2015-06-25 Stories of escape from North Korea (Vue Weekly, Canada) by Kristina Guzman

Vue front-north-korea


“Since the 1950s, about 27 000 [North Korean refugees] have come [to South Korea]”, says NGO Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) co-founder Casey Lartigue. “Most of them have come in the last 15 years.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, the North Korean economy also began to collapse,” Lartigue continues.  “Then you have the famines of the mid-1990s. Some of the guards themselves were trying to escape.”

According to Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, 100 000 to 300  000 North Koreans have defected to other countries, with the majority hiding in Russia and China.

One of TNKR’s learners, Ken (who prefers the use of his first name only for this article) was in the North Korean military for 10 years.

“The most difficult thing is hunger,” Ken says. “The North Korean soldiers [did not] always get enough food.”

Although he is still working on his English, Ken exudes animated confidence as he tells his story. He is one of 15 Track Two learners at TNKR, which Lartigue explains is for “those refugees who are interested in public speaking,” whether it be to deliver work presentations or to speak out on North Korean issues.

Ken had to move to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, for military service. Soldiers were not allowed to contact family by telephone, only by letter.

“But letter must be checked,” Ken adds. “There is no Internet in North Korea.”

After finishing military service, Ken returned home to find that his brother and mother were missing. Three weeks later, he received news that his family had defected to South Korea.

“I was really shocked. Even though my family had defected, I just continued to look for a job and tried to stay in North Korea,” Ken recalls. “But I couldn’t.”

This was the kind of punishment that the government had for family members of North Korean defectors.

“Even if I stayed, after six months maybe a public servant from the North Korean government would be watching me, so I decided [to leave],” he says. “[The North Korean government] watches everybody … but especially someone who [has] a relative who is a defector.”

Three months following military service, Ken embarked on a four-day journey to South Korea, via Laos and Thailand, with the help of a broker. Without a passport, he had to cross the border illegally.

“[The journey was] dangerous. [I] swim in the Amnok River,” Ken says of the first challenge of crossing the border between North Korea and China. “It took 15 minutes to cross, but it felt like 15 hours. It was as if a thousand needles were going through me!”

Eventually, Ken reached the South Korean embassy in Thailand, where he received a South Korean passport and was able to take a plane to South Korea. Like many others, Ken went through culture shock as he learned to adjust living in a “totally different social system.”

“North Korean people were provided food and some money by [the] government, but in South Korea, we have to make money ourselves,” he says.

However, because everyone was paid so little in their jobs in North Korea, Ken now considers it more like volunteer work rather than an actual job.

TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee says one challenge that North Koreans face in South Korea is employment. Employers have a capitalistic expectation of employees, which is, “they should be more active without orders from the boss.”

“[There is] difficulty of finding a job for South Korean people, but North Korean people [face] more difficulties, because South Korean people [are] influenced by the media—like North Korea is terrible country or they are [the] enemy kind of thing,” Lee says.

Ken also had preconceived notions of South Koreans.

“When I entered the South Korean embassy, there were some people who treat me very kind. I’m very [suspicious] … maybe they try to get information out of me,” Ken admits. “When I went to church [for the] first time, many people [were] being friendly. I thought maybe they’re working undercover as a spy for the government.”

Sharon Jang, another TNKR North Korean learner, shares what life in North Korea was like, with the help of a translator.

“The first cellphone came out in 2010 or 2011,” she recalls. “At that time, pagers began to emerge, but they cost 3M won [$4100 CAD.]

“Most North Koreans have TVs, but they are large monitors,” adds Jang, who has been in South Korea for three years. “The poor have black and white while the rich can get colour TV.”

“The hardest part was working in the coal mines,” she says of the 15-hour workdays, which consisted of transferring 30 bags of coal weighing 40 kilos each.

The actual take-home pay was only 1000 won [$1.37 CAD] per month after taking other fees into account.

In November 2011, Jang began her escape from North Korea by going to a different city for 13 days with no pass. In North Korea, a special pass is required when visiting other jurisdictions, so Jang was in special danger of being caught, on top of the drug activity that surrounded her.

After crossing the Tumen River, another river that divides North Korea from China, a broker obtained by her mother, which cost 7M won [$9500 CAD], assisted her. She then spent two months travelling through China and Laos before making her way to the South Korean embassy in Thailand. Shortly after, she arrived in South Korea and discovered her mother—who had escaped to South Korea when Jang was 14—had a new husband as well as a new son.

“It was challenging for me to adjust to a new family. I had not seen my mom in 10 years,” Jang recalls.

Jang still has family back home, but she has sent money to them only once, as it is a complicated process that involves three different brokers from China, South Korea and North Korea.

When asked if she considers herself North Korean, South Korean or simply Korean, Jang responds, “At first, I was confused. But now I don’t think it’s important where I came from—I consider myself a South Korean citizen living in South Korea.”

For more information about TNKR, visit teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org.


Vue Weekly upload

Books in English, by North Korean refugees

Books by North Korean refugees, in English

Coming Up
by Eunsun Kim  (Author), Sébastien Falletti (Author), David Tian (Translator)
Yeonmi Park
Lucia Jang

I’m honored to know three of the authors.
Casey Lartigue with Eunsun Kim, July 2014
Casey Lartigue with Yeonmi Park, September 2015
2012 August 20 Hyeon-seo planning meeting (20)
Casey Lartigue with Hyeonseo Lee, August 2012

‘How black is he?’ (2015-06-17, The Korea Times)

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

In late 2012, I wrote a Thoughts of the Times column reflecting upon some racial slights that I received in South Korea during the 1990s. Unfortunately, I have experienced a few cases recently that topped all of those.

A Korean professor who is a fan of mine has been recruiting me to join her university. She secretly let me know her colleagues pushed back. One concern: I might be too independent. She says that Korean professors typically seek colleagues who won’t challenge them, so I will need to show humility.

Two, citing my career, they worried that I might not be satisfied with their lesser known university (Harvard graduate, previously taught at Yonsei University as a young man, and have worked at high profile organizations in both the USA and South Korea). In previous job searches, I have responded to the “overqualified” point by saying: “If you think I am overqualified then you should watch me work for a week.”

She listed a few other things, but the grand finale: They needed to be sure that I am not “completely black.”

It sounded like a joke, but she was sincere, as always. She said her colleagues were worried because they “know” that black people fight with white people. That university certainly wouldn’t want to hire a one-man riot who would burn, baby burn the university. She said they concluded that I might be mixed race, and debated what percentage black I am, and wondered about the racial makeup of my parents and grandparents.

My fan apologized. She said she deeply admires and respects me, that’s why she recruited me for the job. I had the sense that if they wanted me to run across hot coals or stick my hand in fire as part of the interview that she would have given me tips, without condemning the process.

She advised me that if they invite me for an interview that I should stress that I am a team player, have white people in my family and have many white friends. Amazed, I suggested that I might be able to get racial letters of recommendation from white family members, friends and former colleagues.

I thought to add that I could include photos of myself frolicking about with white friends, but stopped myself. After all, if I went through with the interview, I wouldn’t want them to reject my application because I had failed to include such photos to bolster my case. (“He said that he had photos with white friends, but he didn’t include them as proof he won’t cause trouble, so how can we risk hiring him?”)

I imagined a faculty meeting with those respected professors with their Ph.Ds, using their expertise and experience to determine my level of blackness as part of my job qualifications. “Is he completely black? If yes, how violently black?”

As often happens in life, your enemies slander you, and your friends deliver the news. She is an inadvertent whistle blower, demonstrating evidence of what many black people in Korea complained about when I was here in the 1990s _ blacks aren’t seriously considered for many university jobs and are hired reluctantly.

I thought about my own role: Should I reveal the university? After all, black people should not waste their time applying there. But I don’t want my fan who secretly delivered the news to get into trouble for trying to help me.

Two Korean friends I discussed this with cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, saying those Korean academics need to learn his message. I assured them that it wasn’t just Koreans.

During one of my recent trips back to the USA, I gave a speech about my project connecting North Korean refugees with volunteer language tutors and speech coaches. Everything went well during my presentation, but that night at dinner, one of the Ivy League professors who had been singing my praises all day informed me that a few of the people at the conference were asking: “Why is a black man doing so much to help North Koreans?”

I didn’t try to catch the source, I wanted to keep focus on my activities rather than race. Those respected people had revealed their small minds, so I doubted they could understand or would believe that I am focused on individual liberty and creating learner-centered opportunities.

It was good that I didn’t debate or argue with them, it could have been disastrous. Based on what the Korean university professors said about me in their meeting, such respected white professionals are the type to write racial letters of recommendation for me.

Perhaps I should tell my Korean professor fan that I didn’t argue with them. Plus I got some great photos of white people smiling with me.

The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.

Original Korea Times link

2015-06-17 how black is he upload


linked by [Advanced English] Culture & Society – Black in Korea

2015-06-15 Casey Lartigue quoted by Sky News

Sky News:

Casey Lartigue is the co-founder of the volunteer organisation Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), an NGO that connects North Korean refugees with people who can help them.

Mr Lartigue told Sky News many defectors struggle to adjust to South Korean society.

They have made it to South Korea – a challenging process, not everyone survives – and they often suffer hardship along the way,” he said.

“From what I hear, South Korea certainly welcomes them, but after getting out of North Korea, they don’t consider themselves to be limited to South Korea.

“While saying they are thankful to have escaped North Korea and to have been accepted by South Korea, they will still say that South Korea is more of a struggle than they imagined.”


2015-06-18 “North Korean Voices”


In recognition of International Refugee Day, the U of A and Edmonton chapters of Amnesty International are teaming up with the Teach North Korean Refugees Project (TNKR) and Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) to bring you a one-of-a-kind event that will give you a direct window into the human rights abuses in North Korea from people who’ve lived there, as well as sharing the hope they have for their lives now that they’re free.

Two North Korean refugees will be speaking (via Skype from Seoul) about their experiences escaping North Korea and transitioning into a life of freedom, as well as several other speakers discussing the political situation in North Korea and their work helping North Korean refugees.

Our speakers will be:

• Sharon Jang, a 24-year-old North Korean student who fled North Korea in 2011. Sharon travelled for two months, covering 2300 miles through China and Laos, in order to reach safety at the South Korean embassy in Thailand. She had previously worked 15-hour days in a coal mine only miles away from the Hoeryong concentration camp (also known as Camp 22).

• Ken, who served for 10 years in the North Korean military, before escaping the country in 2010.

• Casey Lartigue, Jr., co-founder and co-director of the Teach North Korean Refugees Project, which provides North Korean refugees with English-learning opportunities and helps them determine their place in society, free of charge. Casey will be joining us over Skype from Seoul with Sharon and Ken.

• Dr. Kyungsook Kim, Korean Program and Language Coordinator for the U of A Department of East Asian Studies

• Esther Park and Dani Lichota, regional managers for Liberty in North Korea, a US-based organization that works to rescue North Korean refugees who are hiding in Asia and resettle them in South Korea. Esther and Dani are in charge of LiNK’s Nomad program, which has representatives travel around the US educating about North Korean human rights. Esther and Dani will be speaking via Skype from Los Angeles.

After the speakers, there will be time for a Q&A with the audience.

The event will be in the Natural Resources Engineering Facility (NREF) room 1-001 on the U of A campus (right next to ETLC).

In the interest of keeping things affordable, tickets will be $5 at the door for the general public, and free for students with student ID. All proceeds will be donated to the Teach North Koreans Refugees project in order to fund their programs and help North Korean refugees learn English and get accustomed to life in South Korea. Any additional donations to the TNKR program will also be accepted at the door and are greatly appreciated. Founded in 2013, it’s a young and growing program, so we’re trying to promote them and get them all the support we can.

As well, all proceeds from both ticket sales and donations will be matched by the Atlas Network!

Please invite your friends!

More information:

The Teach North Korean Refugees project: http://teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org/

Liberty in North Korea: http://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/

Amnesty International Canada: http://www.amnesty.ca/

Amnesty International’s North Korea resource: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/north-korea/

University of Alberta Department of East Asian Studies: http://www.eastasianstudies.ualberta.ca/

Give, not ‘give back’ (The Korea Times, 2015-06-03)

Give, not ‘give back’

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

As my project helping North Korean refugees has grown, it has, unfortunately, also attracted more volunteers saying they want to “give back to the community.” It is now so commonly stated by applicants that I am pleasantly surprised when it isn’t mentioned.

When it is, I usually start counting to 10, to calm down.I must remind myself that they are signing up to help. Still, for years, I have grumbled to friends about “giving back” to an amorphous community. A friend who grew up in a rough area said that instead of “giving back,” he would send his old neighborhood a bill, to be compensated for the many beatings and robberies he had to endure as a youngster.

Because some of the North Korean refugees ask why our tutors help them for free, we began asking volunteers to explain. Their responses varied, but much to my chagrin, too many saw the wonderful project that I helped create as a great opportunity to “give back.”

I am thrilled they are volunteering, the project depends on them. If “giving back” motivates them, so be it, I will just count to 20 and get back to work. I make it clear to them: there is no duty or obligation to return anything you haven’t taken, so you don’t need to “give back” in order to join us. This is a win-win situation, with both sides voluntarily joining and making a commitment to each other.

Saying that you want to “give back” makes as much sense as saying that you want to “volunteer back.” When someone gives money to a charitable cause, they don’t say they want to “donate back.” I do give my time and money to activitiesthat I believe ought to be done, as I have done for the last 15 years, but I tune out when I am told that I need to “give back” or have an obligation to help.

The people who need to “give back” to North Korean refugees are the rulers of North Korea who have taken so much from them. They blocked their freedom of locomotion, stole their right of self-ownership, and violated their human rights. The rest of us don’t need to give back, but we can give, volunteer or donate our time or resources to help those adjusting to life outside of North Korea.

It may be that giving back to an amorphous “community” is my main gripe. A “community” doesn’t tutor or get tutored. But individuals do. You aren’t obligated to “give back” to a particular person any more than you are obligated to give to an undefined a community that may not want what you are offering.

My project has attracted some unlikely volunteers: North Korean refugees. In January, a North Korean refugee whosaw my TV podcast with Yeonmi Park learned that I was involved in many activities related to North Korean refugees. She asked if she could volunteer.

I was floored. From what I have heard, civil society barely exists in North Korea (and, from what I have heard, volunteering for strangers is still a relatively new concept in South Korea, too). In our first two years, no North Korean refugees asked to volunteer with us. We now have two.

Another North Korean refugee who recently entered our project made a financial donation. All of these refugees were inspired by the volunteer tutors and staff. Other North Korean refugees who have not volunteered yet said that they were thinking, for the first time, about volunteering to help others. We are building a community of volunteersthat now includes North Korean refugees. It is not based on an obligation to an unspecified community ― rather, it is individuals coming together to get something practical done.

Last week, another North Korean refugee donated $500 to our project. She didn’t consider it a donation and said she doesn’t understand volunteering. She has not been a participant in our project, so it wasn’t a return favor. From watching my updates on Facebook, she felt the urge to “give a gift to show my heart.”

Yes, I am irritated by the volunteer tutors in my project who say they want to give back, but thankfully, their actions speak louder than their words. They have, through their actions, inspired North Korean refugees to volunteer, donate, and to give. They have perhaps indirectly introduced the idea of civil society into North Korea via those refugees still in contact with family there. They have seen a new way to interact with people, making new friends based on common interests.

I will try to rememberthat, as I’m counting to 10, if and when a North Korean refugee tells me that he or she wants to volunteer with us, in order to “give back.” I won’t like it, but I will understand.

The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at:CJL@post.harvard.edu.

Korea Times link