If TNKR were an independent organization, then we wouldn’t have to deal with a lot of unnecessary paperwork.
Well, I’m not the one to complain. TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee is the one processing the paperwork for grants TNKR has received. She is holding the paperwork that we must report to one of the organizations that gave TNKR a grant earlier this year.
When people tell me their latest idea for TNKR, I often wonder, and sometimes ask, “Who is supposed to do that extra work?” That question doesn’t get answered, but it turns out that it is Eunkoo Lee who must be the de facto External Accountability Officer.
Here is Eunkoo’s fundraiser, “TNKR is my new life.”

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Leonard Read, founder of FEE (Foundation for Economic Education), talked about different levels of leadership. The 3rd Level is when people start to seek you out for your counsel. If people aren’t seeking you out, then you can draw your own conclusions about your range of influence.

Although he was talking more about the spreading of ideas rather than real action, I suppose that Mr. Read would have said that we are approaching that 3rd Level of Leadership. We have numerous people coming to us, trying to get involved.

  • We have refugees tracking us down even though we don’t do any advertising.
  • We have volunteers constantly popping up, locally and from around the world.
  • We don’t have a communications team for media, but we still have many requests.
  • TNKR has been nominated for and won awards from organizations we have never heard of.
  • We are credible enough that I’m constantly sending out recommendation letters for volunteers.
  • I don’t consider myself to be much of a mentor, but many people have adopted me as one!

The last few days have been busy so I haven’t had time to update, so here are several in one!

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TNKR doesn’t have anyone in charge of media, neither traditional nor social. Despite that, we do get a lot of media attention and requests to participate in events.

I would prefer to be doing my work building up TNKR, but someone on our team needs to be out there meeting and greeting people. For some reason, TNKR has attracted a lot of shy people who prefer to work behind-the-scenes. Some of our volunteer tutors (especially females) gripe at me when they see me coming with my phone to take photos of them tutoring. With our team, I’m the only one who says, “Let’s take a photo.” They would probably hate me if I suggested taking a photo, then excused myself from joining.

Every once in a while I get criticized by people, comments from smart-alacks, and jacket-pullers hammering down any nails that stick out. Like a soldier carrying a flag into battle, you can expect the other side to try to shoot you first. I just wish I had enough time to take photos of even more of our activities and to send every message and photo directly to those disgruntled people.

And we try not to highlight the refugees too often. Even the ones who are public need to avoid being overexposed because many people who follow NK refugee stories are always eager for a new story, and quickly tire of the ones they have already heard. And of course we must protect the privacy of those refugees who prefer not to be publicly identified.

So who is left to carry the TNKR flag into battle with media, critics, apathetic people or people busy with their own lives?

If you would like to help with one of TNKR’s social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), then connect with me, and prepared to get started! We are looking for some people who aren’t shy and don’t mind taking every opportunity to inform people about TNKR and its activities.

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We often have many North Korean refugees reaching out to us. But the last few days, our heads have been spinning with the number of phone calls, messages, visits, orientation sessions, applications, requests from and interviews with refugees studying, applying to or returning to TNKR.

Can you imagine our feelings when they praise us, come to visit us, or consider our rinky-dinky little project to be so valuable? I have heard that other programs must send constant reminders to refugees to join their meetings, conferences and workshops, but in our case, the refugees come looking for us.  There are larger, well-funded organizations that ask us to “send” refugees to them. We have developed a great program that has minimized socializing, dating and hanging out, and instead have volunteers who give their time to make sure that refugees learn. Refugees ran from North Korea, but they run to us!

Some people think I am exaggerating when I say such things, it apparently drives some people crazy, and others don’t believe me.

Last year I wrote about one of many insiders who have expressed doubts directly to me.

“At a recent party, I bumped into an influential South Korean colleague who insists she tried not to be prejudiced against refugees. She has heard from others working directly with refugees that they lie and cheat with impunity, don’t show up for classes or events, are always late, show no sense of responsibility, and are passive until they are pushed. She then told me that I must be having the same problems.

“She didn’t believe me. She had heard a little about our project and even checked a few of my email updates, but she said that I am the first person to work long-term with refugees who says they can be disciplined, thankful, and aggressive in a positive way. She said that her colleagues working with refugees have horror stories and social welfare workers routinely get their hearts broken.”

Does my heart look broken?

I’m not surprised by the failure of top-down programs with workshops and conferences that refugees aren’t really interested in to join fun camps and socializing opportunities mixed in to entertain but not necessarily assist them in reaching their goals.

There are other wonderful stories from refugees who came to visit us in the last week, but I can’t highlight them all. Yesterday we conducted four interviews with NK refugees who hope to join TNKR. We had five more refugees stop by to drop off their applications for a scholarship program we have with our partner organization Serpentem Scholarship Mission Foundation.

Help support TNKR, so doubters can see the light one day!


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Want to help TNKR, but don’t want to teach? Then consider TNKR’s Volunteer Leadership Academy. It is a way to get involved with TNKR, developing leadership skills and adding some different to your resume/portfolio/career/experience abroad.

We have numerous activities being organized by TNKR volunteers, friends of TNKR volunteers, musicians, even high school students from Jeju-do visited us and discussed specific plans they had for raising awareness about TNKR. One day, we might have someone who can lead this Academy, the way TNKR Academic Coordinator Janice Kim leads Track 1 and masterfully handles the recruitment process.

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People who learn about TNKR naturally are curious about the refugees who join our project. It is easy to forget that we have many volunteer tutors who give up a lot of time to help North Korean refugees with improving their English. We have had almost 400 North Korean refugees study in TNKR with almost 800 tutors and coaches since we began in 2013. And it is quite incredible because TNKR is not a “show up and teach” project without any preparation. After going our application process, tutors must be prepared for 1:1 classes with students who are eager to learn. Even “free talking” and conversation need to be structured, so that it isn’t just chit-chat. Students can go anywhere for that.

Numerous refugees in TNKR have studied with others, ranging from friends, language exchange partners, institutes, university classes, people they meet on the street, church or Internet. The difference they say is that the tutors they meet through TNKR embrace the TNKR philosophy of putting the students at the center. Our classes are always 1:1, students are expected to communicate to tutors what it is they want to study and it is reasonable for tutors to expect students to show up to class with something they want to learn (vocabulary, article, dialogue, questions, homework). As one refugee has been telling other refugees, “Don’t join TNKR until you are ready to study.”

We are currently recruiting volunteers to join us, for our final orientation and Matching sessions this summer.

  • Track 2 coaching, orientation sessions by appointment at the TNKR office until July 13, then July 16 offline Matching session.
  • Track 1 Skype tutoring, orientation session is July 15 at the TNKR office.
  • Track 1 tutoring, orientation session is July 21 at the TNKR office, the Matching session is July 28 at the TNKR office.

You can call the TNKR office July 11 with questions about any of these tutoring/coaching options, 02-6929-0942, ask for TNKR co-founder Casey Lartigue. You can get the process going by applying here.

Here’s my Korea Times column: “Why foreigners volunteer to help NK refugees


Rachel joined us last month. She meets this student at the TNKR once a week. They are laughing and joking so much that I had to check on them to make sure they were really studying. And they were!!! In addition to tutoring, Rachel has also set up a fundraiser for TNKR.

Michelle is an energetic tutor!! She takes command of her class, using various unique teaching techniques to help students learn from doing, not just hearing. She has set up a fundraiser in which she writes poems for people who donate to TNKR.

Caoimhe joined us earlier this year and has now been volunteer for four months. Her classes are serious, focused. She has one of the most successful fundraisers set up by a tutor who is not part of the TNKR staff.

TNKR co-founder Casey Lartigue was interviewed by “North Korean Now” show for Yonhap News TV.


TNKR is gearing up for its 8th English speech contest! I led two orientation sessions over the weekend, and both were delightful. We usually use PPT or PDF, but over the weekend, I just decided to talk to the applicants. I am trying to find the right balance between having clear non-negotiable procedures but also having enough flexibility for the coaches so they can understand why we do what we do. These groups were really understanding and asked good questions.

It was great to have veteran coaches participating, they could add perspective to what we are trying to do. We will probably hold another orientation in about a week or so.

Join TNKR’s Book Club

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