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.