Broke and alone in South Korea, North Korean defector Choi Hyun-ok is learning to cook and promote dishes from her homeland, hoping new skills will ease her way into life in a country where she has found refuge but has also been shunned.

The tired-looking 40-year-old, who declined to give her real name for fear of reprisals against her family still in the North, was a construction worker before fleeing a year ago.

But after three months in a government facility to help her adapt to life in the South, she got work in a restaurant only to find she was treated with suspicion because of her accent.

I was physically exhausted from my battle between life and death and fear of getting caught by the Chinese police before sneaking into the South Korean embassy in Beijing, she said.

After coming to the South, I was financially strapped after paying millions of won (thousands of dollars) to a broker who helped me escape.

But now she is part of a programme that on the face of it trains North Korean defectors like her to be ambassadors for the food of the North, to find them jobs -- and whose long-term goal is to train people who can help bridge cultural gaps between the two uneasy neighbours in the event that they one day reunite.

Over the last few decades, more than 20,000 North Koreans have fled from the world's most reclusive state for their southern neighbour. But as more have arrived in South Korea, there have been fewer job openings.

According to the North Korean Refugees Foundation, in 2010 nine percent of North Korean defectors in the South were jobless compared with just three percent of the wider population. About 63 percent of defectors stayed no longer than a year at one workplace, in some cases due to trouble adjusting.

The free programme combines cooking lessons with practical support such as speech classes to help newcomers lose their accents, along with advice on negotiating life in the thoroughly modern South, where defectors have to grapple with mysteries such as cash machines, along with earning a living.

It's not just learning to cook, it's learning to stand up in front of other people, said Han Hyun-sook, another woman defector from the North getting the training.


For several months, Choi and 19 classmates have been learning how to make dishes such as Haeju-style bibimbap, a rice dish topped with vegetables. Northern food is less sweet than that of the south, and has more pickled items.

The mood in the class is light-hearted. When the students introduce themselves in speech class, they joke that they are still more comfortable with the bombastic style of speaking used on North Korean propaganda broadcasts.

South Korean people don't fully understand what we've been through, such as the desperate separation from our families, and insomnia, Choi said.

Lee Ae-ran, the programme organiser and a professor of nutrition at Kyungin Women's College, who herself was a defector, said that the training course had several goals.

Getting work is only the most obvious. If and when the two Koreas are eventually reunited, defectors may have a key role to play in bridging cultural gaps, she said.

Many people have only some narrow, unbalanced thoughts about North Korea -- that it is poor and its people are starving to death, said Lee, who defected to the South in 1997 and won the 2010 International Women of Courage award.

Experts said Lee's course was a good idea but even with the training, things would be tough for the new arrivals.

North Korean food is not that popular here now and many North Korean restaurants have already closed or are struggling, said Park Jung-ran, at the Unification Institute of Seoul National University.

They will need more financial support to back them up.

But the trainees are thankful and upbeat about their new lives.

Unlike the people in the North, who are deprived of education and job opportunities, this class has helped me change my thinking. It gives me a chance to succeed, said Choi.

(Editing by Elaine Lies and Robert Birsel)