Have you ever heard of “cheolgildae(railway management)”? Due to my family’s low socio-political class, I was assigned a job I did not want after graduating from high school. At “cheolgildae”, workers carry bags of soil and stones over to railway tracks. I endured the harsh work conditions that would tempt ordinary men to give up. Never once did I get a paycheck.
Despite coming of age in a difficult environment, I’ve always been taken by flowers. I remember once, as I was walking along a street with my mother, I spotted a flower blooming on a stone. It was a soil-less, unforgiving base. Observing how elegantly it was blooming, my mother told me to live my life just like that flower: beautiful and confident. That remark would plant a seed of hope in an otherwise desolate reality that inspired no dreams.
I worked at “cheolgildae” for 14 hours a day, without will and without pay. To end the futility, I made the decision to leave North Korea. After resettling in South Korea, I headed to the U.S. for a short period of time to work as a fellow for a North Korean human rights organization.It was then that I first came across preserved flowers. I’d received a gift of fresh blooms - my first - and cared for them at home. I was frustrated to find them wither away in just a couple days. When I shared this with a friend of mine, that was when I was introduced to the flowers that don’t wilt: preserved flowers.Returning to South Korea, I realized that many did not yet know about preserved flowers.
I started dreaming about creating the forever flowers for those who - like me - love fresh flowers so much that they can’t bear to toss them out even after they’ve died. I wanted to hand encouragement and hope to those hit hard by difficult times by gifting preserved flowers.
With that dream close to heart, I trained in floral craft and walked away with a hard-earned certificate. And I started my own online store specializing in preserved flowers.
“Flower is Leah” is the budding of that dream. A North Korean defector owned and run business, we sell a variety of home decor and crafted gifts featuring preserved flowers. Preserved flowers are fresh-cut flowers processed in a special solution that sustains them in their best state for about three years.
The process of creating a preserved flower product by “Flower is Leah” is as follows: I import the blooms that have already undergone the special conservation process from Japan. Through direct import, I can remove intermediary distribution channels, which reduces my business costs and passes on the savings to the consumer. After deciding on a floral design, I create handcrafted home decor or gifts with the preserved flowers. Finally, I take pictures of the finished product, clean up the images on Photoshop and upload them onto my online shop.
From building the product to selling them online, every step is currently done by me in my own itty bitty home. Not having a separate workspace, I often feel like I’m banging my head against a stone wall. But I do my best to self-learn and try everything to reach my dream.
Even though “Flower is Leah” is just a small online flower shop for now, I aim to nurture it into a business that popularizes preserved flowers in South Korea. And along the way, I want to create jobs for other North Korean defectors who carry traumatic experiences like mine.And when the Korean peninsula is reunited, I want to be able to offer hope through flowers to those surviving in North Korea, without dreams.
In North Korea, a pastime like flower viewing simply does not exist. So when the two Koreas reunify, I aspire to organize flower festivals and gardens to infuse beauty and hope into the lives of people in North Korea.
Though the soil was strange and barren, I planted a seed of hope in faith it would blossom one day. In encountering people who provided me with water and sunlight, my dream was able to sprout even under extreme conditions.