among North Korean defectors by providing training, as well as helping them develop marketing strategies and find investors and sales channels.

“There are some stereotypes about North Korean defectors that they are vulnerable and in constant need of help. Indeed, many nonprofits are created to solve this problem alone, because many North Koreans have the potential to create a startup, ”Hwang Jin-sol, founder and director of Bridge, told Korea Herald.

“Those who have potential as business people, from the standpoint of the startup industry, may still need more time and effort to acquire the necessary skills, which makes them less proficient. than the creators of South Korean startups. Therefore, those with commercial potential are actually placed in a gray area, ”Hwang said. “And we want to help them move forward and thrive in the startup business.”

Even though North Korean resettlers have had the courage to cross the border, it can be difficult for them to acquire the skills they need to found startups given the disparities in education and experience between them and their families. South Korean competitors. Lower credit scores also make it difficult for them to get the much-needed financing.

A network of people linked by regional ties, family ties or having attended the same school is considered a valuable resource in South Korea. The Bridge works to put them in contact with South Korean entrepreneurs to help North Korean entrepreneurs make up for the lack of such a network.

Even though it is premature to say that these programs have been successful, the latest generation of northern settlers in South Korea are presenting more diverse business ideas than just a few years ago when North Korean restaurants were the main focus. Today, they have spread to web design and businesses that sell preserved flowers.

According to a survey conducted by the Federation of North Korean Industries, an organization dedicated to North Koreans who run businesses in South Korea, in 2015 the two main industries were catering and retail.

This trend is also reflected in North Koreans’ demands for startup acceleration programs – their ideas are simple and their target customers are usually their compatriots or Korean Chinese familiar with the culture they come from. Simply put, they weren’t in the same stage as the IT startups that have become synonymous with success. Their ideas, such as North Korean foods and souvenirs, were rooted in the only things defectors could bring with them from the border – their experience and skills.

But Kim Ria, another defector turned start-up CEO, wanted to do something new. She started a business making preserved flowers – something that doesn’t exist in North Korea.

“Preserved flowers are popular in Japan and the United States, but North Koreans are not familiar with them,” she said. “It’s a bit pricey due to the expensive raw materials, but I thought it was something you wanted to receive as a gift.”

Before his defection from the North, Kim worked for a state-owned company for two years and had to haul stones and earth for construction projects. Having been assigned to this job, she had no choice but to work there 14 hours a day without pay or any recompense.

“The work never stopped there. People were bleeding from their noses because of the harsh working conditions. They passed out in the sun. So I quit work, ”said Kim, who crossed the border eight years ago for fear of being punished for being unemployed for more than a year in the north.

Although her company, Flower Is Ria, is a humble one-man start-up, she dreams big.

North Koreans are taught to lay flowers in front of statues of the country’s founder – Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current ruler – and his son Kim Jong-il on their birthdays and birthdays. their deaths, but other than that, the state has no traditions involving flowers.

“If the two Koreas ever manage to reunite, I want to introduce North Korea to flower growing, like going to flower festivals in spring and giving bouquets as gifts to lovers and family members, not just to the Kim family, ”she said. .

These young entrepreneurs give us a taste of reunification, Hwang said. North Koreans living in South Korea, who have experienced life on both sides of the border, could become mediators and help minimize trial and error if true reunification takes place, he added. Once the two parties are unified, they are the ones who will be able to come up with optimized business ideas.

“There is no better practical reason to prepare for reunification than to start a business together. Cooperating with companies established here would greatly empower North Korean entrepreneurs, ”Hwang said.

By Park Han-na ([email protected]) and Park Ga-young ([email protected])

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