The last few days I have been at the Mont Pelerin Society Seoul 2017 conference.
The most unscripted movement is when I was invited by one of the conference organizers to introduce TNKR and to recruit people to stay for the evening’s final gathering. People stayed, so apparently I was successful!
Looking for me? I will be at the Mont Pelerin Society conference the next couple of day. It seems to be a reunion with some of my colleagues from back in the day when I worked at South Korean think tanks.
It is often noted that South Korea and Ghana had similar GDP levels per capita in 1960, but since then Korea has flourished while Ghana has floundered. Despite the economic gap, they remain twins in one way: charitable giving. In the 2016 World Giving Index, Ghana is ranked 77th out of 140 countries. South Korea is 75th.
Earlier this year, an influential South Korean had explained, like a judge reading a lengthy guilty verdict, why my organization would struggle with raising money in South Korea. First, South Koreans don’t give to charity.
The Korea-based “Helping and Share” consulting group reported that 52 percent of South Korean families donate to charity (compared to 86 percent of U.S. families). U.S. families on average donate 3.1 percent of the family budget to charity (South Koreans donate 0.35 percent of the family budget to charity). Only 3 percent of South Korean adults volunteer, much lower than Europeans (Norway, 52 percent, U.K. 30 percent, Sweden 28 percent, Netherlands 16 percent, Finland 8 percent) according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies.
Second, the South Korean government and its authorized chaebol-like agencies are a barrier. They suck oxygen out of the room by being the major source of funding for civil society and government requirements suffocate fledgling organizations.
Organizations in the government’s bottom-level NGO category (voluntary associations) can’t hire staff and are ineligible to receive tax-deductible donations, slowing their development and discouraging donations. It took some time for me to catch on that possible supporters weren’t seriously considering us because of our bottom-level status. To get to a higher level, our volunteer-run association could no longer operate out of the now defunct Freedom Factory Co. ― we had to scrap together a $10,000 deposit for an independent office, pay monthly rent, have enough money in the bank, have patience in dealing with a mountain of paperwork, among many things.
In July, we passed the government’s inspection, but we still hadn’t reached the promised land. My Korean co-director had already learned we had to wait until July 2017 to apply to be eligible to offer tax deductions on donations, meaning our fundraising potential remained restricted (I keep asking her to confirm this).
Third, what about company donations? My skeptical adviser mentioned that Korean companies engaging in CSR have a history of the government directing donations. Add national pride to that, and it equals Korean companies seeking to feed hungry children abroad to highlight Korea’s transformation from aid recipient to aid donor (helping Ghana is the ultimate dream).
Then he closed his case, figuratively pointing at the guilty defendant: “And you’re a foreigner. Koreans think you will steal the money they donate and run away to America.” He advised me not to be publicly visible. If I were an entertainer, athlete or businessman, no problem. I was expecting him to advise me to resign, for the good of the organization.
Recognizing our weaknesses in South Korean society, I returned to a previous strategy I had considered: Build a community around North Korean refugees by having volunteers raise money.
Our volunteers agreed in theory, but not in practice. I couldn’t blame them, knowing they give so much time volunteering to help North Korean refugees. One volunteer unaware of our challenges indignantly informed me that it was either/or: “Give a dime or give your time.” Others warned that I would destroy the organization by asking volunteers to raise money.
Last week, I announced the new policy requiring all volunteers to try fundraising. Within a few days, we already had enough volunteers sign up under the new policy. It helps that several applicants have NGO experience and that volunteers who had personally donated publicly supported the policy change. Combining offline activities with online crowdsourcing, volunteers can give their time and raise dimes to help organizations in Korea expand.
Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we had to click our heels to get to our destination. We had wandered around seeking funders in a system not meant for startup NGOs lacking political or business connections, then realized our community of international volunteers has untapped potential. Most importantly, refugees will benefit from volunteers with “skin-in-the-game” feeling more connected after they have helped support the organization expand.
At a recent session with tutors, a North Korean refugee who had been on our waiting list dramatically informed us that she had attempted suicide three years ago. Looking at our “beautiful” volunteers eager to help her, she was so happy she hadn’t killed herself. As she was leaving, freshly connected with five new tutors eager to help her learn English, she insisted on donating 100,000 won. She said it was amazing that foreigners are helping North Korean refugees, even saving lives by giving them hope. She didn’t seem to be worried that I might run away to America with her donation.
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.
On December 11, 1969, a North Korean agent hijacked domestic flight Korean Air NAMC YS-11 from Gangwon to Gimpo just 10 minutes after take-off at 12:25 pm. All 50 people on board (46 passengers and 4 crew members) were abducted by North Korea.
The North Korean government eventually released 39 people, but held the other 11. One of those kidnapped is Hwang Won, then a producer with MBC. For about 15 years, his son, Hwang In-Cheol, has been asking the North Korean regime to return his father, doing a balancing act of raising awareness and pressure, without unnecessarily provoking the regime, and keeping it a non-political purely humanitarian effort.
It is not often that we get to collaborate with people who are connected to historical events, but on March 20 of this year, I met In-Cheol at the International Volunteers Workshop. An organization I founded with my South Korean partner, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), is an NGO focusing on North Korean refugees, but we also allow South Koreans in as learners if they help North Korean refugees or can demonstrate a special relationship with North Korea. We invited In-Cheol to join TNKR as a student studying with volunteer English tutors so he can prepare to share his message in English and to join our special project addressing North Korean related issues so he could build a team of volunteers to help him with his cause.
For 15 years, In-Cheol has been holding one-man demonstrations, occasionally working with international and domestic NGOs and governments in his attempt to have his father returned from North Korea. He hit a low point when he lost money, and has had family members try to convince him to give up.
He has refused to let the father he barely knew be forgotten by the world. On June 17, he led a rally at Imjingak’s Freedom Bridge (near the DMZ) along with 15 volunteers from TNKR and family members.
Based on pure numbers, the rally would be considered a failure, with only 15 of us participating. To In-Cheol, after doing this on his own for 15 years, it looked like an army a million-strong had joined him. So many people talk about saving the world, but they can’t even help one individual. Many don’t realize that their presence at events and small donations can help a cause and lift the spirits of those involved.
The most unlikely attendee at the rally: Cecilia. She was just a few months old and her brother In-Cheol was two years old when their father was taken from them by North Korea. She says that she had given up, trying for years to convince her brother and mother to move on with their lives. She now lives in the UK, she returned to South Korea last week to see their ailing mother, to observe the rally, and to see if she could really trust the people who have joined her brother’s cause.
On April 13, when we started collaborating with her brother, I posted a photo on Facebook. She was shocked: Her brother had a big grin on his face. She informed me a few days ago that she had not seen him smile in years, that she had hated seeing photos from his one-man demonstrations. Over the last few months, she has seen volunteers from Germany, South Korea, Switzerland, France, the USA and even North Korea join him, in happy group photos as we planned the rally and other activities.
At the June 17 rally, when I met Cecilia for the first time, she told me that it felt like a dream. I pinched one of our interns, then said, “Nope, this is not a dream.” She thanked us for giving a voice to him. She admits that she had tried to hide from the kidnapping. With a team of international volunteers, she said, “I feel like I have hands, arms, legs, a voice. The little weak girl could stand up.”
The news media occasionally stumbles upon their story, driving by to take snapshots, then driving on to the next story and rarely looking back. The family has been in pain for 47 years, marking anniversaries and living successes and failures without Hwang Won.
The biggest compliment Cecilia gave to me as we talked a few days after the rally: “You are the person who makes invisible people visible. You listen to people, find out what they need, and try to find people who can help them so their voices can be heard. I finally feel that I have the power for my voice to be heard.”
We hope we can continue to make their voices heard, that others will sign the online petition and join us this December to mark the 47th anniversary of KAL NAMC YS-11 being hijacked on December 11, 1969.
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.
Members of Hwang In-Cheol’s #BringMyFatherHome team have been discussing ways to get more people interested in his campaign. They are all so hopeful and optimistic. I’m the cynical one. In my experience, people don’t really give a damn/pay attention until it is related to 1) themselves 2) celebrities 3) politicians 4) puppies (or kittens) 5) oddball stuff.
I suggested that we give up. Instead, let’s just head out to an anti-Park Geun Hye rally, hold up some #BringMyFatherHome signs, take some nice photos, declare victory, then go home.
* * *
I have talked to many South Koreans about Hwang In-Cheol’s effort to have his father returned from North Korea. First, many struggle with the fact that they didn’t know about the case, but I’m deeply involved in it. 2) Then they want to question why I’m involved. Finally, after they get over their confusion, we can talk about it.
As I look at Koreans gathering in the streets in bitterly cold weather to protest Park Geun-hye, I recall some of the explanations I have heard from Koreans about why Koreans aren’t interested in Mr. Hwang’s case:
“Koreans don’t care about politics.”
“Koreans are too busy to get involved in things outside of their families.”
“These days, Koreans are afraid to get involved in politics.”
“It’s too hot (or cold, or warm, or sunny, or cloudy, etc.) for Koreans to join an event about that.
Then I look again at pictures of Koreans protesting in the streets in the bitter cold to protest Park Geun-hye.
Yes, definitely, at our next planning meeting, I will push to join the next anti-Park Geun-hye rally.