Thanks to Facebook memories, I come across posts from the early days when TNKR was barely surviving as an organization. One of the notifications today was from four years ago when I was offered a fantastic job that would have had me on easy street. In contrast, TNKR then looked like a dead end road […]

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Queen Magazine
November 2018

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

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Today is Yeonmi Park’s birthday! She is celebrating it by asking people to donate to Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR).

Here’s her online fundraiser for TNKR: https://give.lovetnkr.com/en/fundraisers/Please-Donate-to-my-25th-Birthday-for-a-cause

Below is a post I wrote about Yeonmi’s birthday 3 years ago.

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.”
http://caseyandyeonmi.com/

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.
http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2014/04/137_154875.html

* 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.



I came to the office at 3 am, to make sure I wouldn’t arrive at the office late today. That’s because we are having Matching session #81, and the students in this group made it clear that they would be arriving early.

The Matching session will start at 2 pm. The first refugee who arrived was knocking on our door at 9:15 a.m. The second refugee arrived at 9:30. The third one arrived about 15 minutes later. Yes, three students have arrived more than 4 hours in advance.

One of the students said that he hopes to select 10 tutors. He has already made his schedule and he showed me all of the research that did to get prepared for today. He checked all of the resumes in detail, did a complete breakdown on tutor availability, and has his list of tutors he hopes to be able to select.
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