Restaurateur provides a waystation for North Korean defectors

Restaurateur Dan Kang runs the Seoul City Mongolian Grill, which trains North Korean defectors in the restaurant industry. The long-term goal: Return them to the north after Korea reunifies.

By , Correspondent

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    Nine North Korean defectors arrive in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 4, 2011, clad in sunglasses and face masks to protect their identities. They were found drifting aboard a small wooden boat off Japan's west coast. Restaurateur Dan Kang runs the Seoul City Mongolian Grill, which trains defectors in restaurant work to give them jobs and prepare them eventually to return to the North.
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Most nights, service industry veteran Dan Kang arrives home around midnight, stopping off on the way to shoot a merciful game of pool or two.

The moments he spends poised with pool stick in hand are practically the only slivers of time he has to himself all day, a chance to unwind.

These days, Mr. Kang is the managing partner and executive chef at a restaurant that has more than the needs of its brimming clientele to contend with: Its very raison d'être is to empower North Korean defectors who have successfully completed the perilous journey from their homeland to South Korea.

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Micro-economic efforts like the Seoul City Mongolian Grill in Ansan, a southern suburb of Seoul, occupy a vacuum that desperately needs filling, advocates say.

Though North Koreans who arrive in the South receive classes in cultural adaptation and a resettlement allowance, once they are let loose into society many cannot cope psychologically with their new, markedly different environment.

The unemployment rate among defectors from the isolated communist state was found at one point recently to be four times higher than the national average. Suicide rates tell a similar story. Defectors are two-and-a-half times more likely to take their own lives than native South Koreans, according to one set of statistics.

North Koreans in the South, Kang says, are often ostracized and stigmatized for coming from what is seen as a dirt poor, backward country.

This is where grass-roots enterprises like his Seoul City Mongolian Grill – which was set up to help provide defectors with financial assistance and jobs – come in.

The idea for the restaurant came from founder Simon Suh, a pastor at the church Kang attends in Ansan. After enlisting Kang, he embarked on a crusade to arm defectors with not only a salary but skills that one day can be taken back to the North under a reunified Korea and used to build the economy there from the ground up.

To get the eatery off the ground, Mr. Suh gathered up donations amounting to $80,000 from sources in the United States. He then found premises where the landlord agreed to set the rent at a minimal cost. They chose Mongolian cuisine for two reasons, Kang says. For one, he explains, “it is healthy, healthy food.” Secondly, he adds, with the training of defectors in mind, “it is very easy to make.”

The restaurant’s ethos fits in with the “spiritual awakening” Kang says he experienced in the company of Suh, who has dedicated a large part of his ministry to helping North Korean refugees.

Kang is involved in almost every aspect of the business – including training the restaurant’s budding North Korean chefs. His busy schedule appears to be no exaggeration. In between the precious times when his focus is trained solely down the barrel of his pool stick, he often shuffles off to a nearby table to ferret through administrative work on his laptop.

It’s all energy-sapping stuff, he concedes. “I get so super busy,” he says, explaining why he has been unable to schedule an interview with a reporter sooner. “The restaurant is just pumping, and I'm working my backside off.”

Kang arrived in South Korea from the US about two years ago, hoping to realize his late father’s unfulfilled dream of returning to his homeland to teach English. He comes with a service-industry résumé listing posts that date back 20 years. He has worked in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Hawaii.

But here at the Seoul City Mongolian Grill, he has helped set in motion a potentially much longer-term project. And it is inevitably this end goal of the restaurant that pulls Kang’s weary body out of bed every morning.

“The mission here is on a broad scale. We are not doing this service for just North Koreans. We are doing it for South Korea and Korea as a whole,” he says. “We are all the same people, and it is high time that we reunified. I would really like to see that happen.”

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