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.
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.
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.”
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 Assembly. Hanbyeol 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 CJL@post.harvard.edu. Include the following in the subject line: (your last name, your first name, October 24 Matching).
1) Read the FAQ at: http://teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org/for-teachers/teacher-faqs/
2) Fill out TNKR Teacher Volunteer Application: http://teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org/for-teachers/teacher-application/
3) Email your resume to CJL@post.harvard.edu.
* Your college(s) and degree(s)
* 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 CJL@post.harvard.edu
4) Join the Teach North Korean Refugees Facebook page http://tinyurl.com/lhu7bvl
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 CJL@post.harvard.edu
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.
* * *
TNKR co-founder explains TNKR in speech at Harvard University
* * *
Know how you know you love what you are doing? One sign: You don’t stop doing it simply because it is your birthday!
I celebrated my birthday by holding three different orientation sessions. So many wonderful things from today:
* A refugee calling me a “superman for North Korean refugees.”
* Tutors coming from around the country to join TNKR, including one teacher who wants to fly in from Jeju twice a month to tutor. We definitely need a gofundme account for her…
* Celebrating my birthday with the refugees entering our project.
* Three of the refugees who were Grace’s students the last few weeks joining the program clearly more confident than they were a few weeks ago.
* An unexpected donation from a Bitcoin user. https://
* An unexpected $100 donation from one of the refugees in the project. You can also donate, by the way. https://
* We had only two orientations scheduled, but three of the tutors coming from far away, and unfamiliar with Seoul, arrived really late. So Eunkoo Lee and I met them from 7 pm for a third unexpected orientation.
* The refugees were curious about me, they wanted to know why I do what I do. The same with the last group of tutors at the last orientation.
* One refugee mentioned that it is amazing what we do without real infrastructure. We have held our orientations and matching sessions at TOZ, Mulmangcho, Freedom Factory, the Bitcoin Center.
* And I checked, I have 195 birthday messages on my Facebook timelines. I have more than 2,900 Facebook friends, so I guess I need to delete the other 2,700 who did not post a message. 🙂
* Years ago, I had to work on my birthday. I remember grumbling all day. But this September 5. I loved it.
FREEDOM SPEECH CONTEST FOR NORTH KOREAN DEFECTORS
It’s difficult to imagine the life experience of those who have lived in the totalitarian regime of North Korea and managed to escape, or the cultural adjustments they need to make once they begin life in a relatively free society. Atlas Network partner Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) is dedicated to helping North Korean refugees by providing them with educational opportunities and helping them prepare to determine their own way in life. One of its exciting projects is a speech contest in which North Korean defectors explain, “What freedom means to me,” the Korea Times reports.
“My freedom has changed throughout my life depending on the circumstances,” the Korea Times quoted 1999 North Korean defector Sehyek Oh as saying in his contest-winning speech. “From being ignorant of what freedom is, and to becoming rebellious to the unfairness imposed by the system of North Korea. Now what freedom means to me is to overcome social and personal limitations. I realized, because of freedom, I could harbor thoughts of challenging all the social discriminations and barriers and my personal limitations.”
The event, held in conjuction with the law firm of Shin and Kim in Seoul, took place on the same day that North Korea had been threatening to shoot at loudspeakers broadcasting high-volume South Korean radio transmissions across the demilitarized zone between the two countries, pointed out TNKR co-founder and co-director Casey Lartigue, who also serves as Atlas Network’s Asia outreach fellow.
“The North Korean regime has been shooting at loudspeakers, routinely denounces refugees as ‘traitors,’ ‘cowards,’ and ‘human scum,’ and continues trying to block information from the outside world,” Lartigue said. “They say they are strong, but as one refugee friend of mine likes to say, it shows how weak they are, afraid to have North Koreans hear a different viewpoint.”
From left to right: Lee Eunkoo (TNKR co-founder); Kim Young-dam (Shin and Kim chairman); Sehyek Ho (winner of the August 2015 Teach North Korea Refugees (TNKR) speech contest; Casey Lartigue (TNKR co-founder and Atlas Network Asia outreach fellow); and Fiona Fong (TNKR tutor and coach) at the law office of Shin and Kim in central Seoul, Korea, on Aug. 22.
The contest participants are all members of TNKR’s two primary course tracks: “Track 1: Finding My Own Way,” which teaches the basics of English and other languages, as well as improving their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.; and “Track 2: Telling My Own Story,” which provides coaching in writing, public speaking, and presentations.
“We have had 180 refugees and 280 volunteer tutors come through the program,” Lartigue said in an interview with the Korea Times. “Our Language Matching session in August included nine refugees being matched with 12 volunteer tutors, plus nine volunteer staffers participated in the event.”
Lartigue, who cofounded TNKR in March 2013 with South Korean researcher Lee Eunkoo, explained that the program has a three-month waiting list for new participants, and additional volunteers are lined up for tutoring.
“Refugees express their satisfaction by returning to the program, recommending their friends,” Lartigue told the Korea Times. “When we first began, we had to recruit refugees. Now, they find us. In one week, I had four refugees contact me directly on Facebook, with messages like, ‘Hi, teach me English?’”
The contest was open to all North Korean refugees who currently or have previously lived in South Korea and who had joined TNKR by June 20. The final contestants were chosen from a pool of applicants who were asked to submit a video. For many of the contestants, it was their first time giving public speeches in English.
English speech contest invites N.Korean defectors
By John Redmond
A volunteer group, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), will host an English speech contest for North Korean defectors at the law offices of Shin and Kim in Myeong-dong, Seoul, Saturday.Eight North Korean defectors will address the question, “What freedom means to me.”The participants are members of TNKR’s Track 1 “Finding My Own Way” and Track 2 “Telling My Own Story,” parts of the project co-founded in early 2013 by South Korean Lee Eun-koo and American Casey Lartigue Jr.
TNKR has regular monthly sessions. It has so far held 24 sessions and boasts 156 defectors and 216 volunteers.
The Korea Times spoke with co-founder Lartigue about his involvement in TNKR and the aims of the organization.
Q: When did you get involved in TNKR?
A: I co-founded TNKR in March 2013 with Lee Eun-koo when we matched several former teachers from North Korea with volunteer tutors in Seoul. Two weeks later, we matched several refugees from NAUH (Now Action Unity and Human Rights in North Korea), an NGO that rescues North Korean refugees from China.
But my interest in such things began when I was a graduate student at Harvard interested in creating opportunities in which the beneficiaries were in control. The next step, I helped create the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for low-income children in Washington, D.C.
In Seoul, I was volunteering with Korea Volunteers, initially as the assistant organizer. But I had a spin-off with my own organization after I began volunteering with Mulmangcho, a small school in Yeoju for adolescent North Korean refugees. In many ways, all of those activities led to this day with me leading TNKR.
Q: What is the aim of TNKR?
A: To create opportunities for North Korean refugees to improve their education and job skills. South Korea is English-crazy, so naturally we focus on English because that is what the refugees tell us they need. That is Track 1, “Finding My Own Way,” of the program.
Track 2 is “Telling My Own Story,” in which refugees are matched up with speech coaches to help them with public speaking. In addition to that, we also have a study-abroad program being led by Tricia and Tyler Bolender.
Q: How many people are involved in the program?
A: We have had 180 refugees and 280 volunteer tutors come through the program. Our Language Matching session in August included nine refugees being matched with 12 volunteer tutors, plus nine volunteer staffers participate in the event.
Q: How successful is TNKR?
A: Wildly successful. We are a volunteer program with limited resources, but we have a waiting list of three months and volunteers lined up to join us. Refugees express their satisfaction by returning to the program, recommending their friends.
When we first began, we had to recruit refugees. Now, they find us. In one week, I had four refugees contact me directly on Facebook, with messages like, “Hi, teach me English?”
The tutors are also greatly satisfied with the project, it gives them an opportunity to get connected with North Korean refugees and teach extremely motivated adults.
Aromi Yook, our volunteer academic adviser, has now brought education expertise to us, so now we can get the tutors prepared for studying. We are constantly adapting, such as we are now creating a process to allow refugees to begin tutoring while they are on the waiting list.
One of the key things about our project is that we allow refugees to choose as many tutors as they want. They choose anywhere from one to eight tutors to study with at one time.
Refugees recognize the value we provide for them. Two of the North Korean refugees who are publishing books in English this year were part of our program. We have had some really high-level English speakers join our program.
Another thing that attracts refugees to us is that the tutors focus on them. One young lady identified this several months ago when she said that she has taken classes and taken part in language exchanges, but in our program, the tutors focused on her specific needs. We have since heard that from many other refugees.
There are other signs of success, such as refugees volunteering with us, and we have even had refugees donate money to us, including one who donated more than 500,000 won.
Q: How does one volunteer?
A: Email me at CJL@post.harvard.edu and apply online at www.teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org. This program relies on volunteers. Without them, the program would quickly die.
“To ensure privacy of the speakers, there will be no video, audio or photographs of speakers allowed, without permission in advance from the organizers (even then, it will depend upon the speakers),” the group stated on its Facebook page.
The law offices of Shin and Kim law office are located near Myeong-dong Station on line 4.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1659864337579032/.
Teach North Korean Refugees was founded in March 2013. Since then, we have held 34 sessions matching more than 180 refugees with more than 280 volunteers.
Yesterday we held a lively session:
–12 volunteer tutors.
–9 volunteer helpers
In talking later, the main things we heard from tutors:
* wish I had more time to tutor more refugees
* honored to be joining TNKR.
* * *
The main things we heard from refugees:
* thankful to have so many volunteers ready to help them.
* this is the best program they have been in because they have the freedom to choose their tutors.
* One refugee said it was her first time to have sandwiches with foreigners, to be sitting with so many foreigners at the same time.
* Another said she wants to be taught “strictly.” She welcomes her tutors giving her a lot of homework. This experience has motivated her to volunteer when she has a chance.
* * *
Then there were the other great moments: Read more
Casey Lartigue discussed Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) at the Innovation Symposium hosted by the Harvard Extension Alumni Association.
TNKR YouTube Channel