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(Yonhap Feature) N. Korean defector dreams of rebuilding homeland one day through business

All Headlines 14:33 March 09, 2011

By Sam Kim

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- To 47-year-old North Korean defector Han Pil-soo, running a business in South Korea means more than just getting rich and enjoying a life that he, as a poor miner in his communist homeland, could only dream of.

Head of a sizable trading company, which last year sold tens of millions of U.S. dollars worth of goods such as detergent, shampoo and water, Han now dreams of instilling the hope of a North Korea both free and prosperous into the hearts of the fellow defectors he hires.

His company, Hansung Trading Co. based in Seoul, already employs 37 North Korean defectors -- over 80 percent of its entire personnel -- who work in the two separate divisions of online merchandising and conventional exports that mostly go to northeastern China.

Han says those defectors -- including the hundreds of others he hopes to hire in the future as his business further grows -- bear the potential to become the vanguards of reconstruction when the repressive regime in Pyongyang falls one day.

"These people are our hope when North Korea someday collapses and needs good people to rebuild itself," Han said in a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency. "For now, the most rewarding part of my job is to teach my workers the business skills they'll need."

Han, who spent several years in hiding in China before he came to South Korea, said he set up his company a year after arriving in 2002 with only 150 million won (US$134,000), soliciting the money from his friends and relatives.

Since then, he has nurtured the firm into one that posted 25.9 billion won in sales in 2009 alone. Growing on the back of Web commerce, his company launched Livinghom -- an online shopping mall that sells a gamut of daily necessaries -- while targeting the growing number of Chinese consumers who prefer South Korean products to local ones.

"Chinese people's fondness of South Korean culture helped my business grow," he said, citing Hallyu, a term that refers to the popularity of South Korean pop stars and dramas among Asians.

Han said his marketing activities largely target those who have worked in South Korea before and would like to continue to use the country's products even after they returned home.

Every year, scores of Chinese with ethnic Korean roots come to South Korea to work and achieve what many describe as the "Korean Dream." As of July last year, over 280,000 Chinese were staying here with working permits, according to the Justice Ministry.

"I witnessed the people who wanted South Korean products when I was in China," he said. "I knew that, considering the huge Chinese population, they would make a solid market for my future business."

Han's ultimate ambition as a businessman is to be able to hire every North Korean defector in South Korea who has a family to feed.

Having struggled himself to secure start-up money because of widespread prejudice toward defectors, Han said he understands the economic troubles facing the minority better than anyone.

"I won't consider myself successful until I'm successful enough to hire every North Korean defector with a family here," he said, providing by fax a balance sheet that showed his firm had the capital of 1.9 billion won as of the end of 2009. (He said he was unable to provide the latest sheet because his accountants had yet to complete the 2010 tally.)

Unification Ministry officials, who are in charge of the initial resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea, said they did not immediately hear of Han, only saying that an increasing number of defectors are becoming successful in their careers here.

Over 20,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce. Most of them have fled via China and other countries due to the heavily fortified border than separates the two Koreas.

Defectors can become South Korean citizens after arriving and finishing three months of resettlement training at a government facility.

Challenged by widening differences, however, in culture, language and ideas between the Koreas, defectors are far likelier to stay unemployed or poor here, government officials say.


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