SEOUL — Ten dollars is all it takes to become a shareholder in the Yovel coffee shop. It’s not about the money. It’s about the investment.
Joseph Park wants North Korean escapers like him to buy in, literally and emotionally, to his venture.
“There are a handful of coffee shops and restaurants in South Korea that employ North Koreans, but they don’t have any decision-making power, they just get orders from the South Koreans,” Park said over steaming Americanos in one of the two branches of the Yovel cafe.
“They don’t get a chance to learn and take responsibility. No one lasts more than a year because they don’t have a stake in it,” he said. “That’s why, when I started this company, I wanted to give North Koreans power to make decisions.”
There are more than 28,000 Koreans who have escaped the North and now live in the South, and many struggle to make it in this frenetic society.
When they arrive, most have never used a computer or owned a credit card. They don’t understand this Korean full of English loanwords like “cup” and “tissue.” How do you pay for a sweet potato latte with a smartphone?
The daily confusion — plus the pure relentlessness of life after the communist North, where there is little in the way of work or money — means that many struggle to hold down jobs in the capitalist South.
This will be a huge challenge for South Korea if, or rather when, unification happens.
The South offers some job training to the North Koreans who make it here. After three months in a reception center, they can choose to continue with vocational training, such as hairdressing, welding or car repair. But these classes are not popular, with most defectors eager to get out in the “real” South Korea. Only 174 have opted for such courses this year, according to the Unification Ministry.
The Southern government also offers support for employers who hire defectors — currently a maximum of $500 per month for the first four years.
But Park, drawing on his own experience of arriving in the South, bewildered, 11 years ago, took a different approach.
After President Park Geun-hye said last year that reunification would be a “jackpot” for South Korea because of the economic opportunities it would provide, Joseph Park approached businesses with a message: “You have to practice for unification with real North Koreans.”
He tried to sell them on the idea of “creating shared value” — an idea he got from Harvard Business School readings — but had little success. Then, last year, he saw a newspaper column by the chairwoman of the Industrial Bank of Korea, a state-run lender, saying that South Korea should support North Korean entrepreneurs.
“So I brought my proposal to IBK. I said I was a North Korean entrepreneur, please help me,” said Park, now 33, who left North Korea during the mid-1990s famine and, like many defectors, has become a Christian in South Korea. He chose the name Joseph from the Book of Genesis, after the son of Jacob who helped his brothers during a famine, even though they had sold him into slavery in Egypt.
He told them his idea for a “social enterprise” — coffee shops inside the bank’s buildings. South Koreans are huge coffee drinkers and think nothing of paying $4 or $5 for a cup of coffee.
“I said, ‘If you give us free space, I will give you cheap coffee, and you will make a greater social contribution,’ ” he recalled, speaking in fluent English.
“Three weeks later, they said: ‘We have two spots for you. We can give you the space but nothing else,’ ” he said. “So I said, ‘Sure, I can do it, even though I have no money.’ ”
He found people to invest — some put in $10, some $1,000 — and raised a total of $23,000, then got a $30,000 loan from a Catholic micro-financing organization.
Then he started setting up the cafes from scratch. “Every step of the way, I took North Koreans with me. We went to the government offices to register the business, we did all the paperwork. North Koreans didn’t know how to do that.”
He opened one cafe in an IBK building in Yongin, outside Seoul, in December, and this branch in central Seoul in April, which employs two escapers from North Korea. He calls the cafes “Yovel,” the Hebrew word for the “jubilee” period linked to property rights.
“North Korean people inside North Korea are like slaves, and they’re also slaves to capitalism in South Korea,” he said. “So I wanted to make a business for the North Koreans.”
Customers sometimes ask how defectors have been in the South, but usually they just enjoy the cheap coffee, which is $1 or $2 a cup. And the workers are happy, too.
“Honestly, North Korea defectors find it very difficult to settle down in South Korea because of the language differences and the cultural differences,” said Jang Eun-jung, who is 29 and has been in the South for a decade, muddling through with jobs in restaurants and beauty parlors before coming to work with Park.
For Jang, this work is much more fulfilling. “Before, I used to work for money, but now I feel like I’m working for my vision of after unification,” she said.
The cafes are not breaking even yet, but Park says that’s not the main aim.
Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at IBK’s Economic Research Institute and an expert on the North Korean economy, said that the cafe represents just the kind of approach South Korea will need as it takes in more and more North Koreans.
“We have about 28,000 North Koreans living in South Korea now,” he said. “If we fail to live harmoniously with them now, it would be much harder when the two Koreas are united. Therefore, it’s crucial for South Korea to create an environment where North Korean refugees can settle well and succeed.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.