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Acting like a reporter

Back in the day when I was a college reporter, I learned that a good reporter talks to at least three sources for an article. Relying on one person is the laziest form of reporting. I used to get surprised by reporters who didn’t want to talk to others, but I got used to it. I don’t mean enemies and ideologues who even hate what I have for breakfast–I mean, even someone who can add perspective and knowledge about what we are doing with TNKR.

I encourage reporters to talk to others in TNKR who have leadership positions. There is some risk in this, because some reporters only see what they see, and they will report the observations of newcomers who barely understand TNKR. A volunteer who stands up and says someone off-the-wall is a great man-bites-dog story. When I look at some articles about TNKR a few years ago, some include volunteers who probably haven’t thought about TNKR in years, didn’t know much about it then beyond their limited experience, and had no idea about things we were planning or dealing with to build the organization. 

This reporter who is working on an online article interviewed me, co-founder Eunkoo Lee, Assistant Director Dave Fry, Academic Coordinator Janice Kim, tutors, and refugees in TNKR. Plus, he stayed for more than 3 hours to observe one of our matching sessions. He has also followed up with questions. He could, like many reporters, get some facts wrong, but it won’t be because he didn’t try to get an understanding about TNKR. It would be because, like most reporters, he didn’t show me the article in advance. As I’ve learned, most reporters would prefer to get complaints about what has been posted or published rather than discussing it in advance to check for misunderstandings. 🙂

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TNKR co-founders Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee were interviewed twice–once for background, then the second time “for real” for the article.

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IEP and Volunteer Leadership Academy

When Columbia University professor Young Seh Bae visited South Korea in 2016, she stopped by our office to do some volunteer work. Unlike so many volunteers who want to help the refugees directly, she provided expertise helping us develop TNKR. Sometimes I get surprised when people say they want to help build up TNKR. The result is such indirect help really does help refugees. A strong TNKR is able to help refugees more efficiently and effectively.

Prof. Bae wanted to know about some of the things we wanted to do. She then zeroed in on our process of learning about what refugees wanted to study. We didn’t have a set curriculum, so we needed a better process of learning. She then designed an Individual Education Plan beyond what I would have ever done. I then tweaked it based on interviews with refugees, and continue to tweak it.

It is a great example of a professional helping us to build up TNKR.



When refugees join us now, we start with the IEP. TNKR co-director Eunkoo Lee will also interview them in Korean to make sure we have a good understanding of what they want. It helps that Eunkoo is at TNKR every day, rather than just talking with refugees in her spare time.

We aren’t probing or engaging in data-mining for the sake of collecting information–we focus on how we can help them have a better experience in the program.

Sometimes it is really moving because so many of the refugees know who we are, some even want to take photos with us (with their cameras). Some consider us to be heroes. One began crying recently as she thanked us and others who help refugees. Many of them are curious about we are doing this, when clearly it is not lucrative and we could both be doing other things to make money.

So many of them say: “Don’t forget about me.” They know we have a long waiting list, so they want to make sure we don’t forget about them. Some have called us, insisting they be able to visit, even when we tell them that they must wait. Many of them even contact us directly, eager to let us know how much they want to study. 


It is good to know that TNKR has such a solid reputation among refugees. Some of the newcomers don’t realize how difficult it is to have such a good reputation, and of course we still have some vultures around us who use any excuse to meet the refugees socially (a common trick now is the playboys who hang around the program and try to find opportunities to meet refugee females, and some even highlight that they used to be TNKR, but now they are not so it is okay to date or hang out).

The last few weeks have been busy, with a number of speeches, events, meetings, and planning. Plus, to keep myself from going poor, I am now teaching at a university, meaning that I can’t focus on TNKR completely these days.

I had a Volunteer Leadership Academy orientation in mid-February to get people to start thinking about ways they can get more deeply involved in TNKR. I was hoping to have someone take charge of that, but it looks like it will still be up to me to get it going. So I am now planning another session for April 15.


2018-03-28 SIWA and How are North Korean women supposed to speak?

Today I shared the stage with Anne Choe, president of the Seoul International Women’s Association. She discussed the founding and history of SIWA, American business and culture, and inclusion. The students had many questions so it was a lively session.

After that, I went to a discussion, “How are North Korean women supposed to speak?” It was quite incredible because several attendees came over to introduce themselves, they let me know that they read my columns and blog posts for the Korea Times. One attendee had already looked up TNKR and recognized me as soon as I started to ask a question. She wants to volunteer, but she is an unusual applicant: She wants to engage in teacher training. Most people I meet at events want me to hand them refugees. It was also a bit unusual for me to join such an event, recently I have been focused on TNKR and skipping dinner and event invitations.

The only downer: People continue asking me the stupid question, “What do North Korean refugees miss about North Korea?” I used to answer the question patiently, but these days, I go off just a bit, basically reciting my column from months ago.

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2018-03-26 Recent speeches

We’ve had several speech opportunities the last few weeks, I am slowly catching up on updates.

  • TNKR Ambassadors, including a trip to the USA
  • Harvard Alumni for Education forum
  • Kurt Achin and Oh Young-jin on journalism in Korea and the USA

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2018-03-24 TNKR Matching 72: Time & a dime

TNKR held its 72nd language Matching session yesterday March 24. We have now had more than 1000 people participate in this volunteer project–more than 350 refugees, almost 800 volunteer tutors and coaches. Matching session #71 was the week before.

It means that this month, we had two Matching sessions with 32 tutors and 19 refugees. That is quite a lot for one month. Now comes the real work, with studying by refugees, teaching by tutors, and monitoring by our staff. This is in addition to keeping up with the previous groups.

These two groups are helping to build TNKR in a different way: 28 of the tutors have either become monthly donors or set up their own fundraisers. We have never had such active participation from volunteers. Some even griped about us asking them to do more than tutoring.

Most of the tutors are living in Seoul, but we do have one tutor coming from Gwangju to tutor. The week before, it was a tutor coming from Busan.

Special thanks to Janice Kim, TNKR Academic Coordinator, and TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee, for working together so well in managing the process so that we could have so many volunteers and refugees join us in one month. We have been trying to clear the long waiting list of refugees while also improving our quality control.

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2018-03-21 “Joy of Freedom” by Eunhee Park, Spanish translation by Rachel Kim

La Alegría de La Libertad

Por Eunhee Park

Traducido por Rachel Kim

¿Qué es la libertad y qué la hace significativa? La libertad para mí significa el poder expresarme y ser abierta. Significa pensar para mí mismo y ser libre para ser curiosa. Yo soy una refugiada norcoreana y escapé en 2012 para esta libertad. A la edad de 5 años mis padres se divorciaron y yo fui a vivir con mis abuelos. El divorcio afectó profundamente a mi madre y ella se puso muy enferma. Ella falleció 10 años después. Mi padre comenzó una vida nueva con una familia nueva. La realidad que mis padres se divorciaron parece sorprender a muchas personas y a menudo recibo la pregunta: «Es posible divorciarse en Corea del Norte?» Yo les digo que es poco común, pero es posible. A pesar de que es un país aislado que puede parecer como otro planeta para ellos, la gente que vive allá es igual que todos los demás. Son preguntas pequeñas como ésta que me hacen claro lo poco conocimiento que la gente tiene de la vida dentro de Corea del Norte. Ésto me fomenta a hablar. Cuento mi historia familiar porque quiero proveer el consuelo a los que están sufriendo y quiero hacerles saber que ellos pueden superar este dolor para ser feliz de nuevo. Esta vida puede ser difícil a veces. Pero no dejo que mi pasado me defina, and yo siempre me esfuerzo por alcanzar la felicidad y yo les animo a ustedes a que hagan ésto también.

Cuando yo estaba en Corea del Norte, me he metido en líos por hacer algo tan insignificante como llevando pendientes o ropa que se destacó. Como castigo, me vi obligado a estar en la comisaría por 6 o 7 horas sin comida o agua. Ésto da un significado completamente nuevo a la expresión «policía de la moda». También he sido golpeado y pateado por la policía por tratar de escapar. Ésto es una falta de la libertad.

Cada vez que salía de la casa, yo tenía miedo de ser detenido por la policía por la ropa que llevaba. Yo pensaba que estos castigos eran normales hasta que yo ilegalmente vi programas surcoreanas y películas americanas. Las personas en estas programas eran libres y felices. Empecé a comparar mi vida en Corea del Norte a suyos. ¿Por qué tuve que ser castigado por la expresión completa de mi personalidad?

En Corea del Norte, nos lavaron de cerebro en la escuela y por la televisión. Nos dijeron que Kim Jong Il y Kim Jong Un no tenían tiempo para comer o dormir debido al tiempo que dedicaron a ayudar los ciudadanos. Sin embargo, es fácil saber de una mirada en Kim Jong Un en la televisión que él come más que lo suficiente…pregunté por qué. ¿Por qué nos dicen que Kim Jong Un no come lo suficiente y no duerme porque está sacrificando para nosotros cuando él es gordo…?

Cuando vine a Corea del Sur, aprendí cosas sobre temas como el maltrato infantil y el maltrato animal. Me di cuenta de que hay algo que se llama derechos humanos básicos. Estas ideas no existen en Corea del Norte y me hice apasionada por aprender más. Norcoreanos no piensan mucho en las problemas sociales y culturales como las personas en países libres porque ellos nacieron para vivir como esclavos políticos de la familia Kim. ¡Trabajamos juntos para cambiar ésto!

Sólo vivimos una vez. Yo decidí que tenía que perseguir mi sueño de ir a otro país donde pudiera vivir como humano. Algunas personas probablemente piensan que estar molesta porque no pude vestir en la forma que quería en Corea del Norte es una preocupación superficial, pero el problema va más allá que eso. Al escapar, yo estaba buscando mi identidad humana y estaba desafiando la dictadura norcoreana y los métodos de lavar de cerebro.

Escapar no era fácil. Me tardé mucho tiempo en preparar. Cuando crucé por la frontera a China, estaba muy asustada que la policía me capturara. Mi corazón latía rápido. Pero tenía que escapar de China también. Cuando estaba en China, fui agredida sexualmente y no podía decir nada porque era demasiado peligroso; no quería ser capturada y enviada de vuelta a Corea del Norte.

Finalmente, llegué a la frontera entre China y Laos. Tardó siete horas de senderismo por las montañas hasta que crucé por Laos. Éste fue el momento más difícil de mi vida. Comencé a lamentar mi decisión de irme de Corea del Norte. Los contrabandistas de Laos nos ayudaron a cruzar el Río Mekong para llegar a Tailandia. Oí que había muchos cocodrilos en el río, pero no me quedó otra opción. Tenía que correr otro riesgo para hacer realidad mi sueño.

En Tailandia, nos pusieron en la cárcel con criminales mientras esperábamos el estatus de refugiado. Finalmente, después de casi 50 días, nos llevaron a Corea del Sur, donde nos detuvieron por 3 meses mientras la policía confirmó que no éramos espías norcoreanos. No soy una espía, puedes confiar en mí. Después de eso, me obligaron a pasar 3 meses aprendiendo la cultura surcoreana en un centro de educación para refugiados norcoreanos administrado por el gobierno.

Yo pensaba que sería feliz cuando viniera a Corea del Sur. Aquí, nadie puede controlarme, así que soñé con vestirme de la manera que quería, estudiar lo que quería, y viajar por el mundo. Pero yo estaba sola. También tenía que devolver 7,000 dólares a un contrabandista que me ayudó a escapar de Corea del Norte.

Necesitaba un trabajo para sobrevivir. Así que comencé trabajar en una panadería. Yo pensaba que si trabajo intensamente, puedo ahorrar dinero y realizar mis sueños. Hice mi mejor esfuerzo, pero me despidieron después de un mes. ¿Por qué sucedió ésto? Porque yo no sabía los nombres de los panes.

En Corea del Norte, sólo había unos pocos tipos de panes con nombres muy sencillos. ¡En Corea del Sur, hay cientos de tipos de panes, y todos eran nuevos para mí!

Había tantas palabras del Konglish que yo no sabía. El Konglish se refiere a la mezcla de coreano e inglés. Por ejemplo, surcoreanos usan la palabra «에그 타르트» (la misma pronunciación que el inglés) que significa «tartaleta de huevo» en inglés. Estas palabras no existen en Corea del Norte.

Me di cuenta de que necesitaba aprender el inglés para sobrevivir en Corea del Sur. Entonces, comencé a estudiar en una organización sin fines de lucro en Seúl que se llama «Teach North Korean Refugees» (Enseñar a Los Refugiados Norcoreanos) que ayuda a los refugiados a aprender el inglés. Muchos otros refugiados se enfrentan la misma situación que yo. Por eso, estoy muy agradecida de que mis héroes, Eunkoo Lee, quien está aquí conmigo hoy, y Casey Lartigue, crearon TNKR.

TNKR no sólo enseña el inglés a los refugiados norcoreanos; abre un mundo completamente nuevo, nos ayudando acostumbrarnos a la sociedad surcoreana. Muchos de los voluntarios tienen trabajos a tiempo completo, pero todavía vienen de todo el país para dar clases a refugiados norcoreanos en Seúl. Me quedé muy sorprendido que tanta gente estaba prestando atención a Corea del Norte y ayudando a los refugiados.

Pensé en ello. Tantas personas nos estaban apoyando y alentando. Pero yo estaba escondiendo mi identidad norcoreana. Pregunté, ¿qué podría hacer para estas personas que quieren saber sobre el Norte y quieren ayudar a la gente de Corea del Norte?

Al principio, estaba reacio a revelar mi identidad porque tenía miedo de ser juzgada, pero la amabilidad de la gente y su disposición a ayudar me fomentó a contar mi historia para proveer el valor y la esperanza a los otros refugiados. Sentí que era mi deber hablar. Debido a TNKR, finalmente pude admitirlo: «Yo…soy…de Corea del Norte.» y ahora vivo sin pizca de vergüenza de mi origen norcoreana.

Finalmente, quiero preguntarles esta pregunta. ¿Disfrutas tu libertad? Responderé para mí mismo. Sí, disfruto la libertad de viajar en un avión, conocer a amigos de todo el mundo, conocer culturas nuevas, disfrutar música de todo el mundo en vez de canciones que sólo alaban la familia Kim. Incluso disfruto la libertad de llamar a Kim Jong Un un cerdo. Sí, Kim Jong Un es un cerdo.

¡Si te sientes que tu libertad está siendo controlada por otros, tienes el poder luchar por esa libertad que mereces! Disfruto mi libertad, pero cada vez que pienso en ser libre, yo sé que la gente en Corea del Norte no es libre. Quiero que los norcoreanos sepan qué es la libertad. No puedo hacerlo sola. Necesito tu ayuda. ¿Podemos trabajar juntos para lograrlo?

Fue un placer estar aquí, hablando en El Foro de Libertad de Asia. ¡Gracias!



2018-03-18 Voices from the North: “Why do North Korean defectors learn English?”

Voices from the North: “Why do North Korean defectors learn English?


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2018-03-17 Matching 71: Recording breaking session!

Teach North Korean Refugees began as “English Matching” in March 2013. We didn’t have long term plans, but yesterday we held our 71st Language Matching session. We had 11 refugees and 19 tutors join the session, meaning we have now had 345 refugees and 744 volunteer tutors and coaches participate. This little “hobby” has grown into a leading organization providing practical support for refugees adjusting to living outside North Korea and building skills.

Session #71 set a number of records:

  • Early early bird registration! 1:15 a.m. signup. Yes, a refugee showed up 13 hours in advance to register.  The second refugee yesterday arrived at 9:35 a.m. He said that he had arrived in the area at 9 a.m., but didn’t believe that anyone would arrive that early so he waited before knocking on the door. Imagine his shock when I told him he was second.
  • His own faculty: One of the refugees chose 9 tutors. Yes, 9 tutors! There were 19 tutors in the room, so he selected 47.4% of them. Whereas universities and schools have ratios of 1 faculty member to 15 to 30 students, TNKR has a student-tutor ratio in the favor of students. In the case of that student, it is a 9 teacher to 1 student ratio! So he has own English teacher faculty. He called TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee to let her know that he still couldn’t imagine what we meant by refugees choosing, but after going through the session, he can’t believe TNKR isn’t the most famous refugee support organization in the world. He has been with other NK refugee support organizations, he said the others can’t compare to us.
  • Distance: Tutors are coming from all over Korea to tutor, including one tutor who has pledged to come to Seoul from Busan twice a month to tutor with us. That is more than 200 miles (325 KMs).
  • Fundraising: Of the 19 tutors at the session, 10 had set up fundraisers before joining the session. Seven more became monthly donors before joining the session. Only two of the 19 tutors neither became monthly donors nor set up fundraisers. Usually it is the opposite, that we have ony a handful of tutors helping us build the organization. I told them that we have never had a group show so much enthusiasm and energy.


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2018-03-17 A new record: 1:15 am!!!!

A special feature about TNKR Matching sessions is that refugees get to choose their tutors. The refugees do the choosing based on when they arrive at our office. In our early days, we hosted sessions at other offices, so we usually weren’t allowed in before noon for our 2 pm sessions.
Then we moved to our current office in July 2016, so refugees started arriving earlier, with the record earliest arrival getting to our office at 9:20 a.m. Yes, almost 5 hours early.
As of 2018-03-17, we now have a new record: 1:15 a.m.

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2018-03-08 Challenge Korea Global Award

I am so proud to be the recipient of the Challenge Korea Global Award. Today I attended the Awards Ceremony, held at the South Korean National Assembly. It is quite an honor. There are about 50 million people in South Korea, about 2 million of them are non-Koreans. Out of all of those people, I was one of the 10 people to receive an award today, and the recipient of the Global Award.

I’m not a celebrity, singer, actor, politician or rich man. I’m just a guy struggling to build an NGO in a foreign country helping North Korean refugees. These days, I rarely leave my office, so I’m not getting this kind of award because I’m out networking. It is the second year in the row for me to win an award and last month TNKR was honored as a finalist for the Asia Liberty Award. Incredibly, TNKR has received a lot of good press even though we don’t have anyone focused on reaching out to media. We get this kind of attention because of our good work. We have many refugees who are coming to us, eager to join our program even though there are other well-funded programs and institutes they could be studying in instead.

I’m not sure that I really deserve such an award, but they gave it to me, so I’m not giving it back!

At the awards ceremony, I spoke briefly, then invited our volunteers and fans to join me on stage. I gave two speeches this week, one with Q&A lasting 90 minutes, then a speech yesterday that lasted almost 2 hours with a few questions mixed in. So I was in no mood for another speech anyway!

Thanks so much to TNKR co-director Eunkoo Lee, TNKR project manager of the Bring My Father Home Project Youngmin Kwon, TNKR friend Han So Young, TNKR photographer Brian Klein, TNKR fan Shim Young for joining today to celebrate this award. Brian says that he has many photos to send, so I should be updating this a bit later.