English translation of Voice of America article and broadcast about Teach North Korean Refugees.

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[News Scenery] American co-founder provides free English education for North Korean refugees

TNKR (Teach North Korean Refugees) is an organization that connects North Korean defectors with native English speakers to provide free language tutoring. Co-founder Casey Lartigue (right) and volunteer Jenny Lee (middle) are pictured posing with a student.


This is News Scenery Today, reporting the hot topics of the week every Tuesday. There is an organization that provides free English classes to North Korean defectors. It was established by an American living in South Korea, who wanted to offer English education tailored to refugee needs. Jang Yang-hee reports the story.

We have seen quite a few North Korean refugees telling the world, in fluent English, about the human rights situation in North Korea.

Park Yeon-mi, a famous North Korean refugee, recently published her book “In Order to Live” in English. “A Thousand Miles to Freedom” is another piece of literature written in English by a North Korean defector.

In 2013, North Korean refugee Lee Sung-min appeared on C-TV, the most popular Canadian broadcast, to let the world know about the human rights situation in the DPRK. He was recently accepted to Columbia University, one of the most prominent schools in the United States.

These outstanding world citizens’ achievements can be attributed to the fine work of TNKR in South Korea.

TNKR stands for “Teach North Korean Refugees.” The non-profit private organization was first established in 2013 to teach English to North Korean refugees.

TNKR’s headquarters are based in Itaewon, Seoul. The organization’s main function is to connect refugees with native English speakers.

The co-founder of TNKR is Casey Lartigue. He studied education at Harvard and later became a human rights activist.

Mr. Lartigue told the VOA the story of how his organization was established.

In 2013, he heard Lee Hyun-seo’s speech at TED, and was deeply moved. Lee was one of the first North Korean refugees to talk about the horrifying human rights situation in the DPRK on the international stage.

Mr. Lartigue took part in the 2012 hunger-strike aimed at stopping the Chinese government from forcibly sending North Korean defectors back to the DPRK. Professor Park Sun-young, a former member of the ROK national assembly, was also at the protest. She later invited Mr. Lartigue to work with the Mulmangcho (a flower, meaning “forget-me-not”) School where Professor Park Sun-young was the director of the board.

He met Lee Eunkoo, a North Korean Studies researcher. After several long discussions, they established the TNKR organization.

Mr. Lartigue explained what they do at TNKR.

“In South Korea, if you cannot understand at least… if you cannot achieve English at a certain level, then it’s hard to get a job.”

He said it’s hard to get a job in South Korea if one does not speak sufficient English, so learning English allows the refugees to empower themselves here.

There are currently 180 North Korean refugees learning English through TNKR. They are all taught by volunteer teachers in one-on-one sessions.

There are 300 volunteer teachers in the organization, and each student meets with 3 teachers on average. However, they can learn from as many teachers as they choose.

Park Yeon-mi studied hard for 8 months, learning from 18 volunteer teachers.

Mr. Lartigue says the key to the NGO’s success is to let the students choose their own teachers from a pool of volunteers. This is because each teacher’s strengths vary between grammar, speaking, being inspirational, etc.

The organization reduces the burden on each volunteer, and provides a network of social bonds to the refugees.

Mr. Lartigue explained the TNKR method of checking the history and expertise of each volunteer before introducing them to the refugees.

“…to decide their own way of studying. Track 1 is called finding my own way, so we don’t tell them what they should study.”

According to him, Track 1 consists of two parts – conversational speaking and public speaking.

Ken Eom, 35, defected from the DPRK in 2010. He is currently working at a publishing house in ROK, and has been studying with TNKR tutors since last March.

Ken told the VOA that Track 2 classes have been especially helpful.

“The Track 2 course begins with speaking to the audience about my own story. Public speaking is fundamentally different from general conversation, so I learned a lot of new vocabulary and sentence structures. I also benefited greatly from learning how to speak to real people,” said Ken.

Ken said he met with teachers from all around the world – from Australia, the U.S., and New Zealand.

Another refugee we interviewed, Sharon, is turning 25 this year. She found out about TNKR through an online social network and joined the organization last March. It has now been 6 months, and she says that not only has her English improved, but she is far more confident when speaking in front of a crowd. For her, she says, this was the biggest gain.

“Confidence is what I got from taking these classes. I was very much self-conscious about my English pronunciation, and that made me nervous and hindered my performance. Also, I hadn’t been in South Korea for that long, and I didn’t talk much, not even with Koreans. Now, I guess I am a lot more confident.”

Sharon said she had been on the wait-list for 3 months, but it was very much worth the wait. “We can choose our own teacher, our own time and place to learn English, so it is a great opportunity to get better if you try.”

Right now there are about 50 refugees on the wait-list to learn English with TNKR. Among those names, top priority students who are connected with teachers first are orphans, victims of human trafficking, and persons under the age of 25.

“Knowledge is power,” Mr. Lartigue says to encourage the refugees. “If you want to influence others, grab the opportunity to learn.” For some of the refugees, he said, it was the first time they ever received a proper education. He feels sad that the DPRK does not provide education for all.

TNKR activities rely solely on private donations. Mr. Lartigue expressed his gratitude to the volunteers who work for free. He adds that the reason he and others do not give up on helping refugees is because they know how important it is.

Translation by Lee Soohyun
Edited by Ashley-Nicole Harrison



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