Looking for only easy jobs diminishes the willingness to work hard
“There haven't been any jobs that I haven’t done in the seven years that I have lived in South Korea. And I learned something in the process. The moment you give up, you also lose the opportunity to work hard. It’s better to let go of the idea of wanting an easy life in South Korea because you had a hard life in North Korea. You cannot find happiness anywhere without your hard work and effort.”
In the construction site located in Geumcheon-gu, Seoul, you will find a woman in her mid-fifties with a white helmet who is busy walking around.
Meet Choi Song-juk (55 years old), a North Korean refugee who is known as an “aunt from North Korea”. You will see her skillfully walking up and down the high-rise.
Choi Song-juk came to South Korea in 2016 and currently is in her fifth year working as a skilled worker at Bowon Construction CO., Ltd.
Her job is to draw a rough sketch on the concrete floor following the blueprint of the construction with ink after the work on its foundation is finished.
In her work, she is also known as “Ms. Ink”.
She came to South Korea to seek her daughter who was a North Korean defector.
Chio Song-juk’s hometown is located in Kim Hyeong-jik Country, Yanggang Province, near China. She had a busy life working at a cooperative farm, smuggling and trading before she came to South Korea.
Then in September 2009, she received news that her daughter, who had secretly fled to China, had passed away three months earlier.
Seven years later, in October 2015, a stranger approached Song-juk and informed her that her daughter is alive and that she wants to see her mother and her brother.
It was because her daughter wanted to send some money but could not afford to ask anyone else so her daughter was asking if her mother could come to China with her brother.
After much consideration, Song-juk decided to go to see her daughter with her son.
After arriving in Qingdao, China, with the person who informed of her daughter’s whereabouts, she learned that her daughter was actually living in South Korea.
“I was yelling at my daughter over the phone upon learning she had lied to us. So I decided that I will find my daughter and bring her back to North Korea to surrender for the betrayal of her country.”
Taking a break
Song-juk arrived safely in South Korea via a route through the third country. She was able to resolve the misunderstanding with her daughter after meeting her at Hanawon.
“At the beginning of settlement, I didn’t know where to work. Being over fifty, I did not have any options…”. She had worked at a local rice cake shop and worked at a nearby restaurant but she ended up quitting after eight months.
After quitting her restaurant job, she thought about what job she should take during her one-month break and she decided to try a construction site job that she was introduced to by one of her classmates at Hanawon.
The first day on the job was not easy
The construction workers would ask her to bring some materials and not being familiar with its names, she did not know what to do and she would secretly cry.
One time, the site manager asked for a ‘hook’ next to a ‘scaffold’.
At that moment, she thought the worker had asked to bring pork fat, so she asked how does one get pork fat at the construction site. The site manager looked very puzzled for a moment and then burst out laughing.
Scaffolding refers to a temporary structure installed for high-rise construction, and hooks are used to tie something at a construction site.
Her heart felt heavy on her way home after work.
She was overwhelmed with fear that if she quit again, then there would be no place for her in South Korea.
So the next day, after the morning meeting, she said to her colleagues, “I am a refugee from North Korea. And I don’t know a lot but I am trying to work hard and not to give up. If you could help me, that would be great.”
Any materials and tools at the construction site that she was not familiar with, she took pictures to learn about them.
She looked at pictures and memorized difficult terms repeatedly until she got used to them, and she stayed to help her colleagues who were still working even when her hours were done for the day and made colleagues her friends.
Nowadays, among her colleagues and security guards working on the site, she is known as the “aunt from North Korea” and the most popular person.
My family is my life
Song-juk starts her day at 5am.
It takes about an hour and a half from Incheon to her work and after breakfast, she starts her work at 7am.
“If you quit because you don’t know the job and the language, then there is no place for you to work in South Korea. The construction is hard but the reason that I was able to continue and not give up was my family and the stability and happiness they brought. Now, any days that I have off, I go to my daughter’s house. I am over the moon when my granddaughter and grandson run toward me greeting me. In North Korea, family was the priority. It needed to be fed and looked after, but here in South Korea, they are the source of my happiness and strength just by existing.”
Now that Song-juk’s daughter is happily married to another North Korean refugee and has a family life, she is always grateful.
“I did not know earlier, but as I have been living with South Koreans in this country, I can see it now. There are many benefits and assistance programs that the government provides for North Korean refugees like myself, ranging from rental apartments, employment incentives and bank accounts designed for future economic stability."
After learning the precious value of things that she had taken for granted through her life experience, she has a different standard of what’s considered a successful settlement.
Although it can be daunting to adapt and sometimes feelings are hurt due to unfamiliar surroundings, not-yet fluent language skills, and cultural differences, she says, as long as you have the right mindset, you can overcome it.
“There are still some North Korean refugees that only want easy jobs. Of course, it’s one’s freedom to choose their job but I don’t believe there is freedom that’s free. Easy jobs pay little and it diminishes the willingness to work hard. I am not saying you have to choose only hard jobs but wherever you work, it’s important to have the mindset of working hard and not giving up.”
Choi Song-juk says the important thing is not where you live but how you live your life. Her wish is to continue to live this happy life with her family as well as enjoy her work with her work family at the construction site. She says she would like to pay back the blessings she has received as she is getting ready for her work at dawn.