Meet the North Korean defector and restaurateur who believes ‘reunification of our country starts at the table’
There are about 130 North Korean restaurants overseas, staffed and operated by workers from North Korea, most of whom remit revenue back to Pyongyang.
It is early in the evening and the rush for tables, orders and meals has yet to begin, but the staff of Neung-ra Table are busy preparing for the onslaught. This restaurant, in the Chongno district of central Seoul, has a reputation for the finest and most authentic North Korea cuisine in the South.
Lee Ae-ran, the founder and owner of a restaurant that has become an institution since it opened in 2013, has also built herself quite a reputation.
Survivor, defector, human rights activist, educator and one of the leading voices in the North’s expatriate community in South Korea, she is fulfilling another of her roles today.
There are about 130 North Korean restaurants overseas, staffed and operated by workers from North Korea, most of whom remit revenue back to Pyongyang. Many are in China while there are others in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Middle East.
One, in the Chinese city of Ningbo, was in the news after the North’s Red Cross Society identified it as the restaurant from where 13 staff member left for South Korea last week. South Korea has not said where the 13 were before entering the country, although media reports have said they defected via a Southeast Asian nation. Pyongyang called it a “hideous” abduction by agents from the South.
The restaurants are one of the few sources of hard currency for impoverished, sanctions-hit North Korea, generating roughly US$10 million a year, according to South Korean estimates.
Each of the women working in Neung-ra Table has survived persecution over the border in their homeland. Each of them took the difficult decision to flee and then endured journeys during which they were at the whims of human smugglers or criminal gangs that brokered forced marriages – and all the time there loomed the spectre of arrest in China and deportation back to North Korea – before they reached freedom.
One of her staff delivers a round platter with a leg of steamed pork served with vegetables. Other specialities are naksadon jeongol, a chowder that mixes boiled octopus and pork with apple seasoning, or Pyongyang-style onban of boiled rice served in a chicken broth.
Lee, 52, considers each of these women to be her family.
“I only employ women who have defected from the North and we have eight staff now,” she said. “We obviously have to make some money as well, but helping these women find their feet in this new world is probably more important.”
And Lee is speaking from experience as she also completed that same arduous journey.
“Pyongyang is my home town and where I lived with my family until I was 10 years old,” she said. “But we were forced to leave after the authorities learned about my grandparents. They had been landowners before liberation in 1945 and they were Christians, but they also went to the South during the confusion of the Korean war. That made them enemies of the state, and us, too.”
One day in 1974, officers of the state intelligence office banged on the front door of the family home and told them to pack their bags immediately.
Lee’s father had been an official of the North Korean state sports organisation and her mother was the party director for the Pyongyang beer factory. Once they had been declared members of the “hostile class”, however, Lee’s father was put to work cutting down trees in remote Ryangganag Province, on the border with China, while her mother spent her days foraging for food in the increasingly barren mountains.
“There were no fences, but it was very much like living in a camp because it was a place where the regime sent people with ‘political problems’,” she said. “There were many widows, women whose husbands had been killed for their political crimes.”
One woman, she recalls, had been in the remote village ever since her husband defected to the South with his fighter aircraft.
Lee’s family was saved, however, by the vanity of the Kim family.
As the regime demanded that more statues to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il be erected, her father was selected as an administrative official for a company that fabricated the statues and the family was permitted to leave internal exile behind them after eight years.
In 1989, out of the blue, the family learned that an uncle in the US was trying to trace them. The North Korean government sensed a way to make money and encouraged the Lee family to write to him and ask him for money. The uncle did send money, but only 10 per cent of the total was given to Lee’s parents. Complaining made no difference and the Lees were resigned to their fate when it was taken out of their hands.
The situation worsened again when a cousin in the US wrote a family history in which he described Lee’s father as an agitator against the regime of Kim Il-sung and the book began to rise up the best-seller lists in the US.
“We had not done anything wrong, but we all realised it had become very dangerous for us again,” Lee said.
In 1997, without telling friends or neighbours, nine members of the family slipped across the Amur River into China and, after travelling for three months through China and Vietnam, eventually found their way to Seoul.
Inevitably, there have been repercussions. Her mother’s brother was sent to a political prison camp because they had defected and they later learned that he had frozen to death. They have not been able to contact her mother’s sister in more than eight years.
Lee initially took a job as a cleaner then in insurance sales before earning a place at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, where she studied food and nutrition. She was the first female defector from the North to earn a doctorate, with her studies focused on the declining size and weight of children being born in North Korea.
It is upsetting, she adds, that “our children are small and thin while our leaders are fat”.
In 2009, Lee founded the Hana Defector Women’s Organisation, an NGO that assists North Korean women in the South with job training, childcare and education. The following year, she accepted an International Women of Courage Award. But her work always comes back to food – or the lack of it.
Head of the North Korean Traditional Food Institute since 2012, she led an 18-day hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul, protesting against Beijing’s policy of forcibly repatriating defectors from the North.
“To me, the reunification of our country starts at the table,” she said.
Additional reporting by Reuters