North Korean defector Lee Ae-ran introduces South Koreans to the food of the North. With her restaurant Neungra Bapsang, she also helps other female defectors make a living.
Dressed simply with short hair, Lee exudes confidence. The 53-year-old has a Ph.D. in nutritional science and food management from prestigious Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul. She is also a North Korean defector, among some 30,000 who have settled in South Korea.
Her business is called the Institute for the Study of North Korean Food Culture and includes a restaurant called Neungra Bapsang. To reach it, one must go to Nakwon-dong, a rundown neighborhood in central Seoul. Climbing a set of dingy stairs inside a nondescript building leads to her door.
On entering, most visitors to the place would only see a small, humble eatery. A few tables and chairs are scattered here and there. In the back is a kitchen staffed by middle-aged-looking women peeling vegetables. This small operation, nonetheless, embodies a philosophy dear to her heart. “Only when you become self-sufficient can you truly feel satisfied,” she said.
A Defector’s Journey
Lee fled North Korea in 1997 and knows firsthand what it’s like to go from nothing to self-sufficiency. Before defection, her family was condemned to a hard life near the Chinese border for their “undesirable political background.” Her grandmother -- a Korean who went south around the time of the Korean War (1950-53) and later became an American citizen -- came to China to get them out. The family was reunited in Shenyang in North-Eastern China before eventually making it to Seoul.
Lee had studied nutritional science in the North. In the South, she obtained a scholarship from Ewha to pursue graduate studies in the same field. With her Ph.D. finished – as the first North Korean woman ever to obtain such a degree in South Korea, and what is more, in her forties – she opened the institute in October 2009, trying to raise awareness of North Korean culture, especially food.
It has been hard going, especially at first. “I was behind in paying the rent. Once I tried to go out, and the building owner was standing there, waiting, so I panicked and came back inside to hide.” Still, she didn’t give up. She was determined to showcase North Korean food, in which most South Koreans had, and have, little interest. She also wanted to give fellow North Korean defectors a place of refuge, where they could learn to adapt to South Korea’s capitalist system. She said with absolute confidence, “In the South, if one tries hard, one can see result.”
Helping Others Who Share the Same Fate
In the restaurant, Lee hires only fellow defector women -- 7 full-time and 3 part-time employees as of March 2017, she said. Here, her employees gain first-hand experiences of what it’s like to work at a proper dining establishment. Two of her employees professed happiness at working for Lee. (They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against families back in the North.)
One, 45, left North Korea a decade ago and has been with Lee for three years. “I feel comfortable here. Since everyone here is from the North, there are fewer occasions for conflict,” she said.
Another, 60, is the head chef and has worked at the restaurant since it opened in March 2012. She was a chef before defection and now handles developing menus that cater to South Korean taste. “[After reaching the South] I tried making accessories at home and working at a fast-food outlet in Gangnam.” But she feels most at home in her current job. “The only difficulty is not getting major holidays off and not being able to spend them with family and friends.” (In return, employees get two days off each week.)
Both spoke with varying thicknesses of North Korean accent, which would make it difficult for them to blend in with South Koreans. Speaking with a non-standard accent, especially one from the North, can invite discrimination.
Not without Controversy
For all her achievements, Lee is not without controversy. Her ties to South Korea’s conservative establishment are well-known. In 2008, she unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the National Assembly as a proportional representative of a minor rightist party. She also collaborates with South Korean organizations including the ultra-conservative Center for Free Enterprise to promote rightwing historiography.
When asked about her politics, she professed a strong belief in the connection between her work and what North Korea must become. “What’s certain is that this system [in South Korea] is superior. I believe that people like me must help the people of North Korea choose for themselves and realize this system of free democracy and market economy.” For now, she is educating her workers in capitalism, but her ultimate goal is to see capitalism thrive in North Korea and the two Koreas unify as one country. “The unification I speak of is that North Korea, too, will become a democratic free-market system.”
While taking on a more active political role, Lee still focuses on promoting North Korean food, as well as helping female defectors stand on their own two feet. The two Koreas were a single country before 1948. But the general perception of North Koreans in the South is hardly positive. Southerners are prone to criticizing defectors as uneducated and lazy.
Lee explained, “In North Korea people depend on the system to survive. Then they come here and find that many places will help you.” But she argued that charity ultimately keeps defectors from achieving independence. “Compassion is short-lived, while life is long.”