Cho Kyung-ja (alias), a 33-year-old North Korean defector, is busy operating an espresso machine, preparing four cappuccinos, grinding, temping, frothing and sometimes wiping away beans that scatter here and there. As she lays the four cups down on a table, she shyly smiles.
At a glance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill coffee shop, but Cho is completing a two-month-long job training program arranged by a state-run agency supporting the resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea. She passed a barista test weeks earlier and now her last remaining hurdle that she has to overcome is the latte art test. Cho is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors eyeing job opportunities in coffee on the hope of landing a more stable and better-paying job, as well as better working conditions, than the manual and labor-intensive work many other defectors have to do to make ends meet.
In South Korea, coffee is closely interwoven in daily life. In sharp contrast in North Korea, buying a coffee would have been a luxury in a country where the per-capita annual income stands at a little over US$1,200.
Getting used to the new culture might be hard but it can be done with the passage of time. A much harder challenge for North Korean defectors aspiring to become baristas might be to develop a “taste” and getting necessary “skills” both for making coffee and dealing with customers, none of which they had done before in their former communist homeland.
This is where the South Korean government comes in and provides various forms of job training. This barista-training course was arranged by Hana Foundation, a state-run resettlement agency in partnership with Hanjoo College of Culinary Arts, a civilian job training institute.
Another North Korean defector, Lee Kyung-min (alias), who is also attending the program is aiming higher than most trainees. She plans to run her own shop in the near future.
According to government data, only about 12 percent of the
32,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea run their own business,
mostly in lodging, restaurant and transportation sectors, though it remains
unclear how many have been successful.