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[Social Integration Case Presentation Contest] How we became a family
NKRF Date 2024-02-26 Hit 116

How we became a family 


Kim Seong-hee 


Today, I would like to share with you the important experience that I and Hanadoga, the only traditional North Korean alcoholic beverage manufacturing company in the Republic of Korea, gained during the process of integrating North and South Korean society.

I am grateful for the Republic of Korea, but it was a place I had never known before. From the beginning, the process of moving from socialism to capitalism and settling here left me with painful memories of social prejudice as a “North Korean refugee.” This is the story of the challenging journey that my daughter and I had to overcome that pain.

‘Yukryeong-ri, Eumseong-gun, Chungcheongbuk-do’ 

This is the place where I came after crossing the border because I wanted to raise my 3-year-old daughter well, and the birth place of my best work. Of course, things didn’t go smoothly from the beginning. My daughter had a hard time, being hospitalized frequently due to colds and pneumonia that she caught regardless of the season!

I had to be away from work to take care of my daughter a lot so I was forced to resign from the company I worked at, and when I offered hometown cuisine to an elderly neighbor, I was refused at the door, but I was not disappointed. In their eyes, my daughter and I were just strangers, so what does it mean to be a successful North Korean refugee? I thought I would be like family to my neighbors in the community and not a stranger. 

In the beginning, when my daughter and I were settling in the area and meeting our neighbors, we would greet them first, take up things that others didn’t want to do, and proudly announce that we were North Korean refugees. I learned about the local culture from my colleagues at work, informed them about North Korean culture that they were interested in, and faithfully played a role in closing the cultural differences between North and South. 

In addition, I would hear stories of successful settlements and business start-ups by my predecessors who defected from North Korea, and thought about whether the success stories of single parents of North Korean refugees like me could give hope to the people of North Korea. I started looking for what I could do best and what only I could offer. I believed that knowledge is power, so I used my days off to learn a lot about starting a business. During the day, I was an honest office worker, and at night I attended online classes studying business administration and social welfare, while my young daughter slept next to me. 

In the process, I decided on ‘Hanadoga’, a North Korean traditional alcoholic beverage that our family had drunk, as the main item of a new business. After getting off work, I would run to the Korea House Yangju Research Institute in Bangbae-dong to learn about Korean traditions and examples of business start-ups that utilized those traditions. 

In the end, with the Hana Foundation’s support fund and retirement allowance, I decided to establish a small brewery called, ‘Hanadoga’ in Chungcheongbuk-do, a region that is most similar to my hometown and water taste. After learning how to prepare the documents and submitting them, I obtained a liquor manufacturing license after trying to do so nine times, and in order to save money, I started selling my first product in October 2019 by doing everything from epoxy work to partition construction myself. As the people who were not yet familiar with the product became familiar with it and it slowly started selling, COVID happened. 

I didn’t blame my bad luck or give up but instead I continued to cultivate prickly pear, which was an auxiliary ingredient, and focused on making my products. In addition, I worked several part-time jobs, including early morning delivery, office assistance, and school meal delivery to survive the difficult times of COVID. Believing that “only by believing and trusting in myself can our products be chosen by customers”, we have spared no effort to earn their trust by consistently serving our neighbors and local residents. I would also spend every Saturday visiting a nearby farm to help out during the busy farming season and thought of it as paying tribute to my parents.

As I always willingly and consistently worked hard for my neighbors, the president of the women’s association, who was like a real sister to me, always gave me the first harvest from her garden. Also, the elderly chairman would clip newspaper articles with my name in them and save any TV footage in the USB for me. He was like a father to me and looked out for me. Just as a tree with deep roots cannot fall, I firmly planted my feet in the area where I live, and my daughter and I along with ‘Hanadoga’ went from strangers to family-like neighbors. 

We were so grateful to the local people who gave us a place in their lives and embraced us that starting in 2019, when our annual sales were barely 10 million won, we donated a portion of our sales to ‘disabled North Korean refugees’, ‘North Korean refugee cancer patients’, and ‘local orphanages’. 

Now that our business has grown a bit more, we are increasing our support groups to include local nursing homes, out-of-school youth centers, and associations for the physically disabled. Some people say that volunteering is something you do after you succeed when they see me working at the brewery on weekdays, forgetting to eat, and running around supporting and volunteering with my daughter on weekends. 

However, I don’t believe that success is something you can achieve alone.

I believe that the success of ‘North Korean refugees’ and ‘North Korean refugee companies’ in settling is achieved when we become residents who are respected and loved by local residents and the companies become what their hometown is proud of, and our products become luxury brands and are recognized for their value. 

The reason I came here today was because I thought that my resettlement story might be of some help in overcoming the difficulties of ‘North Korean refugee entrepreneurs’ who may have started businesses based on social prejudice, weak financial resources, and the still unfamiliar traditional culture of North Korea that we have. 

In the early days of our business, one person who tasted our liquor for the first time spat it out in front of me and got angry, asking how I could drink it. 

At that time I was surprised, but it made me think. South Koreans who have lived in warm regions are used to low-alcohol drinks, so they may not be used to high-alcohol drinks from cold regions in the North, but then I thought maybe surprisingly there could be a number of people who would try high-alcohol drinks.

We stayed up all night and made more drinks as we anticipated those brave souls.

It turned out one brave soul did come along and brought three friends who connected us with business partners and that was how Hanadoga’s liquor business has been steadily growing. 

When the elderly neighbor asked, ‘Why did the commies come all the way here?’, I would tell them that I ran all the way from the North to here to help out at their farm during the busy season. 

This was how I was accepted into the community, by choosing to understand them first, and so little by little, I became the daughter, brother, and sister of the local residents. 

We ‘North Korean refugees’ are never lonely. 

There is the Hana Foundation, a support organization that you can lean on when times are difficult, a local Hana center where you can have a chat and a cup of tea, and there are hometown friends who are only a phone call away and who will cry and laugh with you in a heartbeat. I hope that all of us are not intimidated by social prejudices and conflicts that still remain and we continue to challenge ourselves until the end. 

I believe that one ‘North Korean refugee’ businessman can be a sign of hope for 33,000 ‘North Korean refugees’ and can serve as a very powerful tool to shake the public sentiment in North Korea. 

They say that if you share difficulties, they are halved, and if you share joy, they are doubled. I hope that we will not get tired and move forward vigorously until the day when we can show our parents and siblings in North Korea that we have achieved a small unification through the experience of social integration that no one has been able to achieve before. 

Thank you​