The Teach North Korean Refugees project featured on MBC-Daejeon and MBC-Seoul.
북한이탈주민을 보듬기 위한
우리 사회의 노력을 전하는 연속보도,
북한이탈주민들이 우리 사회에 적응할 때
대부분 자신감 부족으로 어려움을 겪는데요.
이들에게 무료로 영어를 가르치며
자신감을 키워주는 외국인 봉사 단체가
A beautiful speech contest
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Tell your stories. That was the advice I gave in 2003 when I was in the midst of an intense campaign to create a school voucher program for low-income children in Washington, D.C.
I had been influenced from a young age by abolitionist Wendell Phillips recounting the Aesop fable “The Man and the Lion” (in a letter in the 1845 book by fugitive American slave Frederick Douglass.) In the fable, the lion complained that lions would be accurately represented “when the lions write history.” The lion says that instead of the statue of Hercules tearing apart a lion, “If a lion had made it, the man would be under a lion’s paw.”
As I spoke to D.C. Parents for School Choice on September 19, 2003 (I was the replacement speaker for Democratic D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams) and the following day gave the keynote address to the annual public meeting of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, I made the point: “Tell your story.” As I said then: “Just think about the questions that people ask: ‘Will the school system lose money?’ ‘Will the schools be drained?’ ‘Are we giving up on public education?'” The focus too often is on the system, the teachers’ union, the staff, not the children.
My focus is now on North Korean human rights, but the point remains the same. Those seeking change need to tell their stories. The North Korean regime has its books, music, poetry, propaganda, and brainwashing enforced by prison camps and shoot-to-kill border guards.
Up to the late 1990s, the testimonies of North Korean refugees were dismissed as being told by the “selfish” elite that had left families behind. Hwang Jang-yop the architect of Juche who escaped from North Korea in 1997 shortly before his 74th birthday was accused of seeking publicity for himself and had his motives questioned. As more North Koreans began to flee after the 1990s famines, it was more difficult to dismiss the number of similar narratives being told by non-celebrity refugees.
These stories need to be told. On Feb, 28, I was the host of an English speech contest featuring seven North Korean refugees participating in the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) project that I co-founded two years ago with South Korean researcher Lee Eun-koo. The contestants prepared with native and fluent English speakers they met through TNKR, answering the question: “How can you help North Koreans?”
There were three striking things about their inspiring speeches. One, the refugees did not propose the kind of large-scale “save the world” proposals that fascinate experts and reporters. They highlighted practical things that can be done ― and expressed deep appreciation for our project allowing them to improve their English and to speak out.Andrew Lee, the winner of the contest, mentioned that people can help simply by being friends with refugees, that “understanding hearts are what we need.” That, he said, can be “taking the first step toward unification here in South Korea.”
Two, there were not any overly dramatic stories. Some were speaking publicly for the first time, so inexperience, the time limit (10 minutes each), speaking before an audience of strangers and fellow refugees ― in their second or third languages ― may be reasons. I hope they will not be pushed to exaggerate their stories or to reveal too much about themselves because of reporters seeking “man bites dog” headlines. To the typical reporter, there is no such thing as a bad question ― the burden is on the interviewee to give clear answers and draw boundaries on questions that violate their privacy or family security.
In contrast to reporters and experts who dismiss refugee stories as “nothing new,” the audience at our speech contest seemed to appreciate the refugees for what they are: real-life examples of brave people who successfully escaped from totalitarianism to freedom.
Three, we had the usual absence of North Korean males. Almost 80 percent of refugees arriving in South Korea are females, and our project reflects that. Two of the 10 refugees who applied for the contest are male, including the winner.
As I listened to the speeches, I thought back to Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist, writing that he was “glad the time has come when the lions write history.” This year, at least five North Korean refugees will publish books in English (including two former participants in TNKR and another who helped inspire the project).
In her speech, third-place finisher Cherie Yang, a newcomer to TNKR, mentioned that she was delighted to be speaking along with other refugees. Instead of viewing each other with suspicion as they would have in speaking publicly in North Korea, freedom allowed them to speak their minds and learn from each other. The lions are writing history, telling their stories, listening to, and learning from each other.
The writer is Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul and Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.
So much going on around me these days…
but I still enjoy opportunities to learn more about issues around North Korean refugees and North Koreans. Some discussions are meant to be serious, but there is also joy and fun at such meetings.
And then I am happy to meet South Koreans who admit they had no idea about the challenges, and want to join up to help…
North Korean refugee Cherie Yang and I spoke in three U.S. cities in the last week. We had a great time, the audiences were receptive, we definitely raised awareness about the violation of human rights in North Korea and the challenges of North Korean refugees resettling elsewhere.
Thanks to the Atlas Network, Florida Gulf Coast University, Foundation for Government Accountability, the John Locke Foundation and the Frederick Douglass Memorial & Historical Association for hosting us.
I’m sure that some North Korean refugees try to motivate their loved ones still in North Korea to escape by sharing information about the outside world. I am humbled to learn that I have become part of that information.
One of the refugees participating in theTeach North Korean Refugees project I co-founded with Lee Eun-koo recently told me that she has been trying to convince her sister to escape from North Korea. “Come to South Korea,” she has been telling her. “You can even study English for free with as many teachers as you want. It is because of a nice American who wants to help North Koreans.”
North Koreans are warned from a young age about evil blood-thirsty American beasts. It is wonderful that I am being cited as a reason for a North Korean to flee to freedom.
Other North Koreans in North Korea have heard about that “nice American.” Last summer, a North Korean refugee interning at Radio Free Chosun did a shortwave radio broadcast into North Korea about me. That could have gotten me on North Korea’s enemies list, or bumped me up a few spots, but it is rewarding to know that someone in North Korea could be inspired to flee because of my activities. I would prefer to have the regime target rather than praise or positively cite me.
How quickly things change. Five years ago, I was ignorant of the scope of the human rights crisis in North Korea and had no idea what to do about what I did know. My life changed in early 2012 when about 30 North Korean refugees caught in China were going to be sent back to North Korea. I began organizing “meet-up” sessions to attend protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul. Then on March 1, 2012, I was inspired by Prof. Park Sun-young’s hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy to protest the looming repatriation.
Prof. Park was sitting in a tent across the street from the embassy. I approached her and told her that I was going to get more deeply involved. Not realizing it was a life-focusing moment for me, Prof. Park did the equivalent of patting me on the head and saying, “That’s nice to hear, dear.” A month later, we protested together in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.
I later became the International Adviser to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean refugees founded by that lady in the tent. Prof. Park asked me if I could teach English to the children, but I declined. Even when I was employed as an English teacher, I wasn’t a good one. Instead, I suggested to her that I could try to recruit volunteers who, I hoped, would relish such an opportunity. For at least one year, I told her, I would be a “magnet” to the school attracting volunteers. That was almost three years ago.
In the book “The Tipping Point,” gadfly Malcolm Gladwell writes that there are three kinds of people who share information. One, “connectors” are the type of people who always know somebody who knows somebody. Two, “mavens” are the people who know a lot about a particular topic. Three, salesmen are the people who can persuade others of something.
I like those three categories, but my slight difference (perhaps without a distinction) with Gladwell’s lineup is “salesman.” I don’t care if people are convinced by me ― I’m fine with them knowing about my activities. Instead of being a “salesman,” I try to be a magnet for a cause.
In addition to North Korean refugees, I have heard from our volunteers how inspired they have been to have participated in the Teach North Korean Refugees project. Some have gone on to make documentaries, join other NGOs, and inform others about the crisis in North Korea. Most recently, Cherie Yang, a North Korean refugee who lives in America, contacted me to tell me that she had been inspired by my podcasts with North Korean refugee Park Yeon-mi. It reminded Yang that after escaping North Korea to freedom that had promised herself that she would try to help North Koreans escaping to freedom. Inspired, she has now joined my company as a volunteer intern and as a participant in TNKR.
It now usually takes North Korean refugees about two to three years to get to South Korea or a third country after escaping from North Korea and through China. I will never get to China to rescue North Korean refugees, but perhaps the day will come that I will meet someone who escaped North Korea or China after hearing about me. For now, I’m thrilled to know that I have been cited as a reason for North Korean refugees to escape to freedom.
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.