2015-09-22 Speech at international high school

I spoke at an international school this morning about (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees. Only one of the 25 students had heard anything about human rights issues in North Korea. And that was from seeing a speech by a North Korean refugee (we later figured out that it was Yeonmi Park).
Years ago, I asked a senior colleague if he ever got tired of giving the same speeches. “Not at all!” He said. Most people will never hear you, some may eventually hear you, most were not paying attention or won’t hear you until the 100th or 1,000th speech, if you are lucky. So keep speaking, sharing your message…

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2015-09-22 Traveling for English

Before I helped start TNKR, I remember meeting someone who works with refugees who said they are passive and lazy. Now after more than two years, I am wondering if the person making that statement was the problem.

I was thinking about that person as I heard a refugee today say that he travels 90 minutes each way to study at our center twice a week. He makes 4 transfers along the way. Other refugees are going out of their way to join our program.

Today was his third class, 270 minutes with two tutors who have focused on him. I can already see the difference in him.

Students in a group class can often hide, knowing they will only get called on a few times. But not with a tutor! Today it was 90 mnutes of questions and comments in English. He said it was tough but so useful for him. Danielle Tassara was great today. For 90 minutes, she was locked in on the learner, so much so that when it was time to finish, she was already starting a new topic rather than wrapping up. When you don’t enjoy what you are doing then you watch the clock, wondering if the clock is really working.

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2015-09-21 In-house tutoring (and counseling)

“Thank you everybody for giving me the opportunity to prepare for my dream.”

“Today’s first class is really good and helpful for me.”

That’s the message (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees received this morning from a North Korean refugee who just joined our in-house tutoring program. It is really timely for her because she is applying for a scholarship. And she was helped this morning by a tutor who has been going through applications herself, so she was able to offer plenty of guidance.

I wish I could express how wonderful the session was.

* The tutor is South Korean, bilingual, but she avoids using Korean except when it is absolutely necessary. She will mention a keyword or explain briefly in Korean, then slip back to English so quickly that you barely have time to turn your head.

* She was meeting the refugee for the first time, but quickly grasped the situation, and focused on the scholarship opportunity and getting her ready for it.

* She doesn’t just accept what the refugee learner said–she pushes her to the next level, and telling her directly but gently that her application isn’t strong enough. But she focused on how they could make it stronger, like they are a team.

* She applauds the learners when they get things right but also corrects them when they get things wrong.

* She comes from Bundang, arrives early, tutors as a volunteer from 10 am- 1 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

* And I know people are quick to blame South Koreans for not getting involved with North Korean issues, but it seems with our project that we always have South Koreans who get involved. As I have said before, instead of blaming, it is important to offer things that attract, rather than brow-beating…

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How N. Korean defectors define ‘freedom’ (NK News, Sept 18, 2015)

TNKR-hosted speech contest reveals continued challenges for escapees
September 18th, 2015
As tensions repeatedly rise and fall on the Korean Peninsula, there may be an unwillingness among North Korean defectors to talk about their incredible journey to South Korea and their new lives as South Korean citizens.

Some fear retribution from the North Korean government. Some don’t want to feel alienated from their peers and just want to focus on their new lives. Others would like to share their experiences but lack the confidence to do so, especially in front of an international audience.

In spite of these obstacles, seven North Korean defectors found it worthwhile to raise awareness about their experiences through an English speech contest. The contest took place on August 22 in the Myeongdong district of Seoul. The organization behind the contest, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), is a volunteer organization providing individualized English tutoring to a wide range of North Korean defectors, many of whom want to enhance their opportunities in South Korea and some of whom want merely to communicate their experiences as a defector to a larger audience.

The theme of the speech contest, “What Freedom Means to Me, allowed the participants to not only share their experiences living as defectors but also to bring their own voices to the discussion. The result of the contest was a plethora of viewpoints, including about the degree to which the defectors feel “free.” Interestingly, in describing their struggles to attain freedom, the defectors devoted about as much attention to their daily lives in the South as their escapes from the North, leaving more questions than answers on the subject of what “freedom” means.


The co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TKNR), Casey Lartigue, said the theme of the speech contest came from the winner of the first speech contest in March.

“I made a mental note of it at the time,” said Lartigue, “then when we decided to have a second contest, that one stood out.”

Because of the buzz generated by the first contest, Lartigue and co-founder Eunkoo Lee were able to secure the sponsorship of the law offices of Shin and Kim, who not only provided a venue for the contest but also the prize money.Sehyek Oh

For some participants, having grown up in the North, describing “freedom” was not easy. Sehyek Oh, the eventual contest winner, said “(he) was not aware of the fact that (he) had been living with no freedom.” At the time he considered the circumstances – not being able to criticize the Kim family and having to ask for permission every time he traveled – completely normal. Another participant, “Ken,” likened the experience of growing up in North Korea to the Korean/Chinese folk tale of the frog in the well that, lacking any perspective on the outside world, naturally believed the North Korean government’s proclamations that he was among the happiest people in the world.

‘Life without freedom is not really life at all’

As the defectors grew older, their perspectives changed regarding how good or normal life was in North Korea. Oh, for instance, had a turning point when he was forced to stand on a podium and receive criticism from his peers about his attempt to get out of work at a farm site when his ankle was broken. The third-place contestant – who preferred to remain anonymous – said that she became aware of how some people were living on the other side of the river in China and wondered why some people were rich while others, like her, were poor. Realizations such as these ultimately led the defectors to make the difficult decision to leave their country and, in many cases, family members behind.

The most tragic reflection came from the second-place winner Hanbyeol Lee, an activist for the organization Justice For North Korea (JFNK), which her husband Peter Jung founded. Lee told of how her father died from starvation during the famine of the 1990s, her mother lost her hearing during torture and her brother’s hands and feet became infected and he was forced to divorce his wife when he was sent to a labor camp. After using a variety of phrases to denote her lack of freedom, including “a bird within a cage” and “a modern-day slave,” she remarked: “Life without freedom is not really life at all.”


Should you ask a typical American or South Korean what freedom means to them, he or she may respond with a set of homilies or recitations from political philosophers or government documents. North Korean defectors, on the other hand, as evident from this speech contest, may have to come up with more concrete and personal ways of defining the concept.

The only defector to mention a formal conception of freedom was Ken, who brought up the sections of the North Korean constitution that guarantee freedom of speech, association and religion – if only to point out how untrue these “guarantees” are. When he spoke of the freedoms he enjoyed in the South, he emphasized its less obvious manifestations, like the freedom to mock government leaders.

Another unique perspective came from Miyeon Lee, who arrived in South Korea in 2008 and who has since earned a master’s degree in education from Yonsei University. Although she was grateful for the specific freedoms she enjoys in the South, including to study what she wants, she concluded that complete freedom “cannot exist because we are living as social animals.”

SehyekSehyek Oh’s speech won him first prize.

For contest winner Oh, who escaped at the height of the North Korean famine in the 1990s, freedom involves going beyond the limits imposed by society. In North Korea, this involved escaping from poverty: With a monthly salary of only enough money to buy 2 kgs of rice a month, he barely had enough to eat.

“What freedom meant to me at the time was freedom from starvation,” he said.

He also made sure to mention the limits imposed by South Korean society that he also has had to overcome. These barriers have included financial difficulties and job discrimination due to his identity as a North Korean defector. For certain defectors – not those in this competition – these challenges have led to the unconventional desire to return to North Korea. For Oh, on the other hand, his evolving awareness of freedom propelled him to pursue two master’s degrees, run an online shopping mall with other defectors, and co-found a North Korea human rights organization where he works today.


When assessing whether or not they felt they were truly free in the South, the answer for some of the defectors was a resounding no. One defector said that she does not and will not feel free until the North and South are unified. One said he still does not feel free because of the social and peer pressure rampant in South Korean society: He feels forced to drink alcohol by his superiors when he does not want to, and social pressure over a “proper” career led him to abandon his passion to become an athlete.

… people may have to “accept North Korean defectors as no different (than) other human beings.”

Still, these participants are fighting the restrictions that box defectors in: Oh, for instance, said he has had enough of witnessing how defectors have to cover their North Korean dialects or lie about their backgrounds to get a job and has spoken out about this in several formats, including a letter to the South Korean National Assembly. Hanbyeol Lee is working on a master’s degree in Unification Studies and has been active in campaigns on the streets of Seoul. Sharon Jung, who used to work in the coalmines of North Korea, has become a nurse in the South and hopes to return to North Korea after reunification to care for the coal miners in her hometown. Miyeon Lee concluded her speech with a poem about the spring season being taken away from a rice field during the Japanese occupation, likening spring to lost freedom under dictatorship and calling for its return.

While not every defector could take home first prize, that they stood before an audience to speak in a second – or third – language is a testament to their bravery and conviction. Moreover, they inspire other North Korean defectors to be similarly proactive.

“We have refugees already asking us to have a third contest and they want it sooner rather than later,” Lartigue said.

Whether or not this determination will translate into greater influence on policy and/or society in is yet to be seen. But as more North Korean defectors come to the forefront, there will be less of a tendency to view them as stereotypes, or even as victims. Instead, as Oh said, people may have to “accept North Korean defectors as no different (than) other human beings.”

Images courtesy of Casey Lartigue

2015-09-19 “I’m going crazy”


Yesterday was Saturday, I was working on behalf ot TNKR again, but no, I’m not the one going crazy. That’s what one of the learners in (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees blurted out yesterday as she studied with one of her three tutors!

* Each of her tutors has a different accent–American, Australian, British. (I hope I remembered them correctly.)
* Yesterday she got a lot of help with pronunciation and tongue twisters.
* Then her tutor mixed it up with conversation practice.


It was a fun class. Dylan Joseph is an engaging tutor, and the refugee is a very eager student, listening closely to what she is taught, trying her own versions of sentence patterns, and not being the least bit shy about trying or embarrassed when she makes mistakes.

By the way, Dylan takes a 4 hour bus ride each way from Gwangju to tutor in our program, so he may also feel that he is going crazy! He tutored two students for a total of four hours yesterday. He is raising money to help pay for the long bus rides and nights he stays in Seoul to tutor students during the day.

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Earlier in the day I joined when TNKR co-director Eunkoo Lee had class with her tutor Emma Foster. Emma comes from Suwon to tutor Eunkoo. Yes, right, Eunkoo is not a North Korean refugee, but we allow South Koreans who help North Korean refugees (working at or helping NGOs, volunteering, or some other way that convinces us). I insisted that Eunkoo should also join, not only because she deserves it, but it can cut down on our own communication problems. I am still waiting for someone to set up a matching program so I cIMG_1951an get a Korean language tutor to come directly to my office (that’s the only way I will ever study, and even then the tutor will have to chase me). Don’t hate, I just recognize my limitations.

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While they were studying together, I met with a young man who is starting an organization in Australia that will be helping North Korean refuges. His team is doing it the right way–doing research, learning about the scale of the problem, finding their role. With TNKR, we just started without planning, go funding proposals, or organizing a team. Well, that was the right way for them, and I hope it is the right way for them.


2015-09-16 TNKR in-house tutoring, day 3, lesson 5


(TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees has a waiting list of about 50 refugees. We have started an in-house tutoring project helping North Korean refugees on our waiting list with their transition into our regular program.

Kristina Dziedzic Wright joined us today as a tutor today with a delightful learner. It is a learning process for all of us as we figure out how to go forward with this project.

This learner is at the ABC level. Her eagerness for learning was clear. She is one of those ladies who clearly is fearless.

Continue reading 2015-09-16 TNKR in-house tutoring, day 3, lesson 5

2015-09-15 In-house tutoring, day 2

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Today volunteer tutor Jenny Lee taught two classes with refugees who are at the ABC level. As I said yesterday, she has reminded me that bilingual tutors can teach without having conversations in Korean. She does it in a really smart way–she will explain a world or phrase in Korean, but rarely do more than a sentence.

And she got very strong feedback from both of her students. One of them was tutored during the summer by tutoring machine Grace Lee. Today they both had very strong feedback about her class.

Then in the afternoon, Danielle joined us in her first session. She was conversational with a tutor who is probably at the low intermediate level and seemed to be dealing with English for the first time with a native speaker who did not resort to Korean.

This in-house tutoring is a pilot project, but based on early results, we will keep it going.

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