Black Harvard graduate volunteering in Korea
Casey Lartigue, the co-founder of TNKR
The reason why he teaches English to North Korean refugees
We often take freedom for granted, while some people risk their lives to achieve it. North Korean defectors do. They go through difficult journeys to get to South Korea, but they still need to overcome numerous challenges once free. Communication is often cited as a major one. The South Korean language has adopted a lot of English loan-words, so learning English has become a necessity to survive in the South Korean society. Knowing this, Casey Lartigue, an African American expat who was as an advocate for educational freedom back in America, just couldn’t look away.
Casey first visited Korea in 1992 for a short trip. He returned in 2010 as a visiting fellow with Center for Free Enterprise (CFE). He worked at CFE for two years and then continued his career in Seoul working at different organizations including Freedom Factory and several online magazines. The story of how he started teaching English to North Korean refugees is pretty simple. One North Korean friend he met asked if could teach her English, knowing that he’s from America. He didn’t hesitate to accept it because he has always been interested in educational freedom. He also received a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“North Koreans defectors are people who had to risk their lives to escape to freedom. It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to provide them with English learning opportunities.”
The word about his English class began to spread among North Korean refugees. The number of students grew so much to the point where he couldn’t manage it by himself. So he founded TNKR in 2014 and started recruiting volunteer tutors. Over the past four years, about 400 North Korean refugees have studied at TNKR with more than 600 volunteers having devoted their time and energy to the program. The volunteers offer one-on-one English tutoring to their students who are eager to improve their English, and it takes place at different locations across Seoul. The personalized one-on-one lessons enable the refugees to learn in a more effective manner than in regular classes at Hakwon where they study in groups, because oftentimes North Korean defectors don’t have basic understanding of English language. The office is full of thank you letters from the students, and there’s a long waiting list for refugees to join the program.
Finding one’s identity
Casey talked with great pride about some of the students who studied at TNKR. Among the students was Yeonmi Park, who wrote an article for the “>Washington Post titled ‘The hopes of North Korea’s Black Market Generation’, in which she introduced Jangmadang generation, the new generation of North Korean millennials who were born in 1990s after the collapse of central food distribution system.
“Yeonmi was full of potential. She was so smart and talented. We co-hosted a podcast show and she later wrote her own book about North Korean human rights as a global human rights activist. She’s still mentioned as a legendary figure at TNKR. Many young North Korean defectors say they want to become like her.”
Other than Park, many other North Koreans have found a significant breakthrough in their life as well. Casey pointed out Eunhee Park as an unforgettable student.
“Eunhee’s also appeared in TV shows these days. She not only improved her English at TNKR but also found her identity. When she first came to us, she hesitated to reveal her face and even her name. But through the program, she got to ask herself ‘why do I have to hide who I am?’, ‘Why should I feel embarrassed about where I am from?’ She has gained confidence in English now that she has no problem communicating in English with me, and also great confidence in herself.
English equals survival
Throughout the whole interview, Casey couldn’t stop smiling whenever he talked about his students. I became curious as to why he’s focusing on this volunteer work when he could’ve pursued a promising career path as a Harvard graduate. He was formerly an education policy analyst with Cato Institute, a think tank located in Washington D.C., and there must’ve been many firms and institutes trying to lure him to their organizations with high pay.
“I just think it’s the right thing for me to do to help North Korean people. I find it more rewarding than anything else.”
What keeps him going is his admiration for those individuals who have risked their own lives to seek freedom. He felt great empathy for their pursuit of freedom as he grew up learning African American history. The South Korean government offers different programs to assist North Koreans’ resettlement. But Casey is doing his part by offering what he is best at, helping them with learning English, which has become a necessity to survive in South Korea. In North Korea, people don’t use English at all. For those who have never learned the English alphabet, commonly-used English loan words like orange, banana, bus or coffee all sound very foreign.
“It’s bewildering for North Korean defectors to hear unfamiliar foreign words in daily conversations. Also, Korean universities these days offer a lot of classes in English, and it’s hard for them to compete with South Korean students who have learned English for at least 10 years. If you don’t have a college degree, it’s hard to get a job. For North Korean defectors, English is not about competition but about survival.”
Small but desperate hope
Casey founded TNKR in the hope of finding better ways to help North Korean refugees learn English. He set up the program, recruited volunteer tutors and made it available to the refugees. He has seen many refugees benefit from the program and experience positive changes in their life. He added that he feels greatly privileged just to be a close witness of it.
“It’s just like how a chef would feel when they see their customers enjoy their food. My life philosophy is “do what you enjoy”, and teaching English to North Korean refugees is exactly it.”
Casey doesn’t have big dreams. His hope is that TNKR continues for a long time to be the place where North Korean defectors can come and study English.
“We don’t recruit students, but they come to us with their own dreams. Some wish to study abroad like many other South Korean students, or some simply hope to gain self-confidence and sense of fulfillment through the program. For those who have a job, they study so that they can get a promotion. I want to stand alongside them in their pursuit of their dreams. “
The problem is limited finances. TNKR is run by private donations and at Casey’s own expense. The amount of donations fluctuate throughout the year, making it hard to have financial stability of the program. There’s no doubt that successful resettlement of North Korean defectors in South Korea is important for the good of the society. More attention and support should be given to North Korean defectors and to the efforts of TNKR.
Translated by Yooji