Kim Hak-min, 30, was born in coal country in the North Korean province of North Hamgyong, which borders China. His father worked in the mines as an engineer.
At the age of 7, Kim became obsessed with electric gadgets. “I just wanted to disassemble everything,” he says. “I was especially fascinated with speakers, blown away by the fact that all kinds of sounds were coming from a tiny box.”
At 13, he started fixing neighbors’ watches and electrical appliances, earning the nickname “Repair Boy.” It was a hobby that would eventually land him in jail – and lead him to defect to South Korea.
“Because I didn’t have many tools,” he says, “I developed a set of skills to fix products. For example, to take apart a wristwatch, which is composed of many parts, all I needed was a tiny needle.”
After his father died of liver cancer in 2003, Kim started …