‘From ABC to TED’: Providing English Education to North Korean Refugees

2019.4.19 Jang Yang-hee

Casey Lartigue, co-founder of TNKR, explaining the number of North Korean refugees who arrived in South Korea in recent years.

Every Friday, we bring you note-worthy news stories related to North Korea. A non-profit organization that provides free English learning opportunities to North Korean refugees is currently on a nation-wide college tour in the United States to rally support for the refugees. Jang Yang-hee reports.

“Okay, so quick little quiz. Why do North Koreans escape from North Korea?”

April 11th, in a lecture room of the American University, Washington, D.C.

Casey Lartigue, the co-founder of the Seoul-based non-profit TNKR, asks a question, and the students raise their hands to provide their answers.

“Because it’s a terrible place,” answers one student, and everyone bursts into laughter.

Lartigue asked for a more detailed answer, and students gave answers ranging from mass starvation to the “guilt by association” system of criminal punishment.

“Very good answers,” said Lartigue before moving on to his next question.

He asked why North Korean refugees struggle in South Korea, to which students gave answers ranging from identity crisis to culture shock.

Lartigue then asked if the students could guess why TNKR is so popular with North Korean refugees. One student replied, “Because TNKR provides English education, which is essential in South Korea.”

Since the beginning of this month, Lartigue has been visiting universities across the United States to raise awareness about the lives of North Korean refugees and to urge others to participate in activities that support North Korean refugees.

TNKR, headquartered in Mapo-gu, Seoul, was established in 2013 as “Teach North Korean Refugees.” The organization focuses on helping North Korean adults by matching them with volunteer English tutors and providing them with one-on-one English classes.

The refugees can choose as many tutors as they want. The classes are tailored to their individual needs, which range from preparing for English tests and college exams to preparing for job interviews.

Casey Lartigue, an educator who graduated from the prestigious Harvard University, shared detailed information on his organization’s activities.

According to the data shared by Lartigue, 2,914 North Korean refugees arrived in South Korea in 2009, the highest in 20 years. The lowest was in 2017, which stood at 1,127.

Lartigue explained that, after travelling through China, Laos, and Thailand to reach South Korea, the North Korean refugees undergo 3 months of investigation by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and another 3 months of re-education at Hanawon, a resettlement support center. Upon completion, they begin their new lives in South Korea with some government subsidy.

Lartigue said that the unemployment rate for North Korean refugees in South Korea is as high as 40%, with their average income only half that of other South Korean citizens. 80% of the North Korean refugees are said to work in low-paying jobs. 

Among those who entered universities, 30% have reportedly dropped out after facing various obstacles, with the ‘difficulty in communication’ as one of the top reasons.

In this context, learning English has become essential to successfully adapt to the South Korean society. Lartigue explained that was why he has focused on providing English education.

Lartigue also shared examples of North Korean refugees who went on to speak on international stage after going through TNKR’s program. ‘From ABC to TED’, from learning basic alphabets to giving quality speeches at international events.

After an hour-long lecture, Lartigue answered questions from the audience.

An American in the audience asked, “How can we help from all the way here?”

The man’s name is John Drugan, who taught North Korean refugees at TNKR when he was still in South Korea.

Lartigue said that Drugan volunteered with TNKR back in 2015, and that he has continued to help the organization by becoming a monthly donor.

Drugan shared with VOA what it was like to teach English to North Korean refugees.

Drugan said that a friend had recommended TNKR to him, and that he taught his student every week even though he was only required to teach twice a month.

[John Drugan] “It was fantastic. You know, I thought it might be kind of a burden, something to do every weekend. But..”

Drugan shared a memory of teaching a North Korean refugee who worked as a nurse.

He said that he taught her medical terminologies and how to communicate with foreign patients.

Drugan himself had majored in pharmacy, which had enabled him to help his student who worked as a nurse.

Drugan said that the experience had helped him better understand the situation of the North Korean refugees. It had also taught him that North Korean refugees were no different from the rest of us, and he was able to better appreciate their extraordinary efforts to adapt to the South Korean society.

The memory moved Drugan to tears. Although the rules at the organization prevented him from hanging out with his students, Drugan said that he would gladly consider them as his friends.

[John Drugan] “definitely consider them as friends. I mean, we’ve spent a lot of hours together, you know, and most of them were, you know, positive and memorable. So, I would say the friends…”

Having taught English and continued to help the organization as a regular donor, Drugan is remembered as a model volunteer.

But Lartigue points out that other American students can also participate within their own means and circumstances.

He mentioned various ways to participate, such as making promotional materials, managing the organization’s website, and holding fundraising events.

Larigue said that TNKR no longer provides online classes, because previous attempts had not yielded positive results. For this reason, he asked the audience to also consider non-teaching activities.

Another student said that she was inspired by Lartigue, her fellow American, for his efforts to help North Korean refugees. She then expressed her interest in fundraising.

[Student] “I will have always been really interested in fundraising. So I think definitely, like a, like a PR campaign with fundraising involved would be very effective, especially in DC. Yeah…”

Another student expressed her admiration for the North Korean students who had improved their English skills in such a short period of time and went on to give English speeches. She also expressed her admiration for the organization and its volunteers.

During his trip, Lartigue gave close to a dozen talks at various universities, including Georgetown, American, and Harvard. Although he was able to spark some interest in the issue of North Korean refugees, Lartigue said that what he wants is for those refugees to be remembered.

[Casey Lartigue] “So they’ll pay a little more attention when they do hear something about North Korean refugees, because so many people will focus on North Korea, but they will forget about the people. But hopefully after they heard my talk tonight, they will think about the people and about the challenges they have ….”

Lartigue hopes that such concerns will lead to action, but said that Americans are very slow in changing their perceptions and interests about North Korea.

Having spoken many times in the United States after creating TNKR, Lartigue points out that there remains very little interest beyond the international security issues such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

For this reason, Lartigue emphasizes the importance of continuing to send basic information into North Korea and staying committed to such activities.

Jang Yang-hee, VOA News

번역: 권영민 (Translated by: Youngmin Kwon)

Original article in Korean

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