So many great stories, wonderful people, fantastic feelings at yesterday’s 6th TNKR English speech contest.

The theme of the contest: “A Woman is a Flower: The Lives of North Korean Women.”

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Random moments and observations from the contest:

The speakers: They were the main event, of course. TNKR has two programs, Track 1 (English study) and Track 2 (public speaking). Of the seven students, six originally joined as Track 1 students. Since then, a few of them have also joined Track 2. It seems that at every contest there is something going on with North Korea. One contest was held shortly after Kim Jong-Un’s brother had been assassinated. Another contest was scheduled to finish just as North Korea set a 5 pm deadline threatening to shoot loudspeakers at the border if South Korea didn’t shut them down. And more recently, North Korea has been putting pressure on refugees and their families still in North Korea for them to return.

It was an event focused on the lives of North Korean refugee women. We had seven speakers: 5 females, 2 males. When we announced the contest, we weren’t sure that any males would join the contest, but two applied almost immediately. The speakers all took different approaches to the topic. More than 30,000 NK refugees have escaped to South Korea since the late 1990s, they have different stories and experiences to tell.

Celebrities and influential people: Actor and director Sean Dulake joined us as a judge. Most celebrities and their agents naturally fear getting connected with anything that might look political. TNKR is purely humanitarian, and the presence of Sean Dulake is probably a sign to others that it is okay to partner with TNKR. Keiko Bang, a former CNN reporter, joined as a coach and pledges to help us behind-the-scenes. Keiko gave the call-to-action and Sean gave the closing address. The refugees were so happy to know that an actor had joined our contest. Plenty of the refugees have been invited to VIP events, met celebrities or others. But this was a case of a celebrity coming to TNKR, in an event where the refugees were the focus.


Sponsors: Shin and Kim partnered with us for the event and our sponsors were the Korea Times and Korea Development Bank. All of these these are signals to others that we have influential people and organizations who believe in what we are doing. TNKR’s relationship began with the Shin and Kim after we met one of their lawyers at a North Korea focused event in 2015. We had held our first speech contest without an outside sponsor. Shin and Kim say they want to have the contest with us “forever.” The Korea Times joined last year after the president of the paper read one of my columns and asked his staff to find a way we could partner.

Chanyang Ju: It was wonderful to have her return to TNKR. She was a student in TNKR in 2013, then in early 2014 she was the first TNKR student to give a public speech when she spoke at the Asia Liberty Forum in New Delhi, India. Yesterday she roasted me with the sweetest testimonial I have ever heard. It was a wonderful moment to reflect on how far TNKR has come since 2013. I first met Chanyang in early 2012 shortly after she came to South Korea. I wrote a column about her in the Korea Times and she did an incredible testimonial about me.

Learning process: We had 13 volunteer mentors who went through our application process and helped coach refugees for the contest. They were on call, editing speeches, helping with grammar and pronunciation, recording the speech so the refugees could feel more comfortable being on stage. One of the great things about our process is that we try to help refugees get as prepared as possible. Of course, the participants in the contest want to win, but we focus on making sure they learn.

The next step will be that Tony Docan-Morgan, TNKR Senior Fellow, will review the speeches with the refugees, give them detailed feedback.

Judges: Probably the least popular people in the room were the judges! They had to choose a winner. There were so many great speeches. So thanks to the judges, for taking on the important but thankless task.

Results: It is a learning process, a celebration. But there was also a contest! Thanks to Shin and Kim for providing the award money for the speakers.

More volunteers: When we first started the speech contest in 2015, there were just a handful of us organizing.  Yesterday we had a full team that was really organized. We had that wonderful moment of “Everything’s ready already?” Youngmin Kwon was our Floor Manager yesterday. We now have volunteers who check with us to see if we need help.



The audience: They were great! Attentive. Quiet. Cheered and applauded at the right times. It might not seem important, but for the speakers, it really is. Some were giving their first public speeches. A few others who have competed in speech contests with other organizations have said that at those other contests that often the audience isn’t listening. But at the TNKR speech contest, the audience is focused.

According to our attendance, we had 82 people in the room!


Flyers: Thank you to Anna Martinson and Mohamed Amine Abahman for designing flyers for the contest!




1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Eben Appleton says:

    I ave been waiting to hear the outcome of the 6th Speech Contest. Even though I wasn’t able to attend, this wonderful summary of the event with photos made me feel that I was actually present.
    Many thanks to those who made this event possible along with the contestants, sponsors, judges, along with the many others that made this event an obvious success.


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