Ms. Lee, who works as a dishwasher in South Korea, received a vocational college degree in public health and nutrition [while living in her native North Korea] and worked as a chef at a resort facility. However, South Korea generally does not recognize degrees that are earned in North Korea, because the content and standards of education are very different.
Ms. Lee had decided to leave her home town when her husband, recently discharged from the military, was unable to get a job because her younger brother had fled to China. Her husband and his side of the family bitterly complained that his wife’s brother had ruined them—which he probably had, thanks to the North Korean government policy of blacklisting the entire family when one member departs without permission for China. She decided to escape from her uncomfortable home life and go to China to look for her brother.
The biggest problem with this plan was that she had a six year old son, but on one snowy winter day she embarked on her uncertain journey to China. She managed to get to China and eventually reach South Korea, using her savings and selling her wedding ring. She was now diligently saving up the $5,000 it would cost to hire a broker to retrieve her son.
My first question to Ms. Lee was, “What is the most difficult thing to bear living in South Korea?” “Missing my son, surely. My job at this large Korean restaurant is dish washing, which is not difficult, but what I hate more than anything is that we throw away tons of food, including meat and rice that would be a delicacy in the North. Whenever I throw this food away, I cry thinking of my son, who rarely had a chance to eat meat and rice.”
A few days later, I happened to visit a coffee shop whose owner was a wealthy Korean who had studied in the United States and opened the café in order to meet interesting people. When the owner complained that it was difficult to find a reliable person to manage the café, I told the owner that I might be able to find her a good manager, describing Ms. Lee’s qualifications and the owner sounded interested. Then I added, “The only difference between this candidate and others is that she is a North Korean defector.”
The owner almost shouted at me, “You must be kidding. Look at our café. The place is filled with valuable porcelains and paintings and antique furniture, and I have a very sophisticated clientele. How can I trust a defector, who may steal things and alienate my customers?”
The next morning I received a call from the owner. “I apologize. I’ve been thinking about your candidate and our mutual friend has convinced me that I should interview her for the job.”
Ms. Lee got the job, and a year later when I visited the café I couldn’t recognize her at all. She wore a smart new hairstyle and dressed in a stylish but conservative manner. The owner thanked me profusely. “Since she came here we have more customers and are making more money. Everybody loves her. She is a great asset.” When I talked with Ms. Lee, she was equally satisfied. “I love my job. People are very kind to me. I appreciate my new life in the South these days.”
[The Brookings Institution]