Sometimes I avoid discussing challenges within TNKR because

  • Many people don’t read carefully
  • Many people who don’t read carefully will present one small challenge as being representative of the entire program.

One funny problem that has popped up:

1–A tutor doesn’t want to let her student go. We set up the in-house tutoring program so that tutors would get refugee learners on our waiting list prepared for studying in the regular matching program. It has gone very well. Some refugees have had their ears “opened” by studying with native and fluent English speakers. Others have expressed that they now feel confident to join the session after spending time 1 on 1 practicing English.

But the tutor now wants to adopt one of her students. The tutor traveled abroad, her student is planning on studying abroad. She sees her as going through some of the same challenges she went through, and wants to help guide her. So the tutor doesn’t want to let the student go, as she agreed when she started the program.

During orientation sessions with in-house tutors, I told them that they are like boot camp instructors, that they need to get the refugees ready for the next phase. But after a month of these sessions, I am now saying they must be like kindergarten or preschool teachers. Teach the basics, but let their babies go to the next teacher/class/level…

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Anyone who has ever worked with me knows how much I hate regularly scheduled meetings. I like it when meetings are held because they need to be held, not because it is time to meet. When I realize I am working with someone who loves meetings, then I immediately start being hostile to that person, so he or she will start holding meetings without telling me. Then we can both be happy!!!
But earlier today. Eunkoo and I participated in two meetings, including one secret one I can’t talk about. Then the second meeting we had was so good! We talked about so many things, but also it was talk that will lead to action.
Of course, it is easier to enjoy meetings when the owner (Aeran Lee) treats you to fantastic food! If that happened at work, I might even be able to endure long staff meetings!






We had a great Open House earlier today with tutors who are interested in non-teaching opportunities with Teach North Korean Refugees. I think I have a better idea how to run these sessions. The key thing will be following up on all of the wonderful things we discussed today.

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Didn’t we just have a holiday? A week or so ago, Korea shut down because of Chuseok. Much to my surprise last night, I found out today is a holiday. I had already set up a few meetings for today (but one no-show).

  • TNKR co-director came in the office today.  She brought our new banner designed by TNKR graphic designer Kiyun Sung.
  • The Bitcoin folks came in to the office today also, I guess they also did not get the national holiday memo. Before they got started, we talked about  North Korea and also about changes in South Korea  over the last 20 years.

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Today is a holiday in Korea, but that didn’t mean that studying in Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) had a day off.  TNKR co-directors Eunkoo Lee and Casey Lartigue joined a class by the tutor in TNKR who has won the “Came the Longest Distance” award. Afsha  flew from Jeju Island to Seoul to tutor one of the learners in TNKR.

The only way anyone will be able to top her will be if the person flies from a different country!

Her student today has been in our program for several months, all of his tutors talk about what a great student he is! Focused, friendly, eager to learn.

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We have had so many nice people ask how they can join the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR). The co-founders of TNKR will be meeting with interested volunteers who would like to find out about what we are doing and would like to brainstorm ways to get involved in non-teaching activities.

Big agenda items
* What is TNKR?
* Possible TNKR Christmas party, December 18 (save the date)
* TNKR English Speech contest, February 27, 2016
* Fundraising, marketing. social media (ongoing)

Read more

On the Ground, A Study of International NGOs

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September 26, 2015
Teach North Korean Refugees (Seoul, South Korea)

Casey Lartigue fills the room with both his voice and his sincerity as we settle down for our interview. It is a pleasant reassurance to hear his English fill the room after navigating Korean since arriving in Seoul, South Korea—current home of Teach North Korean Refugees (TKNR), Lartigue’s brainchild.
Casey Lartigue
Casey Lartigue

“I felt like I was a freedom advocate at a cocktail party,” Lartigue, who has me swing dancing across the floor of the Bitcoin office within the first fifteen minutes of our meeting, recounts. With a background of teaching English in South Korea, the Harvard graduate remembers his introduction to the long-standing question of how to handle North Korean refugees with a half smile. On March 1st, 2012 there were nearly 30 North Korean refugees caught in China and scheduled for return. It struck a bone with him, and he began to attend rallies and protests. It was during a protest that Lartigue encountered the prominent South Korean activist Park Sun-young midway through a hunger strike. Inspired, he announced his intent to “do something to help.” In return he received a virtual pat on the head.

“It’s all about ownership on a local level”

-Casey Lartigue

Lartigue was no stranger to giving back, even to refugees, but finding the right way to make his big words a reality was a challenge. In the end the idea for TNKR didn’t come to him in a moving epiphany, rather, as many of the best ideas do, it shoved itself through the door. Lartigue had been working as the International Advisor to the Mulmangcho School, a school just south of Seoul that educates the children of North Korean refugees. Through this involvement the refugee community knew him, and over time many adults had come knocking on his door asking for English lessons. Despite his experience teaching in Korea, Lartigue does not view himself as a teacher and declined many of these requests. It wasn’t until 2013 that his unintended ego dropped out of the situation and Lartigue had a valuable realization—the refugees weren’t asking him to teach English because he was the end all be all of English teachers, they were asking because they wanted to learn English. Under the influence of this realization in March 2013, Teach North Korean Refugees was born.
Casey Lartigue and Dylan Kolhoff

TNKR works on a monthly basis with approximately ten North Korean refugees and 15 tutors, though in the past month they have had over 29 new tutors join the program. It predominantly serves as a matching service, pairing tutors with students and vice versa. However, early on in the organization’s history the matching process led to an argument that nearly ended it then and there. After the first session at which Lartigue and co-founded Lee Eunkoo helped match tutors to students Lartigue pushed back against the structure, claiming that the refugees would benefit more from the autonomy and responsibility of choosing a teacher on their own. This idea was shot down on the basis that the refugees did not come from a background of autonomy and would not adjust to that level of autonomy well. He fought back, and two years down the line a 50-person waiting list for matching speaks loudly for the success of his model.

TNKR students can choose from one of two programs, “Finding My Own Way” or “Telling My Own Story,” both centered on the acquisition of English language. As Lartigue puts it, “the burden is on the refugees.” This burden, as he calls it, includes choosing between two to three tutors, deciding on a class schedule, choosing a location to meet, and attending at the minimum two ninety minute sessions a month. The minimum seems superfluous; on average refugees attend class nearly once a week, some traveling almost two hours on the subway over four different lines to attend. Tutors match this enthusiasm, with one even flying in once a month from Jeju Island.

The demand has quickly outpaced the supply, and as we talk in the office a class is being held with a waitlisted student in the other room. We break from the history of TNKR to observe. It is the refugee’s first class, and only the tutor’s second. The nerves show through as Lartigue helps to translate using his basic Korean, which is how we end up with the sentence “I like to dance,” and whirl across the room. The class is an example of in-house tutoring, a system created to accommodate for the increased need. Yet Lartigue cites something else entirely as TNKR’s biggest challenge.

Bridget with her student

“It is imperative that people don’t come in passively. ‘How can I help?’ is the worst question I get asked,” Lartigue laments. It is the first time in our hour of conversation that his friendly exterior begins to show seams. “You don’t have to teach,” he says, “but consider your role! What are your strengths? Do the thing that you can do well!” TNKR needs a marketing team desperately, but could also benefit from web design, legal and business backgrounds. In fact, there are few groups that Lartigue excludes from potential volunteer categories. The ability to help is dictated by who you are, and if you’re the next Bill Gates then the best was to help is to donate. His second frustration is money, a common refrain in the NGO world.

TNKR is rapidly outgrowing their space at Bitcoin, a small but well-lit center on the third floor of a building outside the Itaewon subway station. TNKR does not accept government money, preferring to maintain freedom to adjust the goals and capacity of the organization as the needs of its constituents grow and change. However, refusing to accept government restrictions means crowdsourcing the funding for the free tutoring services that TNKR offers. Tutors all serve as unpaid volunteers, and yet there are more volunteers to teach than the center can sustain at its current level and they need new space. Space, however, requires money for rent. In a system where corruption scandals emblazon headlines, people want to be sure of where their donation money is going. Having put over $10,000 of his own into the organization, Lartigue understands this sentiment, but laments its effects. Referencing the United Way scandal, he insists that a $10,000 organization cannot be treated like a $10,000,000 dollar organization. He acknowledges that NGOs deserve some of the blame, but frets over the impact it has on donations. His advice? Donate where you understand.

We met with one of these volunteers while we waited for the English tutoring session outside to conclude. Jungming “Jenny” Lee, a South Korean student preparing for law school, works as an in-house tutor for students on the waitlist while they wait for more permanent placements. She cites the book “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick as the reason she first really considered getting involved with refugees, but regrets that it took a Western catalyst to really get her involved.

“As much as I appreciated the book,” she says “it was quite sad that it from Western, a white person, and Casey is also an American. And, I know we are ‘one nation, one people,’ but a lot of South Koreans still have a lot of stereotypes to North Koreans, and I was one of them.” (ibid) TNKR has changed that perspective. As she puts it, the gap has been destroyed. Jenny recounts working with North Koreans on everything from teaching the ABCs to preparing for interviews for law school. “He’s my competition,” she jokes.
Jungming “Jenny” Lee

As Jenny speaks of the positive influence TNKR’s “small scale unification” has had on her own perspective of North Koreans, both refugees and those still in North Korea, the class outside finishes up and we head out to meet both tutor and student. The student refugee, who went by an English name ­­, withheld her full identity, as many do. It is unsafe to be seen in pictures or named online, as many of the refugees that TNKR works with are officially considered dead in North Korea and need to stay that way for the safety of family members that remain north of the DMZ. Jenny volunteers her services as a translator.

A beautiful, well-dressed, and soft-spoken woman our student refugee looks a little nervous as being interviewed on her first day of class. We assure her that any pictures will be mosaicked. “I am studying English to be good at it,” Jenny translates. She has been interested in learning English “as far back as I can remember.” Her lessons in North Korea were very basic, and when she learned of TNKR through a friend she was excited about the opportunity to study English in a one-on-one situation. Her first class was good, and she is personally committed to learning.

“How long will you continue to attend English classes?”

“As long as I can come here.”

Her attitude highlights Lartigue’s confidence that refugees are truly ready and able to take their English education into their own hands. Her tutor, she says, was very “understanding,” a trait she says is the most important thing to find in a teacher. After a few moments talking to Bridget I must agree, she seems both capable and understanding. Though her experience teaching is limited to having taught conversational English to French speaking women, she is excited about the opportunity to volunteer in a capacity where her job is clear. It is something that comes, it seems, with the territory of a small organization run on a personal level. “Don’t wait and sit around. Come in and do work,” that’s what is important.
Lartigue with student refugee

It is an appropriate sentiment, one that seems to embody the past, present, and future of TNKR. Lartigue’s desire for “ownership at a local level” and desire to turn “adaptive change” into a business model show through on every level of the organization. “How can I help” is a question that he clearly came ready to answer.

(Author: Ida Knox, Editor: Dylan Kolhoff)

Happy Birthday, Yeonmi Park!

We worked together for much of 2014. She started the year as a minor celebrity in South Korea because she was a regular guest on a Korean-language TV show. By the end of the year, she was internationally known, even named one of the BBC’s Top 100 Women of the Year.

Yeonmi has moved on to bigger and better things, I hate to be the guy always saying, “Remember when!” But I can’t resist today on her birthday.

* Last year, Yeonmi worked on her birthday. We met that afternoon to discuss several projects, then had dinner with her lovely mother and sister and her mother’s partner. Then after that, with her family celebrating at Yeonmi’s place, Yeonmi and I went back to work! It was so much fun, it was a special time for me being able to join them for dinner.

* In the back of my mind, I knew the end was near. It was 12 days before Yeonmi’s One Young World speech that captured the world’s attention. I knew that speech would be really big–and would end our working relationship. I would be like Michael Jordan’s high school coach, who people sometimes remember in passing, sometimes even by name. 🙂

We had started working together in February 2014, when I told her that she had the potential to be a leading spokesperson. It was like a chapter out of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.” I just knew. But she said she didn’t think her story was worth telling and didn’t think she was qualified to be a human rights activist.

After her One Young World speech, friends of mine who never paid attention to North (or South) Korea were asking me if I had heard about the North Korean girl who had given that big speech.

* We were both so busy then, we were trying to record the final Casey and Yeon Mi Show, but she then had three big speeches coming up (One Young World, Oslo Freedom Forum, TEDx Uk-Bath), all with different expectations in terms of duration and focus. She did make time to join a (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees session, her final time, in November 2014.

* Without going into detail, I will only say that Yeonmi terrorized me during that time. 🙂 People don’t know how much she reads, studies and thinks about the world and her place in it. She also has incredibly high expectations. During that busy time, she was drafting her book, working on her speeches, and answering so many messages from around the world that her iPhone was often lit up like a Christmas tree because of the many notifications. I was honored because we worked on many things together, it was great knowing what was coming.

Later, the world will find out that how much she has learned the last few years devouring Ted talks and reading voraciously. I tell people–“If you want to buy her a gift, make sure you include a book.” That little lady wants to learn!

* Last year on her birthday, there was a huge story about Yeonmi and her mom in one of the U.K. newspapers, reporting personal things that Yeonmi had told me months before. But with the publication of her book, I have learned the rest of the story, details so personal that she couldn’t share them with me, even though I was like a big brother to her last year.

* Boss: We worked together for 8 wonderful months last year. Back then, she called me “Boss.” Last March, even though we had no budget, I hired her as “Media Fellow” at Freedom Factory, she became the first Ambassador of Teach North Korean Refugees, and we had a podcast together, although we were often so busy that it was a miracle that we recorded 11 podcasts together. For three years, Kim Chung-Ho at Freedom Factory had encouraged me even before we started working together to have a podcast. It wasn’t until I realized how magical Yeonmi was that I finally told him, “Okay. I’m ready to have a podcast. But I want a co-host.” Who, he asked. I said, “Her name is Yeonmi Park. She’s going to be an international star.”

I have since had other invitations to do a podcast ,TV show or documentary, but I haven’t come across the right situation as I did last year with Yeonmi.

* TNKR: She had 18 tutors that she studied with in (TNKR) Teach North Korean Refugees. Some people who know about that give us too much credit for her English development. She studied like crazy on her own, she deserves the credit.

Where I don’t mind taking credit: Her volunteer tutors gave her opportunities to practice what she was learning on her own and to help her advance a bit faster. I attended some of her marathon study sessions–often lasting three hours, sometimes up to five or six hours. She was always engaging, a student who expressed her thanks to her tutors by being a hyperactive participant in her own learning. She listened to everything they said like her life depending on it, processing it in her brain, practicing, comparing it to what she already knew. Her tutors often remarked that the hours tutoring her often passed by like it had only been minutes. She never asked to take a break, she would even ignore her phone during those study sessions.

* The Casey and Yeon Mi Show started off as “The Casey Lartigue Show with Yeonmi Park,” but as I was predicting early on, she would be the key to the show and would become an international spokesperson. I later promoted her as full co-host with equal billing, but that would have been like Robin telling Batman that they had equal billing. During the first show I had pretended to ignore her, to which she complained, insisting she “wasn’t invisible.”

She definitely isn’t invisible now!

I have so many funny stories about Yeonmi, if she has a birthday party in the future with friends and collagues talking about her, I will tell some of those stories!

I’m still waiting for the signed copy of her book. That has special significance for me: I’m the one who taught her to sign her name. As I told her in April 2014: You’re going to write a book one day, so you need to be ready with your signature. She barely attended school and had never learned cursive writing, so I pushed her to learn to sign her name. I also told her that she needs to have a quote or pithy saying ready, or to personalize it to people. So I am waiting to see what she signed to me, and how good/lousy her signature is! 🙂

Happy birthday, Yeonmi! You know that I’m proud of you and continue to wish you well.

TNKR-hosted speech contest reveals continued challenges for escapees
September 18th, 2015
As tensions repeatedly rise and fall on the Korean Peninsula, there may be an unwillingness among North Korean defectors to talk about their incredible journey to South Korea and their new lives as South Korean citizens.

Some fear retribution from the North Korean government. Some don’t want to feel alienated from their peers and just want to focus on their new lives. Others would like to share their experiences but lack the confidence to do so, especially in front of an international audience.

In spite of these obstacles, seven North Korean defectors found it worthwhile to raise awareness about their experiences through an English speech contest. The contest took place on August 22 in the Myeongdong district of Seoul. The organization behind the contest, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), is a volunteer organization providing individualized English tutoring to a wide range of North Korean defectors, many of whom want to enhance their opportunities in South Korea and some of whom want merely to communicate their experiences as a defector to a larger audience.

The theme of the speech contest, “What Freedom Means to Me, allowed the participants to not only share their experiences living as defectors but also to bring their own voices to the discussion. The result of the contest was a plethora of viewpoints, including about the degree to which the defectors feel “free.” Interestingly, in describing their struggles to attain freedom, the defectors devoted about as much attention to their daily lives in the South as their escapes from the North, leaving more questions than answers on the subject of what “freedom” means.


The co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TKNR), Casey Lartigue, said the theme of the speech contest came from the winner of the first speech contest in March.

“I made a mental note of it at the time,” said Lartigue, “then when we decided to have a second contest, that one stood out.”

Because of the buzz generated by the first contest, Lartigue and co-founder Eunkoo Lee were able to secure the sponsorship of the law offices of Shin and Kim, who not only provided a venue for the contest but also the prize money.Sehyek Oh

For some participants, having grown up in the North, describing “freedom” was not easy. Sehyek Oh, the eventual contest winner, said “(he) was not aware of the fact that (he) had been living with no freedom.” At the time he considered the circumstances – not being able to criticize the Kim family and having to ask for permission every time he traveled – completely normal. Another participant, “Ken,” likened the experience of growing up in North Korea to the Korean/Chinese folk tale of the frog in the well that, lacking any perspective on the outside world, naturally believed the North Korean government’s proclamations that he was among the happiest people in the world.

‘Life without freedom is not really life at all’

As the defectors grew older, their perspectives changed regarding how good or normal life was in North Korea. Oh, for instance, had a turning point when he was forced to stand on a podium and receive criticism from his peers about his attempt to get out of work at a farm site when his ankle was broken. The third-place contestant – who preferred to remain anonymous – said that she became aware of how some people were living on the other side of the river in China and wondered why some people were rich while others, like her, were poor. Realizations such as these ultimately led the defectors to make the difficult decision to leave their country and, in many cases, family members behind.

The most tragic reflection came from the second-place winner Hanbyeol Lee, an activist for the organization Justice For North Korea (JFNK), which her husband Peter Jung founded. Lee told of how her father died from starvation during the famine of the 1990s, her mother lost her hearing during torture and her brother’s hands and feet became infected and he was forced to divorce his wife when he was sent to a labor camp. After using a variety of phrases to denote her lack of freedom, including “a bird within a cage” and “a modern-day slave,” she remarked: “Life without freedom is not really life at all.”


Should you ask a typical American or South Korean what freedom means to them, he or she may respond with a set of homilies or recitations from political philosophers or government documents. North Korean defectors, on the other hand, as evident from this speech contest, may have to come up with more concrete and personal ways of defining the concept.

The only defector to mention a formal conception of freedom was Ken, who brought up the sections of the North Korean constitution that guarantee freedom of speech, association and religion – if only to point out how untrue these “guarantees” are. When he spoke of the freedoms he enjoyed in the South, he emphasized its less obvious manifestations, like the freedom to mock government leaders.

Another unique perspective came from Miyeon Lee, who arrived in South Korea in 2008 and who has since earned a master’s degree in education from Yonsei University. Although she was grateful for the specific freedoms she enjoys in the South, including to study what she wants, she concluded that complete freedom “cannot exist because we are living as social animals.”

SehyekSehyek Oh’s speech won him first prize.

For contest winner Oh, who escaped at the height of the North Korean famine in the 1990s, freedom involves going beyond the limits imposed by society. In North Korea, this involved escaping from poverty: With a monthly salary of only enough money to buy 2 kgs of rice a month, he barely had enough to eat.

“What freedom meant to me at the time was freedom from starvation,” he said.

He also made sure to mention the limits imposed by South Korean society that he also has had to overcome. These barriers have included financial difficulties and job discrimination due to his identity as a North Korean defector. For certain defectors – not those in this competition – these challenges have led to the unconventional desire to return to North Korea. For Oh, on the other hand, his evolving awareness of freedom propelled him to pursue two master’s degrees, run an online shopping mall with other defectors, and co-found a North Korea human rights organization where he works today.


When assessing whether or not they felt they were truly free in the South, the answer for some of the defectors was a resounding no. One defector said that she does not and will not feel free until the North and South are unified. One said he still does not feel free because of the social and peer pressure rampant in South Korean society: He feels forced to drink alcohol by his superiors when he does not want to, and social pressure over a “proper” career led him to abandon his passion to become an athlete.

… people may have to “accept North Korean defectors as no different (than) other human beings.”

Still, these participants are fighting the restrictions that box defectors in: Oh, for instance, said he has had enough of witnessing how defectors have to cover their North Korean dialects or lie about their backgrounds to get a job and has spoken out about this in several formats, including a letter to the South Korean National AssemblyHanbyeol Lee is working on a master’s degree in Unification Studies and has been active in campaigns on the streets of Seoul. Sharon Jung, who used to work in the coalmines of North Korea, has become a nurse in the South and hopes to return to North Korea after reunification to care for the coal miners in her hometown. Miyeon Lee concluded her speech with a poem about the spring season being taken away from a rice field during the Japanese occupation, likening spring to lost freedom under dictatorship and calling for its return.

While not every defector could take home first prize, that they stood before an audience to speak in a second – or third – language is a testament to their bravery and conviction. Moreover, they inspire other North Korean defectors to be similarly proactive.

“We have refugees already asking us to have a third contest and they want it sooner rather than later,” Lartigue said.

Whether or not this determination will translate into greater influence on policy and/or society in is yet to be seen. But as more North Korean defectors come to the forefront, there will be less of a tendency to view them as stereotypes, or even as victims. Instead, as Oh said, people may have to “accept North Korean defectors as no different (than) other human beings.”

Images courtesy of Casey Lartigue

Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) will be holding an English Matching session on October 24, 2015, at Bangbae Station. There is a required Orientation Session on October 17 at the TNKR office in Itaewon.

Apply online and send your resume to Include the following in the subject line: (your last name, your first name, October 24 Matching).

1) Read the FAQ at:

2) Fill out TNKR Teacher Volunteer Application:

3) Email your resume to
* Your college(s) and degree(s)
* Nationality
* Current location in Korea
* Availability (days, times, location) for tutoring
* Applicable skills for English Tutoring
* Photos are welcome, but by no means required.

There is a one page maximum and information on subsequent pages will be ignored. Your application will be considered incomplete until you a) apply online b) send your resume to

4) Join the Teach North Korean Refugees Facebook page

5) Sign up for this event at this invitation page!

6) Two days before your session, look for and reply to a confirmation email from Casey. If you don’t get it, email him at

We have a waiting list of North Korean refugees entering or re-joining Teach North Korean Refugees.

Please note this is not a socializing, friendship, research, dating, language exchange or hangout opportunity.

Feel free to forward to friends who may be interested.

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TNKR co-founder explains TNKR in speech at Harvard University

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