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SETTLEMENT STORY
SETTLEMENT STORY
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[Social Integration Case Presentation Contest] Choosing and giving up
NKRF Date 2024-03-07 Hit 181

Choosing and giving up 

 

Heo Young-chul 

 

 

 

I would like to start my settlement story with its theme of ‘choosing’ and ‘giving up’. 

Eight years ago, I entered the Republic of Korea after a long and dangerous journey of 12,000 km with my younger brother, who had been staying in China for several months. 

At that time, during the Kim Jong-un era, my health deteriorated due to two defections, two repatriations, and the torture I received at the North Korean Security Department, so my body and mind were very exhausted. 

My younger brother, who came with me, got a job and started working at a company, but I had to start settling down after getting treatment for my illness. 

The first difficult part I faced upon settling in South Korea was finding my own identity. 

When I first came to South Korea, everyone I met told me that I made a good choice to come here. I thought I made it to South Korea because I was a great person and so I was looking for great things to do. I looked for the predecessors who had come before me, searched on the Internet, and searched everywhere. 

However, I was never able to find the great thing I was looking for. 

As a lot of time passed, I realized that I did not come to South Korea because I was a great person, but rather it was a great thing in itself to complete a dangerous and difficult journey and safely arrive here. Also, the fact that I, an engineer who was trained in a closed communist country called North Korea, had made it to a capitalist society was a miracle. 

I went through a lot of trials and errors as I was finding my way and in the process I couldn’t focus on getting my health back so I ended up in a hospital again. 

Because I had learned that the first step of settling in here was to recover my health, I focused on getting my health back for two years and after that, I was finally able to get a job at a company.

The next difficult thing I felt after coming to Korea was finding my own new path.

At first, I started working at a cosmetics company with the desire to make a lot of money, but the outdated working environment and frequent overtime were very difficult, so I moved to a semiconductor company with better conditions and worked hard there. 

 After that, I got a job at a civil engineering measurement company in order to utilize my knowledge and experience in North Korea with the hopes of becoming an engineer who could contribute even a little to inter-Korean economic cooperation. 

The salary was lower than that of the semiconductor company I worked for before, and I did not meet all the qualifications such as education, qualifications, and experience required by the Construction Engineers Association, but I decided to pursue engineering with the hopes of contributing my skill set when the era of inter-Korean economic cooperation came. From day one, I had to face the harsh reality. The terminology used at construction sites was different from North Korea in many ways. Sometimes, while listening to my story, some people suddenly ask, ‘Where is your hometown?’, and when I tell them that I am a North Korean refugee, they would give me a bit of a look. 

North Korean refugees were looked at differently at work and at companies. Partial prejudice and discrimination against North Korean refugees still existed, and my relatively lower level of skill did not help. However, as with all North Korean refugees, it was up to me to endure and figure it out. I couldn’t give up, and there was nowhere to retreat. 

From the first day I joined the civil engineering measurement company, even though I was in my mid-40s, I worked hard to be the youngest member of the team. I wrote down the names of various tools in my notebook, and learned about them to understand the basics. However, not everything can be solved by working hard in the civil engineering profession. To perform a civil engineering job, you had to meet the necessary qualifications. So, I enrolled at the evening program department of Geodesy Information at Daegu Science University, where I could study while working at the company. 

Although the round trip distance from the Pohang site where I worked to the university was over 300 kilometers, I finished work at 5pm every day and went to the university to study hard. Learning to work in the field is hard enough, but having to go to college after work every day and prepare for the certification exam on the weekends was so hard and tiring that I even thought about quitting and doing it the following year, but I didn’t give up. Thanks to my best efforts, I got excellent grades. After graduating from the university, I acquired a surveying and geospatial information engineer’s license and a civil engineer’s license, and as an advanced engineer of the Construction Engineers Association, I have the qualifications to carry out civil engineering works worth more than KRW 10 billion. 

As I worked hard, my boss and colleagues within the company helped me in both big and small ways, and my work was recognized. I came to take charge of several civil engineering construction sites and performed the duties of a team leader. The president of our company, who watched me work and study at university, wanted to help North Korean college refugees who were going through the same difficulties, so he offered scholarships of 800,000 to 1 million won per semester to eight people, including students from Handong University and lawyers in Gimpo, over two semesters in 2021.

Although the money was not a lot, it has helped the North Korean refugee college students and allowed them to feel the warmth and the helping hand toward North Korean refugees. Recently, I have expanded my field of expertise from the measurement field to the entire civil engineering field, and am currently in charge of overall construction at the undersea tunnel construction site. 

In March of this year, I began a master’s course in technology at Daegu Science University to study the North-South spatial information integration system in order to further enhance my professional qualifications, and also began studying to acquire a soil and basic engineer certification. 

Unlike other certifications, the soil and basic engineer certification is a difficult certification with a passing rate of less than 10%, but in order to increase professionalism in my work, I took on the challenge of obtaining a technician qualification and a master’s degree within a period of five years. 

When I look back on the path I have walked, there were many difficult moments, but I think I was able to get to where I am today thanks to my hard work and never giving up. 

No matter how difficult the moment was, the small hope that this too would pass pushed me to this point. 

 Currently, a junior comes to the construction site where I work and is learning civil engineering. 

I am teaching him each and every task so that he can eventually become a competent civil engineer and I feel like we are growing together. 

My goal in the future is to help many junior North Korean refugees to become civil engineers, and when the era of economic cooperation between North and South comes, North Korean refugee construction engineers will take the lead in building new transportation infrastructure by entering North Korea and building highways and tunnels. In order to achieve that goal, I am doing my best every day to take on the tasks entrusted to me and the challenges I set out to achieve. 

I would like to say this to those who are currently thinking of giving up on their dreams and goals due to many hardships and difficulties. 

There are ten reasons to give up, but this one reason to never give up and to live is the most fundamental one of our lives. It is hard and difficult, but if you survive today, your tomorrow will definitely be a more beautiful day and you will live your dream. We can take one more step forward. Currently, there are 34,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea who are working hard and doing their best in various fields benefitting the economy and society. 

It is a very different life for North Korean refugees and sometimes you want to give up and it can be discouraging but in order to make family and friends in North Korea proud, we go on. I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the people who sincerely believed in me, waited for me, and gave me a lot of help, including CEO Lee San-gin of Shinwoo Hitehc, who has given scholarships to many North Korean refugee college students.