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North Korea defectors' capitalist dreams wilt in South

  • Story Highlights
  • North Korean defectors regarded as under qualified for the South's labor market
  • North Koreans face criminals who target them as easy prey
  • Over half end up unemployed; those who find work often earn only a pittance
  • Defectors often feel like second-class citizens, regarded as a welfare burden
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SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) -- A tasty bowl of cold noodles knows no political boundaries on the divided Korean peninsula and that has helped make defector Kim Yong a successful businessman.

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North Korean defectors fill out job applications during an employment lecture in Seoul, South Korea.

Kim, who runs a restaurant in the Seoul suburbs specializing in North Korean cuisine, is one of a handful of defectors making a living in the capitalist South selling goods linked to the communist country of his birth.

Most North Korean defectors have been bystanders to the South's economic boom, overwhelmed by their new environment, facing employers who see them as under qualified for a cutthroat labor market and criminals who target them as easy prey.

"Many North Koreans come here to escape starvation. They do not bring skills or money with them," said Kim, adding few had the business acumen or capital to crack into the market.

"So many defectors try to open their own business, but they disappear within a year. They don't realize how competitive capitalism is in the South."

The first of the more than 10,000 North Koreans who defected to the South came in a trickle, often members of the hermit-state's elite with the skills to find jobs in a land that celebrated their arrival.

Nowadays, they are more likely to be women laborers and farmers from North Hamkyong province, a rocky land bordering China known for its prison camps and as an economic backwater in an already impoverished country.

One of Seoul's greatest fears is that its northern neighbor will collapse sending millions across the border, creating turmoil in the prosperous South.

South Korea is a fervent advocate of dialogue with the North, including the current international talks to end Pyongyang's atomic arms ambitions in return for aid which many say will help keep its leaders in power and avoid abrupt political change.

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They started arriving en masse in the mid to late 1990s, fleeing a famine that experts say may have killed about 10 percent of the 22 million population.

With few skills and speaking Korean with an unmistakable accent, they rarely fit in.

Even though South Korea trains defectors to adjust to their new lives, more than half wind up unemployed and those who do find work often earn only a pittance, according to a survey from Seoul National University.

About one in four defectors has fallen victim to crime in the South, most often defrauded of their welfare stipends by earlier defectors, a government study earlier this year said.

Kim, who fled to the South about 16 years ago and soon became a TV personality, now runs a restaurant called Morangak, in the Seoul suburb of Ilsan, with branches across the country.

Its best-selling dish is Pyongyang cold noodles at 6,000 won ($6.54), served in a clear, vinegar broth garnished with slices of beef. Kim has also pitched his instant noodles on TV home shopping channels.

Kim weathered a year where he did "little more than chase flies" because his North Korean cuisine was not to the taste of customers in the South.

He learned to include more meat, make portions generous and change a way of cooking from the North based on stretching sparse ingredients to that of the South where food is abundant.

His restaurant now serves about 1,000 people a day on weekdays and 3,000 on weekends.

Still technically at war with the North, South Korea has taught generations of its children that Pyongyang's leaders are devils and has stringent anti-communist laws to throttle any influence from across the border.

Defectors say they often feel like second-class citizens in a country where many see them as a burden on the welfare system.

The North's missile test in July 2006 and its first nuclear test three months later have made South Koreans more suspicious of their communist neighbors, opinion polls show.

While trade between the two Koreas has increased over the past few years and now tops more than $1 billion annually, there are almost no North Korean goods on South Korean store shelves.

The few items from the North are poorly-made cigarettes, cheap alcohol and ginseng often sold near the border.

Yet, despite the prejudice, a few defectors say they have found a receptive audience by selling the idea of a shared Korean identity which transcends their heavily armed border.

Defector Lim Yoo-kyung, 20, jumped on that bandwagon with her accordion.

Lim is a member of the Tallae Music Band, a group of young female defectors who play traditional Korean tunes virtually unknown to young South Koreans who are fed a diet of hip hop.

"I thought people would feel uncomfortable or disapprove of our group because we're from North Korea," said Lim.

"However, the reaction has been 180 degrees different from what I expected. They accepted us as people from one nation."

Defector Jong Su-ban learned success can be fleeting.

Jong once did well in the cold noodle business. But a sales slump and swindlers led him to close his three stores.

"North Korean defectors can't succeed yet," Jong said.

"I did expect much more on my arrival here, but...it's better than what I would ever have had in the North." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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