As of this year, there are about 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea,
according to the Unification Ministry. They have started a new life with humanitarian support.
Far from simply remaining beneficiaries of support from others, some of them have turned
themselves into contributors by launching volunteer groups or social enterprises.
UniSeed volunteers, mostly undergraduate students who are North Korean defectors, hand out lunchboxes to homeless people near Seoul Station.
The notion that North Korean defectors are content with merely receiving help is a stereotype as wrongful and unhelpful as the view that they are simply preoccupied with the hardships of adapting to their new environment. Those are sheer prejudices. That generosity and altruism are innate human qualities is well established by biological and behavioral sciences, including the tendency of people in need to help others in a worse situation.
A small group of people has broken the hard shell of such prejudices. They formed a volunteer group called UniSeed, consisting of some 50 undergraduate students who are North Korean defectors and six young South Koreans. Members of UniSeed, short for Seed of Unification, raise funds for meals they themselves prepare and distribute once a month to people who live rough near Seoul Station. These students from North Korea believe that homeless people are in worse situations than they themselves who are going through tough times surviving in a new society.
The group works on a variety of charity activities year-round, reaching out to share what comforts they can offer to people in need: They pool money to give gifts to child welfare facilities and make kimchi that they deliver, along with coal briquettes for heating, to residents of poor neighborhoods. Almost every month, they also gather donations for daily necessities and clothing to send to defectors who are hiding in China and other countries. Through such activities, they are putting into action their group’s slogan: “Young people of the two Koreas should get together to communicate with each other through sharing and become one by loving each other.”
A Taste of Unification
About 10 UniSeed volunteers arrive at the kitchen of the Mallihyeon Methodist Church near Seoul Station at 1 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month. They are assigned different tasks and work quickly and efficiently, mindful of a self-imposed deadline. They cook rice, soup and pork bulgogi; they stir-fry dried anchovies, make a salad of squid with cucumbers, or pickle kimchi. They prepare different kinds of soups and side dishes each season. They make hot fish-cake soup or soybean paste soup in winter, fresh wild greens salad in spring, and chilled cucumber soup in summer.
At 5 p.m., the young volunteers deliver the boxed meals they prepared as an early dinner to about 200 homeless people at Seoul Station Plaza. It costs them 600,000 won to make boxed dinners for about 200 people; they chip in their own pocket money and raise the rest of the amount by selling small handicraft items they produce. Sometimes, they join contests to raise money, and the cash prizes they win help fund the meals they prepare. It is not easy to raise money and cook so many meals but they feel rewarded when they hear words of thanks from the people they serve.
Esther Um, the founder and head of UniSeed, is a senior majoring in Chinese language at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. She began delivering boxed dinners to homeless people in Seoul in July 2014. She launched the effort with the help of four other students from North Korea with 2.5 million won she had received as scholarship.
Like any fledgling effort, they learned by trial and error how to do such outreach right; even with the best intentions, gestures of caring can fall short. They once made 700 boxes of tofu rice (fried bean curd chunks stuffed with rice), a North Korean dish, to distribute among homeless people, wanting to help alleviate their hunger and at the same time to offer a taste of North Korean food. But contrary to their expectations, the recipients of the boxed meals did not seem to like it. The unfamiliar food did not suit their taste. This taught the volunteers a lesson: Helping is not one-sided giving; it must be a response to what people in need want. They realized that more than anything else, people who live rough just want a warm bowl of rice and delicious soybean paste soup. This prompted them to prepare homestyle meals.
Hurt feelings come with the territory, and volunteers learn to take them in stride. Some of the homeless men would snap at them in a fit of temper, “Why didn’t you bring us water?” Others simply rejected their lunch boxes, saying, “I’ll not eat what pinkos are giving us.” But as time went by, heartwarming gestures came, too, moving the volunteers’ hearts. On an autumn day in 2014, Um was about to leave after serving boxed meals when one of the men approached and handed her a bag of three small glutinous rice cakes and an orange. She was deeply moved by this small gift, thinking aloud, “He must have received them from someone and stashed them away to eat later…”
On a sweltering summer day in 2015, another man made a fan out of cardboard and fanned perspiring volunteers who were delivering warm food to them. A growing sense of appreciation for the volunteers arose from the people they served, manifested in different gestures. When it rained, some of them would hold umbrellas over the busy volunteers, and after the boxed meals were delivered, more and more of them joined the volunteers in cleaning up the area. Some even came back to return their meals, having found it hard to eat them after hearing that they had been prepared by young defectors who were struggling for survival themselves.
Three years after the launch of UniSeed, the volunteers are now being received with open arms. Um said she once heard a man say, “I sometimes sense that people from other volunteer groups work mechanically. But I can feel sincerity in what the UniSeed people are doing.” This made her decide to hang in there despite difficulties, she added.
Cho Eun-hee, a UniSeed volunteer from North Korea, said, “At first, I didn’t have the courage to approach homeless people because I was scared. But now, I can ask them how they’re doing. I can’t wait for our days of service to them.”
UniSeed decided to reach out to people who live rough on the streets in the first place because its members believed that their lives were no less tough than that of people with disabilities or elderly people living in poverty. Kim Mi-jeong, another volunteer, observed, “South Koreans don’t seem to like seeing us help homeless people. They seem to consider them undeserving of help because they drink too much or behave in an unruly manner.”
Volunteers of UniSeed, short for “seed of unification,” hold up a banner announcing a plan to give food to homeless people at Seoul Station Plaza. UniSeed was founded in 2014 by Esther Um (fourth from right), a senior majoring in Chinese language at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Sense of Self-worth
Um barely reached South Korea on her second attempt. In March 2004, she fled North Korea but was captured in China and repatriated in October that year. In 2006, she fled to China again, and in 2008, she finally reached South Korea. In the process, she had to helplessly watch her mother and younger sister get caught by Chinese police in Yanji, northeast China.
Hopeless and desperate, she considered ending her own life. But then she happened to see an old man on a street who had no limbs and held a brush between his lips, writing calligraphy to make a living. Deeply touched by the scene, she regained her courage to live on. She suddenly felt compelled to help other people and visited an institution for people with disabilities. But when she said she wanted to do volunteer work there, a staffer told her to show them her ID card first. It made her feel very sad. “For a defector, even doing a good deed is neither simple nor easy,” she thought.
She then went to Angels’ Haven, a welfare center for people with disabilities that an acquaintance had told her about right after she arrived in South Korea. Thus began her volunteer activities. Every Saturday, she rose early in the morning, helped people wash themselves, and cleaned every corner of the center. She never skipped a single Saturday despite her busy schedule as a student and part-time worker. Sometimes she had a nosebleed. But the volunteer service was the only pleasure she found in South Korea.
She said, “I’ve strongly felt through doing volunteer service that I’m also needed somewhere. I found my pride buoyed significantly when I realized that I could do something for somebody else, not simply letting myself be helped by others.”
She dedicated herself more to doing volunteer service after tragedy struck her family once again. She became deeply depressed when she received news about her younger brother’s death in the North and when her mother, whom she had managed to spirit out of the country by spending as much as 10 million won in bribes, was diagnosed with cancer. Once again, she was on the verge of suicide when the faces of volunteers, who had cheered her up and showed sympathy for her, flashed across her mind. This second close call made her realize, she said, that “doing volunteer work is also a solution preventing defectors from making extreme choices.” She has a point: Statistics show that the suicide rate among North Korean defectors is three times as high as that of South Koreans.
Rising above the devastation caused by her own family’s tragedy, Um launched UniSeed in 2014 to help other defectors regain their sense of self-worth. She persuaded people she knew to allow volunteers to use a kitchen and supply them with chopsticks and lunchboxes for the meals they would prepare. She also founded Osundosun, meaning “amiably and harmoniously,” a social enterprise that produces and sells North Korean foods to raise funds for a more stable operation of UniSeed.
In 2015, Osundosun won a top prize in a national social venture competition sponsored by the Korea Social Enterprise Promotion Agency. Its staff underwent a refresher self-reliance course run by the Korea Racing Authority. Since November 2016, Osundosun has been running a food truck business with the help of the SEAM (Social Entrepreneurship and Mission) Center, a faith-based community project in Seongdong District, Seoul, that supports social enterprises. Um now plans to expand her services by launching UniSeed Company based on the food truck business.
She envisions branches of UniSeed Company sprouting at each college and university campus for young people from both Koreas to join hands and create an environment for unification. Through this effort, she wants to see defectors become a bridge for the era of unification, instead of simply being South Korean residents. This will open a genuine way for defectors to settle down here, she believes.
“I’ve strongly felt through
doing volunteer service that
I’m also needed somewhere.
I found my pride buoyed
significantly when I realized
that I could do something for
somebody else, not simply
letting myself be helped by
Returning Love Received
Besides UniSeed, there are other volunteer groups operated by defectors. One of them is the Chakhan Volunteer Group. (The word “chakhan” here refers to defectors who have arrived in South Korea; its pronunciation implies “good” or “good-hearted.”) Chakhan is made up of 10 small volunteer clubs selected by the Korea Hana Foundation, an agency under the Unification Ministry helping defectors to settle down here. Since its launch in November 2015, Chakhan has been organizing joint volunteer work by its member clubs, each with more than 50 percent of North Korean defectors as their members, two or three times a year.
An official of the Korea Hana Foundation said, “The Chakhan project was launched to help defectors strengthen their resolve to settle down smoothly here and achieve social unity by raising their awareness as contributors, not simply as beneficiaries. Through volunteer service, they can return love, which they have received here, to neighbors in need.”
In April this year, Chakhan volunteers planted trees in a forest developed on a landfill in Incheon, thinking of their own hometowns back in the North, together with volunteers from Kia Motors. The event was doubly significant in that South and North Koreans joined hands planting trees that will be sent to the North after they have grown, affirming their shared dream for national unification. The defectors who planted trees that day were volunteers from Chakhan member clubs, such as Gwangmyeong Hana Hyanguhoe (Gwangmyeong Hana Residents Group), Hana Bongsahoe (Hana Volunteers Group) and Saeteomin Haetbit Saranghoe (Defectors Who Love Sunshine).
“I heard of ‘volunteer service’ for the first time in my life after I arrived in South Korea,” said Kwak Su-jin, the head of Hana Bongsahoe, which is affiliated with the Korean Red Cross. “We started volunteer service to help neighbors in need and change people’s perception of defectors.”
Ahn Yeong-ae, who hails from Musan in the North Korean province of North Hamgyong, said, “Most mountains in the North are bald. I planted trees in hopes of transplanting them to my hometown after unification.”
Chakhan volunteers’ joint service activities started on May 14, 2016. They did their first volunteer service in a ferry port village in Yeoncheon County, Gyeonggi Province. It is one of South Korea’s northernmost villages, close to the Demilitarized Zone. They served North Korean dishes to the elderly, painted the walls of houses, cleaned roads and beautified the streetscape. The dishes the volunteers prepared included popular North Korean foods, such as cold noodles garnished with shoots of wild fatsia greens, North Korean-style dumplings, tofu rice and soy-meat. In May 2016, Chakhan volunteers mowed and trimmed greenery around the tombs of the unknown soldiers at the National Cemetery.
Besides Chakhan, about 50 other groups of North Korean defectors have also been doing volunteer service across the country since 2015.