A way to ‘ordinary life’
Every morning, one finds many cars anxiously waiting for the traffic lights, and every evening there are people heading back home after work with a bounce in their step.
This is a story about a young man whose dream was to have an ordinary life, an ordinary life that could seem boring at times because of the repetition of the same routines but also filled with exciting moments of passionately working on brilliant ideas.
More than 10 years have passed since Mr. Song Gwang-min, who lost both parents at a young age and was all alone, set foot on this land at the age of 19. That boy became a young man and then became a seasoned worker at a mid-sized company after graduating from college.
He says he’s always been blessed with good people in his life.
There were people who reached out to him when he was all alone, including those with whom he had his first drinks with and teachers who helped him with his grades. Also, there were mentors who concerned themselves with his well-being, including a mother-like figure with a now long forgotten hometown dialect.
Thanks to them, he was able to become a stand-up member of society.
To be born in a wrong class
After Gwang-min’s father passed away, he lived with his mother and her family. It was a big family including his aunt’s family. Mr. Song’s maternal grandfather was from Busan. At the time of the Korean War, his grandfather was forced to go to North Korea and then lived there for the rest of his life.
His grandfather’s descendants were marked as bad “wavering castes” and they could not escape the caste system for the rest of their lives. Young Gwang-min had a lot of questions.
Why are there no party members or college graduates in my family? If any of them are party members or have a college degree, they can get any education or any job…
One had to join the military and become a party member to have any kind of prospect in their world.
It was a society in which the ideology was based on equality but the people were not given a fair chance. When he reached middle school, he understood that the caste system and one’s background were unbreakable walls and he could not see his future.
When he reached the age of 16, another tragedy struck. His mother passed away and his maternal grandfather, who had been his support system, had disappeared. He stopped going to school. He found homeschooling was a much better fit for him than a school life which emphasized the importance of community life. He felt relieved to be studying at home. His maternal cousins who were older than him lived with him and became his friends and teachers.
Lucked out at 19
Gwang-min’s grandfather wanted to break this cycle of bad luck that he believed to have started with him. This lifelong wish of his grandfather led to his escape from North Korea to South Korea with the help of his siblings in South Korea. Subsequently, his sons, daughters and their children, including Gwang-min, were able to escape successfully to South Korea.
After graduating from Hanawon, he decided to go live in Seoul against his grandfather’s wish for him to remain in Busan. How can I make today different from yesterday? What should I do? He had a lot on his mind and had a lot of temptations but he did not want to miss this chance of starting a new life.
“As I was preparing to go to college, I participated in this start-up program sponsored by The Small and Medium Business Administration and learned how to make a business plan and a sales and profit structure, and realized that sales is not the same as business. I learned about sales being the same as owning a business as I am from a generation who grew up going to markets. I learned about business administration then. I learned that the study of business management is essential in all sizes of businesses, including small stores, and also in life.”
This experience led Gwang-min to study business at college.
The value of friendship and money
“When I think of the word ‘friend’, I think of friends from college. With colleagues from work, there is a sense of camaraderie but also with a competitive aspect, but with college friends, it was pure friendship.”
After the freshman orientation, four friends of the same age who started school a little later than other freshmen got together. Friends from other cities than Seoul naturally understood and accepted Gwang-min’s different dialect and by the time they came to know he was from North Korea, they had already bonded in friendship. They attended classes and waited for mealtimes together and they visited different dorm rooms with drinks to share away from the watchful eyes of upperclassmen. After all of them failed their midterms, they stayed up all night in the library to study together, and during the school break, they traveled together.
“Now we live in different places but we make sure to meet up for birthdays or any important occasions. There are fewer opportunities to meet now that we live in different places but our friendship remains the same.”
While his friends served in the military, Gwang-min got a job at a company and earned his first paycheck. Up until that point, he had gone to college on a scholarship so he did not know the value of money. The pay he received after working in the world taught him many things. He realized he was able to get educated and grow because of people who were willing to donate their hard-earned money to a cause. The money he received with gratitude now seemed a lot more valuable and his attitude toward managing money changed.
After graduating from college, Gwang-min was hired at a corporate welfare mall company called KBNC. The life at the company was a happy one but had some challenging moments. The company had several departments of management, development, sales and products and Gwang-min was assigned to a sales team. He later heard from a team manager whom he became close to after a year of working that at first most of the people in the team weren’t thrilled when they heard from HR that a new person joining their team was from North Korea.
“People who meet North Korean refugees or those who do not have good experiences with them usually do not respond with warmth. I think especially people in their 40s or of an older generation tend to have a more negative preconception toward North Korean refugees than people in their 20s and 30s. Younger people are not interested in other people's work and as long as the working relationship is clear, they respect each other."
After repeating simple tasks and getting used to them after a while, he was left with some free time. His boss who saw him having finished his work quickly and having a long break suggested that he should do something else as well.
He wanted to work at the strategic planning department where he could expand the scope of his work, gaining more experience and executing more decisions. The strategic planning department is the core department that envisions new projects and discusses the validity of new business plans, as well as analyzes the company’s profit structure. He had to give a presentation of his portfolio to the CEO before he was assigned to a new job post.
Gwang-min shares one of his weaknesses is lack of ideas and so he pays attention to people from other departments of what they have to say and continues to have a good relationship with them.
“The company has a vertical hierarchical structure so it’s extremely competitive, but I like it more that way. Because hard work really pays off. If you put in your best effort and more, you do achieve your goals. I lived in North Korea where there were no chances to even try, so I find these opportunities and days like today to be very precious and I find things in a more positive light.”
Mr. Song says his biggest flaw is not knowing how to play and spend his free time. After he finishes his work, he immerses himself in his studies. Now that he has completed his master’s degree from Ajou University’s graduate program, he reads books and listens to lectures in his free time and because of this, he says he does not have time for a girlfriend. He believes though that along with the new season, he will have a beautiful relationship.