Start! The window of opportunity is wide open.
Kim Hongkyun was dispatched to Russia (the Soviet Union in the past) in 1990 as a worker to earn foreign currency. At the time, he didn’t know how long his time abroad would last. After a long and difficult time of roaming around Russia and China, he arrived in South Korea. After many challenges and failures and a lot of despair, he is currently well-established and rooted in South Korea as a president of a transport company that owns five 25-ton trucks.
Kim Hongkyun crossed the Tumen River and entered Russia in May 1990. It was a time when the Soviet Union was called a socialist republic. About 500 other North Korean workers started work at a brick factory in Chekdomen. After a year the factory closed down, and he started working as a special officer in the Materials Department of the Union Enterprise. Working with raw materials meant he had to drive around a lot.
Driving back and forth between Russia and China led to him coming to Korea. After hearing the unfortunate news that his parents had passed away, he was getting ready to go back to North Korea when he got in a car accident. He suddenly found himself in a situation where he had to pay 3,000 USD in damages. He needed the money to go back to North Korea, so upon hearing that he could get paid for transporting cargo, he immediately grabbed the wheel. He didn’t have a passport, so he got caught at a checkpoint between cities. North Korean workers can’t individually hold passports when they’re abroad, so he was immediately arrested as an illegal alien. He could’ve gone free if the North Korean Union Enterprise confirmed his identity, but hearing that they’d have to pay a fine, they responded by saying they didn’t know him. He was imprisoned in a city near the Chinese border called Blagoveshchensk, until he finally got his identity confirmed and was released on the condition that he’d pay the fine himself. Traumatized by the incident, he decided to go to South Korea. The South Korea that he had seen on Russian television was not what he had heard from North Korea. It was a time when South Korean cars like Sonata were first being exported to Russia. He believed that he could live in safety if he made it to South Korea. But finding a way to South Korea was not easy. Hearing that he could go to South Korea from China, in March of 1996 he headed straight for China. Taking advantage of his driving skills, he worked in water and liquefied gas cylinder deliveries. When life became a bit more stable, he continued to look into ways to go to South Korea. He went to the South Korean embassy and requested moving there but couldn’t receive any help. At the time there were no proper protocols regarding North Korean refugees. He understands now, but at the time he was really hurt. But he didn’t give up and found different ways he could go to South Korea. In that time, he met a broker who said he could get him into Korea, and so he went to Shenyang to start his journey. But his plans ended in failure when Public Security Officers came to the place he was staying at. Thankfully, he was outside when they had come, so he got away with his life. He returned to where he lived before, but people who found out about his identity threatened to turn him into the police. Eventually after many hardships, he found a way to go to South Korea. He finally made it to Korea in 2001, after 10 years of roaming around Russia and China.
New starts are difficult
He thought everything would be easier in Korea, but settling was not such an easy thing. If he had been nervous about his nationality while abroad, in Korea he had to overcome difficulties such as prejudice and discrimination. Leaving Hanawon (Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees) in August 2001, he started work in car part repair thanks to his personal protection officer. He worked six days a week from 7am until late at night. His monthly wage was 900,000 KRW. At first, he didn’t even know that was a small amount. After a month or two, he learned that the average monthly wage was 1.2 million KRW and so he quit after three months. Afterwards, he diligently looked through job hiring posts to look for a new job. He shares that it was difficult at first because he didn’t even know where to look for information on employment. Upon seeing a job post, he went to a transport company. During the interview, the boss heard his accent and asked where he was from, heard that he was a North Korean refugee, to which he opened the door and asked him to leave. He says it was a time when the general perception toward North Korean refugees was not so good. As such, he failed in getting a job multiple times and finally decided to try his own business. He believed that if he started his own company, he’d be less stressed and with hard work, make a stable income. He decided on what he liked doing, driving, as his marketable item, and got a job as a truck driver at a transport company to learn about the work. After a year, he tried his hand at delivering ingredients from the headquarters of a chicken franchise to its branch restaurants. He started with a 1-ton truck. Thanks to his hard work, he was soon recognized and started driving around a 2.5-ton truck, and then a 5-ton truck. With his accomplishments, he gained confidence and started to prepare for his own business. At first his plan was to start transporting items by getting orders using one 25-ton truck. He looked into loans to buy a truck. It had only been two years since he’d come to Korea so his savings weren’t enough. He thought about loans but because he’d been in Korea for just two years, it was impossible with his low credit score. One day, a company unexpectedly contacted him. They offered to get a loan and pay for the deposit and get work orders all for him. He didn’t know much about finances back then, so he immediately accepted the company’s offer and so took his first steps to running his own business. It was only later when he found out that the loan the company took out for him had a higher interest rate than average business loans. He tried suing them but failed. There are plenty of opportunities.
Don’t just wait around, start.
There was no use crying over spilled milk so he worked hard to pay off all the debts over three years, ended relations with the company, and started his own business again properly with all the know-how he’d gathered. And so the business he’d started with a single 25-ton truck grew to three trucks. During that time, he got married and started his own family, too. He thought all his troubles were truly behind him, but another difficulty awaited him. The three truck drivers simultaneously quit. To pay off his debts he had to keep the trucks on the road, but all at once, all three trucks became idle. His profits decreased even though he had to pay off his debts, so the stress racked up immensely. After long consideration, he decided to end his business. But he was able to find courage once again thanks to his wife. She encouraged him by saying they should try one more time as if this were the last chance they’d get, which became the strength for him to persevere. Now he’s overseeing a company with five 25-ton trucks and a sizable profit. President Kim said that the reason he chose the transport industry was because driving was all he knew back then. That’s how he started, but now he realizes that there’s a low chance of failure in the transport industry. Even when businesses had a hard time during COVID-19, he had a steady stream of work coming from all around the country. He says that in a place like Korea where the roads are well developed, there’s always something for transport companies to do. President Kim shares that success wasn’t what he expected at first. He focused on what he could do in the moment and continued to face challenges and never give up despite despair and failures. He also used the know-how he’d gathered well over the years. He wants to share the following with North Korean refugees who are just starting or are in the process of settling: “There are plenty of opportunities. Don’t just sit around waiting for help or complaining and criticizing about the reality, just start, whatever the situation is. The opportunity will come.”