With the cling of coins cuddling into each other, a customer drops her 100 won change into a donation box.
La Paz, a café located near Ewha Womans University Station, donates 3 percent of its income to support North Korean defectors. Though 3 percent may sound small, the prices of products are half that of large franchise coffee shops, which makes the number valid. Also, the main objective of La Paz is to provide a work place for North Korean defectors and to foster a stable settlement into the community in the South.
Firmly believing that raising awareness on the issue of North Korean defectors adapting to life in the South is the first step to helping the community, owner Koo Yoon-hoe has set up a small campaign of his own where he returns 100 won from the paid cost and allows customers to donate the money directly into a donation box. Thus, customers can take part in the motif of the café and see for themselves.
“By actively putting the coin in the box and taking another glance at it can help them realize where the money is being sent to, and who is benefitting from their donation,” Koo said.
Ultimately seeking to prepare for the future when the two Koreas unite, helping defectors settle into society is the main objective. Of the numerous burdens that North Korean defectors encounter, employment is at the top of the list. Opportunities within the spectrum of employment are narrow for defectors as the skills they can learn are also limited.
“It is also the preconception that people have of North Korean defectors that limits their chances,” Koo said. “We often picture defectors working in restaurants or construction sites—not at a café. For this reason, people have a negative response toward us at first.”
The café works to help the settlement of defectors not only through donation but also by hiring them.
Up until a few months ago, La Paz had a full- time barista, but due to her personal concerns, the café is left with one part- timer.
The part-time worker who is a North Korean defector is currently a university student in the South. Her appearance is no different from that of any other female university students in the South, which has surprised a few customers of La Paz.
“Some customers would show interest in our part-time worker, and once they hear that she is from the North, they fall in disbelief,” Koo said. “People have a fixed image of North Korean defectors—gaunt looking, undersized, and somewhat different from people in the South. We wish for people to look upon the defectors without a jaundiced eye.”
In the near future, La Paz plans to develop into a social enterprise. The way it functions is already closely in the form of a social enterprise as all profit is used to support programs arranged for the defectors.
“By becoming a social enterprise we can have more North Korean defectors work here,” Koo said. “Also rooting from this, we wish to create an environment where the defectors can run the café on their own—as an early step to starting their own business.”
Another project being prepared is a barista education program for the defectors. Those who wish to learn more about coffee and, have meaning in opening a café are welcomed.
The regulations and structure of the employment system of North Korean defectors are trapping the people in a vicious circle, which eventually leaves the defectors to give up on getting a job.
However, Koo sees a light amongst this darkness from the younger generation.
“Defectors under the age of 35 still have dreams they wish to fulfill—they continue to walk forward and strive for acheiving their goal of studies and employment,” Koo said. “To further invigorate this dream of defectors, a diverse job pool is needed. La Paz seeks to work as a vision for these people.”