Fleeing North Korea 11 years ago, Heo Jun sought a better life, studied hard and won a prized admission to South Korea’s most prestigious university. But his aspirations have swung to a profession where a fancy degree isn’t required: YouTube star.
Mr. Heo has made videos challenging strangers to hug a “commie, spy or traitor.” He’s shown people tasting North Korean food, defectors trying dating apps and filmed his own exasperated reaction watching a music video by BTS, the mega-popular South Korean boy band. His subscribers recently surged past 100,000.
“We defectors have an advantage in attracting attention,” says Mr. Heo, 27, who says he earns several thousand dollars a month from advertising revenue—enough to suspend his studies at Seoul National University. He is one semester away from graduation, though he says he is in no rush to embark on a traditional career path.
“Why would I work for a company when I can make enough money off my YouTube channel?” says Mr. Heo, who lives in a chic downtown Seoul studio apartment.
Before becoming a full-time YouTuber, Mr. Heo had started a nonprofit company trying to promote more harmony between North and South Koreans. The endeavor didn’t gain nearly as much traction as his first video uploaded two years ago, where he stood blindfolded in a bustling Seoul neighborhood and asked strangers for hugs. It attracted more than four million views.
He’ll continue to make YouTube videos to improve Korean ties—so long as they remain popular, he says. “My North Korean background shouldn’t be a shame,” Mr. Heo says, “It’s who I am.”