I Wanted to Create a Space for Our Children to Play Comfortably
“People say I’m running a kids’ cafe near a large apartment complex, and it’s an excellent choice in a prime location. To be honest, I just wanted to create a snug small space for our children to play comfortably, rather than focusing on the grand meaning of a business.”
There is ‘Iplus Kids Cafe’ run by cafe CEO Han Yu-jin (42 years old), a North Korean refugee, in the center of Hwajeong-dong, Seo-gu, Gwangju Metropolitan City. This place, which can be seen right after crossing a main street outside a high-rise apartment complex, is a space filled with various playthings for children to enjoy. It is also a healing space where adults can chat and relax over coffee or tea.
If you can’t finish it, change your method!
The kids’ cafe business, which she tried starting in January 2019 out of a desire to prepare and operate a space not only in which she could raise her two young children but also in which other children in her neighborhood could play happily, encountered the COVID-19 catastrophe even before children’s hands touched the doorknob.
“Back then, I had no idea that Coronavirus would break out. Like everyone else, I thought that ‘it would pass soon’ at that time. At first, it was open for a week and closed for 20 days. Few people came even when it was open. I was at a loss about how to resolve this situation of the empty kids’ cafe with only a flow of silence.” People around her advised that if she gave up the business “even now”, she could recover the deposit. The snowballing rental and maintenance costs were unaffordable for her. CEO Han candidly expressed how she had felt at that time: “To be honest, I was worried at first, and I also had a feeling of expectation that things would get better if I persevered a little. But the reality didn’t work out the way I thought it would. It wasn’t easy to give up the precious dreams and wishes that were in my hands. In the end, an unyielding spirit rose inside me, so I asked myself who would win. Now I can laugh and talk about it, but my husband even fell into depression because of the hardships at that time.”
There is a Korean proverb: Even if the sky collapses, there is a hole to escape out of (i.e., there is a way out of every bad situation). Fortunately, she was able to pay off the rent arrears after receiving a loan under the COVID-19 relief scheme for private businesses implemented by the government around that time. And instead of directly running the kids’ cafe, she switched to renting it out to people who needed it for a certain fee charged according to circumstances. Thanks to this, she was able to cover the rent and management expenses, and as social distancing was eased, the number of cafe users began to increase little by little.
CEO Han Yu-jin’s meticulousness is seen in each toy. She always disinfects the toys thoroughly and checks them frequently to make sure there are no potential problems for customers.
Keeping in mind our children's food and resource usage.
As the kids’ cafe went into normal operation, she started making homemade syrup in 2021 as a side job.
“The reason I tried to make homemade syrup was that I wanted to serve healthy drinks, if possible, as a token of gratitude to the children and their parents visiting the kids’ cafe. Fresh fruit juice is mainly made from seasonal fruits for them, and the rest is frozen for use in the winter.
The reaction of parents who have a drink made from homemade syrup is positive. The number of people ordering homemade syrup from her has increased thanks to word of mouth, and now handmade syrup directly made by her is placed for sale in a showcase on one side of the kids’ cafe.
CEO Han’s daily routine begins with cleaning. She cleans the windows and floors that children’s hands often touch and thoroughly disinfects the toys as well. When customers enter the cafe even in the midst of such cleaning work, she smiles brightly and greets them kindly, after which she checks over the playground for any potential problems from time to time. Her efforts and sincerity have led to customers’ favorable opinions of the kids’ cafe.
If you search for ‘Iplus Kids Cafe’ on the Internet, you will find that there are noticeable customer reviews about it, including the following: “The cafe is clean and the owner is kind, so I had a good time there,” and “Parents can also relax, and the price is reasonable as well.”
Aiming to lead a life of repayment
Born in Kimchaek City, North Hamgyong Province, she was led by her mother to defect from North Korea in 1996. She was only 16 years old at the time of her defection from North Korea, and her life in China, which began without even her graduation from high school, was fortunately under her mother’s wing, so she was able to avoid hardships. After safely graduating from middle and high school in China, she attended a junior college in Shandong Province. Thanks to her fluency in both Korean and Chinese, she also got a chance to work for a South Korean digital software company. She entered South Korea in 2009 after living in such a way in China for 13 years.
After leaving Hanawon, she headed back to China because she wanted to work again for the South Korean company located in China where she had previously worked for 8 years. The moment she landed at a Chinese airport, an inexpressible feeling of anxiety came over her.
“In the meantime, I lived as a Korean-Chinese in China. Neither the South Korean boss nor the people around me knew that I was a North Korean refugee. I thought that I would feel safer than before in China because I had just obtained my status as a citizen of South Korea, but in the end I returned to South Korea because I was worried that if someone spread the fact that I came from North Korea, I might be sent back to North Korea.”
One year later, in June 2010, she met her husband through the introductions made by an acquaintance. Then she married him to form a family of a South Korean man and a North Korean woman, gave birth to two sons, and has lived as a housewife for 10 years. Her husband is a patriarchal-minded and blunt person. Although not inclined to treat his wife attentively, he always provides strong support for her from behind. To her, her family is the one who can hold her hand when she falls off a cliff. No matter how much money you accumulate by running a successful business, it means nothing without a family – this is what she thinks regarding the significance of a family.
At the end of the interview, she said that she would like to contribute to job creation for career-interrupted North Korean refugee women by establishing a corporation in the future. CEO Han Yu-jin has been steadily participating in activities as a volunteer, serving as the general manager of the Gwangju Dream Volunteer Group since 2018. We look forward to the day when her dream will come true.