Once upon a time, Eunkoo Lee worked at two different institutes in which she 1) interviewed North Korean refugees about abuses they suffered in North Korea and China and later 2) helped North Korean refugee youngsters with adjustment into South Korea.
Like a lot of other South Koreans who have worked with NK refugees, she thought the refugees were passive. In addition to her experience, one of her master’s degrees is also in North Korean studies. She and her colleagues were used to setting up everything for the refugees, then doing their best to make sure enough refugees showed up.
Then an earthquake shook her world. She began collaborating with an American who had completely different ideas. He challenged her expertise. He insisted, like a character out of a Field of Dreams: If you build the project correctly, they will come.
Even when it started happening, she didn’t believe her eyes. Now she has no choice!


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I arrived at the office this morning at 7 a.m. The phone rang at 7:25 a.m. It was a refugee asking if she could join TNKR. I shared her info with Eunkoo Lee, but by then, the refugee had already applied and was doing her best to track down Eunkoo. They talked, the refugee was pleading for a chance to visit us today, she wanted to make sure that we “would not forget” her. She has studied English at other places, but now that she has learned about TNKR, she is desperate to join.
Eunkoo arrived at the office around 10 or so, she was on the phone talking to another refugee who is applying. Then a short time later, another refugee called, also eager to join us, also asking for the chance to meet us today.
Once upon a time, Eunkoo Lee thought that North Korean refugees were passive. She now says that it isn’t true. At our TEDx Talk, she said, “I was wrong.” I don’t know if she is ready to quote my words about people coming when you build a quality program, but she is living them! 🙂
She is now a believer in making programs that are bottom-up, so much so that she quit her job last year in order to focus on TNKR full-time after she read my Korea Times column about her evolution.
Yes, what an evolution. Eunkoo has gone from thinking refugees were passive as she worked at well-paying jobs at big organizations to now being co-founder of a fledgling organization that has refugees chasing us.
Yesterday we had meetings with 4 NK refugees who will be entering TNKR. Their stories and enthusiasm were heart-warming. This weekend we will be having orientation sessions with new tutors hoping to enter TNKR. Some are dragging their feet at finishing the application process, others are balking at our request that they set up a fundraiser. I wish I could communicate to them the wonderful opportunity they will have to tutor North Korean refugees who are incredibly enthusiastic about learning English. I hope when they join that they will embrace the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of NK refugees, not by taking them clubbing, hiking, dating, camping, or mud wrestling, but by helping them improve their skills so they can have more opportunities and better lives.
Eunkoo Lee’s fundraiser: TNKR is my new life.
Authors note to any potential chit-chat
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