Putting down strong roots
Cho Hyeonseong was born in Cheongjin, Hamgyeongbuk-do. During his school days, he was a model student with a hopeful future. He was an active devotee of the Boy Scouts fat his school. He also received commendations, which are considered to be the highest honor for North Korean youth, but his prime years began to get derailed during the worst period, the ‘March of Suffering’.
He jumped into the Dumangang river
A year before graduating from high school, he crossed the Dumangang River alone in search of his father who had defected first. The only thing that met the young sixteen-year-old boy with nothing was the rugged Changbaek Mountain. He called out for his father but only echoes returned. He had no idea where to start looking for his father. For a while, he raised money by farming corn at a farmhouse on the Joseon side of Hwaryong county.
But the corn fields of Manchuria’s expanse were too barren to keep hold of the story-riddled young man’s heart. The burden lain on his shoulder was too heavy. Even in the grind of the farm work, he was often kept up at night out of worry for his family. One night, when the full moon was shining brightly, he decided to go back to North Korea. He climbed the bank of the Dumangang River and looked toward North Korea. My hometown must be there, beneath the moonlight.
‘Splash’, he jumped into the river, imagining he was jumping straight into his mother’s embrace. When he reached the shores on the North Korean side, he heard border guard soldiers through the darkness. They had been waiting for smugglers sent from China and had mistakenly called him. His surprise was fleeting, and he was soon running for his hometown, being chased but not being caught.
He had no choice but to return to the shores from which he had just come. The border guards chased him all the way to the Chinese side. Upon reaching the hills on China’s side, up the Tumen River’s bank, he could hear the border guards yelling up to him.
“You bastard, we’ll kill you if you ever get caught”. The words pierced Hyeonseong like daggers. These were not the words of the hometown he had yearned for so much, but was the ruthless declaration of the North Korean government, which he had once depended on and sought to follow. With that, he turned his back on North Korea and just kept walking forward.
On the way, Hyeonseong met people he has been grateful for and can’t forget. When he knocked upon the door of a lit house out of hunger and cold, a lady welcomed him in, which is something he can’t forget. She gave him warm food and a place to rest. She even advised him to seek help from a church.
Up until that time, North Korean education had taught him that churches were ‘the stooges of the Americans’. But the church became a special place that helped him endure his most difficult times. He stayed at the local church in China and got hope that he could go to South Korea. And there, he miraculously met his father and came to Korea in November of 1999.
Success and hardship
Stepping into a free world, he had lots of things he wanted to do and big aspirations. First, he wanted to study to his heart’s content at a university. Resisting all kinds of temptations, he passed the school qualification exam in August of 2000. The following year, he entered the Department of Economics at Yonsei University. He was proud of his accomplishment, but another ordeal awaited him. Adapting to South Korea, where everything was unfamiliar, and studying at the same time was not as easy as it seemed. Keeping up with his studies was much more difficult than farming for corn in the Manchurian fields.
Cho says that if it had not been for his friends, whom he is thankful for, he could not have endured that difficult time to the end. His friends did not spare the help he needed. They shared their notes and did assignments together. He was especially grateful that they were his biggest mental support, encouraging him to not give up. Thanks to his friends’ help and his own diligent efforts, his grades started to improve.
Apart from studies, he built his experience with various club and extracurricular activities. He volunteered in Fiji, an island country in the Pacific Ocean, and went on a working holiday to Australia (traveling, working, studying, etc., for a certain amount of time). It was a busy and difficult time, but also a fun and rewarding time.
But around the time of his university graduation, a massive obstacle awaited him. It was the problem of employment. He submitted job applications to about 40 places in hopes of finding a job, but he didn’t receive a single notice of acceptance after resume screening. He bawled out his eyes in a dark room. He comforted himself saying that it was discrimination against his North Korean background. But he couldn’t let this stop him.
He looked over the application documents again and thoroughly repented. He had put in applications to about 40 places, but it was hard to see content that showed earnestness or sincerity. He decided to take the next year to prepare thoroughly. To take a hold of his mind, he started his day by waking up at 5. He did his best by working part-time at two to three locations, studying English, and preparing his cover letter.
This time, he decided to apply to only 10 places. He analyzed each company’s characteristics thoroughly, and prepared documents that could properly express his strengths, experiences, and character. His hard work paid off as 3 conglomerates of the 10 places he had applied to accepted him. And in August of 2007, he started work at the Industrial Bank of Korea.
His successful employment was a new challenge for him. Especially at the beginning of his employment, relationships with customers were the most difficult. He felt pressured and weighed down by the fact that his mistakes could lead to financial losses. He believes the most important qualities of a banker are friendliness and persuasiveness. To persuade someone, there needs to be logic, and that logic should be filled with heart.
However, he lacked such training at the beginning of his work period. Every day was a series of mistakes. He said he really wanted to run away somewhere at that time.
However, he believed it was important to succeed during that period through patience. It’s because it takes time for roots to grow deep. The time it takes to get used to the work, people, and culture is time it takes for the roots to go deep. He says that taking root means creating an environment you can rely on when you face times of trouble, and an extension of that is having reliable colleagues and a harmonious family.
In 2011, Deputy Department Head Cho also established a family. “Family is good when times are good, but its true value is revealed during difficult times. When I see my daughter, I think I understand why I have to work and live hard”.
He leads a busy life but to strive for a bigger dream, he’s undergoing the PhD program for North Korean economics at the University of North Korean Studies. He said that he believes that North Korean defectors dutifully performing their roles in their respective positions and sharing their voices is laying the groundwork for the next generation to take root.