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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Refugee Success Stories

by | October 4th, 2013 | 06:27 am

The challenges faced by North Korean refugees are a recurrent theme of this blog. But along with the challenges come some triumphs, and its Friday, so maybe it’s time for some good news. Simon Mundy of the Financial Times recently profiled four North Korean migrants who are making it—more or less successfully—in South Korea.

Immigrants tend to be less risk adverse than the general population. In Witness to Transformation, Steph Haggard and I documented entrepreneurial inclinations of many of the migrants. The refugees who had come from areas away from the immediate Chinese border region, and hence had to make even greater efforts to escape, were particularly entrepreneurially inclined.

Most of the people profiled in Mundy’s piece operated small shops and businesses, often financed through a variety of microfinance projects that have been established to help refugees.

Kim Dae-sung is the most striking example. Kim now drives a Hyundai luxury sedan, but as a kid in Hyesan, rations started getting short in 1983, and in 1986 they ceased altogether. (This observation reinforces a theme that I have raised repeatedly—namely that North Korea’s food problems are longstanding; they did not start in 1995.) The teenager began trading contraband cigarettes, alcohol, spices, and other goods smuggled from China. But with no banking system his money was repeatedly confiscated (today the police would probably just ask for a cut) and he was jailed for a spell. But he kept at it and his skills served him well when North Korea entered the famine period of the 1990s. As he observes, “the people who did what they were supposed to do were the ones who died.” Sadly, one of those was his mother.

The next year, 1997, he crossed into China, never looking back. He followed a fairly conventional male refugee path: working in forestry, agriculture, and construction before being taken in by a Christian missionary. What followed was a long and dangerous second migration into southwestern China, Myanmar, and Laos, before finally presenting himself at the South Korean embassy in Thailand.

Once in Korea, Kim managed to land a scholarship to study Chinese at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and soon after graduation, with the support of Yoo Jae-hoon, a senior official at the Financial Services Commission, he started a microfinance operation. It has extended $1.8 million in credit to 43 other North Korean immigrant entrepreneurs. He has since started two more businesses: trading consumer goods and manufacturing team-branded baseball caps.

I suppose it is inevitable that sometimes we lose track of the hard won victories and extraordinary achievements of North Koreans whose names are unlikely to ever make the news. Kudos to Simon Mundy and the editors at the FT for telling their stories. Can you imagine what Kim Dae-sung might accomplish running a bank in a free North Korea?