SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Korea Bizwire) – At first glance, Park Young-ho seems like any other young South Korean struggling either to set up his own businesses or find a job amid the slump in the local job market.
But he has something that sets him apart from the majority of South Koreans. He crossed the Tumen River into China at an age of 11, along with his older brother, to avoid starvation in North Korea.
The 26-year-old opened his first business earlier this year with a truck and started to sell coffee and toast to visitors at a race track in Gwacheon, just south of Seoul.
“Selling food on the side of the road in sub-zero temperatures is not easy at all,” Park told Yonhap News Agency at a quiet cafe in Gangnam district in southern Seoul last week. “Still, it was a hard-won chance and I am not going to let it slip away.”
Park is one of two North Korean defectors who were selected to open food trucks at the park, funded by the Ministry of Unification, Korea Racing Authority and Hyundai Motor Co.
Some 26,500 North Koreans have settled in the South after escaping from their home country as of November 2015, according to the government data. The Korean Peninsula has been divided since the end of World War II, with the communist North and capitalist South remaining technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
Some might think Park was lucky and privileged to have such an opportunity, but the path he has come through says something different.
Graduating from a local elementary school, Park started doing part-time jobs.
“Dish washing, cooking, delivery, you name it. I have done it all,” he said. “Whether legal or not, I had no choice.”
In 2012, Park had a chance to visit Germany through a government program on reunification education, where he witnessed people enjoying food and drinks on the streets.
After coming back to Sogang University in Seoul, Park started hashing out a plan for his own food truck business.
“I took a leave of absence last semester and began with market research,” Park said. “I met so many people to figure out their needs and visited dozens of companies with my business plan to seek support.”
Most of the companies turned him down, citing his lack of experience, age and background.
When the unification ministry issued the announcement to recruit food truck operators, however, Park was more prepared than anybody else.
“I was quite surprised to see other applicants who were barely prepared,” Park said. “Some had no idea what a food truck is.”
Park Sang-don, a ministry official handling the food truck program, said Park already talked about his plan of opening a food truck and suggested how the government and private sector could help in the process.
“When I later saw his name on the list of those selected for the program, I was not surprised,” Park said.
Food trucks are a fairly new business in South Korea. The government lifted the ban against food trucks in 2014 it had imposed on the businesses due to safety and sanitation concerns.
As of January 2016, there is a total of 118 legitimate food trucks in South Korea, including the two operated by the North Korean defectors, according to government officials. The figure in Seoul remains at 14.
It is fair to say that chances are slim for North Korean defectors to dive into newly arising industries when they already face a grim reality in settling down in the South amid high competition and persistent prejudice against them.
According to an annual survey by the state-funded Korea Hana Foundation, affiliated with the unification ministry, North Korean defectors are paid far less than South Koreans, while they work longer on average.
North Korean refugees’ monthly income increased to 1.47 million won (US$1,337) in 2014 from 1.41 million won a year earlier, but it is still just 66 percent of the 2.23 million won earned by South Koreans a month on average, the Seoul-based foundation said.
North Korean defectors, many of who perform physically demanding labor, work 47 hours a week, three hours more than South Koreans, the data showed.
The annual survey for 2015 will not be available until later this month.
Shin Hyo-sook, an official at the foundation, said the government is seeking to narrow the gap between South Koreans and the defectors but said the decisive factor always seems to lie in one’s attitude.
“After all, the most important thing is the individual’s will to get a job, whether by getting into a firm or opening one’s own business,” Shin said.
“Getting a job here is already a challenge,” Park said. “The label of defector makes it even more difficult.”
Kim Kyeong-bin, a 56-year-old woman who runs the other truck right next to Park, also started with dish washing when she first came to South Korea in 2006.
“My strong accent did not allow me a lot of choices (in terms of getting a job),” Kim said. “I obtained cook licenses in Korean and Western cuisine, hoping it would give more opportunities than just physical labor.”
Although South and North Koreans speak the same language, South Koreans do not understand some North Korean dialects and tend to look down upon people who speak with a strong North Korean accent.
In a situation where most defectors have to go to their part-time job after school, competing against ordinary South Koreans — who have English proficiency certificates as well as internship and study abroad experience — is just impossible, Park said.
“I did not think I had a chance of winning this standardized competition,” Park said. “That’s why I came out of the race and decided to do something of my own.”