25-year-old Park Dae-hyeon is helping North Korean defectors get back on their feet in South Korean society by sharing useful information through an easily accessible online platform.
Park, who crossed the Tumen River in October 2006 and arrived in South Korea in April 2007, established Woori On in July 2015 to provide important information for newly-arrived defectors.
This could be anything from job vacancies, housing, scholarships, to startup assistance, free education programs for learning English, computer skills, advice for getting a driver’s license and getting support for medical treatment: 710 articles were shared by Woori On last year.
Park says the number of the North Korean defector users has reached nearly 4,300. Considering the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea surpassed 30,000 in mid-November, around 14 percent of the defectors in the country have used the service.
The name “Woori On” reflects Park’s hopes for the future of his fellow North Korean defectors.
“I personally love the Korean word Woori which means ‘we’ since it is different from individualism and independence. And the word can be translated into ‘together’,” Park tells NK News. “So, I really wanted to use the word [for the company’s name], and I thought that it would be great if we could add one well-matched word,”
“’Woori On’ means the North Korean defectors become ‘bright’ after coming to South Korea since they came to a bright place out of the shadows.”
WHY SET IT UP?
In February 2015, Seoul’s Korea Hana Foundation, a government-run agency charged with offering support to defectors, revealed 20.9 percent out of total 1785 respondents said that they think about ending their lives. 30.7 percent cited economic difficulty as their motive for suicide, with 17.1 percent saying loneliness.
“Woori On means the North Korean defectors become ‘bright’ after coming to South Korea since they came to a bright place out of the shadows”
Park has found out that many defectors are often unaware of the opportunities available to them: when he asked friends at his church whether they knew that they could get a scholarship and a free bicycle, they were taken aback.
Park says many North Korean defectors have little experience in handling computers, and searching through 40 official and private web pages and checking notices can be time-consuming, especially for the IT-illiterate.
“No one can check around 40 websites every day,” Park says. “So, I started the project.”
Other members of the community are taking notice: one North Korean defector social entrepreneur says the establishment of Woori On is “a fresh attempt,” resolving issues that the government often neglects.
“Despite the Korea Hana Foundation receiving 20 billion South Korean Won (KRW, around US$ 16.7 million), the organization generates more heat than light,” Joseph Park, CEO of Yovel, a social enterprise, tells NK News.
“Websites run by the South Korean government are difficult to access. Woori On provides services based on what its users want.”
Another North Korean defector businessman, cafe-owner Yu Jin-sung, says Woori On offers user-friendly services which offset the flaws of the government-backed services.
“It’s convenient and useful. Above all, I can easily utilize the service as I don’t have to install a new application and [Woori On] doesn’t have a complicated interface,” Yu tells NK News.
“It’s hard for government agencies to take the lead [on every issue],” Yu says. “The government can’t handle all the issues; defectors have different jobs, specialties, hobbies, and interests.”
As of January 11, 37 mentors are now offering free counseling to troubled defectors
IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Another service the website offers is matching South Korean mentors with North Korean defector mentees, as well as a platform where defectors can give away unused goods to others.
“After receiving the shared goods, other defectors sent their stuff saying ‘I’m very grateful for the donation and I want to participate in the movement’,” Park says. “Around 150 defectors use the service and 250 pairs of clothes were shared.”
The online mentoring program is another project established based on the demands of the defectors, and, as of January 11, 37 mentors are now offering free counseling to troubled defectors.
“We don’t make things depending on the judgment of our team members,” Park says. “We are an organization which wants to communicate, and I believe we have the advantage in understanding the needs of defectors.”
To stay on top of what their users need, Woori On has conducted two surveys since its inception to understand the situation of defectors, asking them which is the most useful kind of information and what kind of advice they need.
“We realized that they need counseling the most so that they can solve real-life problems or just to talk to someone,” Park says, arguing that legal and academic counseling are urgently needed for both middle-aged defectors and those in their 20s and 30s.
“I have confidence that what I am doing is a step in the right direction”
THE WORK CONTINUES
In spite of significant work, Woori On doesn’t generate enough profits to secure the livelihood of team members.
“I was facing a dilemma on whether we would continue the business or turn it over to those who can professionally manage the project. And I was considering running the organization on the side while having another job,” Park says.
But he decided to keep at it after finding that 100 respondents out of 138 North Korea defectors surveyed said Woori On “is very necessary” for their lives, as well as more than 700 defectors expressed gratitude with thank you messages.
“I have confidence that what I am doing now is a step in the right direction,” Park points out, saying the support of the community encourages him to keep working.
Woori On has three different missions: to “connect (act as a bridge for) people, dreams, and unification.”
“Connecting people means Woori On [in the South] will be a true friend with the defectors, many feel lonely a lot,” Park says. “When looking at the big picture, it means we can connect people in both two Koreas and South and North Korea.”
Park says many North Korean defectors flee to the South to follow their dreams: hoping to never have to worry about food if they work hard and to provide a better education for their children.
“Like South Koreans wanted to live out the American dream [in the past], many aspiring defectors come to the South with a ‘Korean dream.’ We want to help people who can’t easily get in the saddle and scrape a living to achieve their dreams,” Park says.
“But we are helping them by connecting them to the experts [through the mentoring service] as well as providing the relevant information on the scholarship, for instance.”
Woori On’s ultimate goal is unification. The organization’s slogan, after all, is “stepping-stone towards unification.”
“I think we can contribute to unification by helping defectors get settled and help them make enough money to remit money to their families staying in the North,” Park says.
“If defectors can cooperate and communicate with South Koreans and be one family, Woori On can bring forward the unification.”
Park is now drawing up a blueprint for 2017, in which he hopes even more defectors will sign up.
“We want to achieve the goal that around 10,000 defectors out of the 30,000 in South Korean society will join Woori On, and we can be their friend.”
Featured Image: Woori On website
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