In a city obsessed with thematic, niche cafes, the most unique–and perhaps most meaningful–cafe has opened its doors in Seoul a few months ago: a cafe started and run entirely by North Korean defectors.
There are over 27,000 North Korean defectors who have settled in South Korea and despite the South Korean government’s effort to assist the new citizens, the needs and challenges of North Korean defectors far exceed the available resources. Due to low skills, low salaries, discrimination, difficulties around cultural assimilation, and often times trauma among North Korean defectors, the suicide rate within this community is two and a half times that of South Korean natives.
YOVEL Col, Ltd, a social enterprise founded by a North Korean defector Joseph Park (or self-described “North Korean Newsettler”) has a mission to bridge the gap between North Korean defectors and South Korean natives in South Korea. They seek to understand the North Korean community in South Korea, identify their challenges and needs, and create business and social enterprise models to foster self-sufficiency. YOVEL established Cafe Red Cherry inside the Industrial Bank of Korea and has hired three full time North Korean employees. These three, among others, have been involved throughout the process of designing, establishing, and running this cafe.
YOVEL’s long term goal is to build community in North Korea. To create a community, according to Joseph Park, one needs self-sustaining economy, education, and healthcare. The community must be self sufficient and cannot chronically depend on churches, NGOs, and the government to provide for every need. So far, there have been many social enterprises run by South Koreans that employ North Koreans. However, Joseph noticed that many of the North Koreans working for these initiatives did not have much passion for their work. He realized that these folks needed ownership. In most initiatives to employ North Koreans thus far, the North Koreans did not have much, or any, decision making power.
For this cafe, Joseph had North Koreans be part of every step of the way, from start to finish of the cafe. Each person who wanted to be a board member had to invest at least a tad bit of money. In July of last year, Joseph went to the chairman of the IBK Bank to ask her for free space in the building. After making a strong case that this cafe run entirely by North Koreans would create value, profit, jobs, and most importantly community among North Korean defectors and beyond, the chairman agreed.
Cafe Red Cherry opened its doors for business in December 2014. On opening day, the Minister of the Ministry of Unification, the Chairman of the Parliament, the IBK Chairman among others came to celebrate the significance of the cafe. They told the employees that although they’re starting small now, they could open branches of this cafe in Pyongyang, Rason, Sinuiju and other cities throughout North Korea once the two countries reunify.
Please check out the cafe when you get a chance! The address is: 183-1, Dongcheon-dong, Suji-gu, Yongin-si, Gyeonggi-do, Seoul, Korea. 1/3 of the cafe’s profits will support educational efforts for North Korean defector youth.