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 […]

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:

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.”

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.

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.
Support TNKR via PayPal or TNKR’s crowd-funding site.

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* The Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) is holding its 80th language matching session. The sessions almost always start at 2 p.m., refugees get to choose based on when they arrive at the session. The refugee who arrived this morning knocked on our door at 8:45 a.m. Yes, that’s more than 5 hours in advance.

* The refugee finished her part-time job at 2 a.m., left her home this morning at 7:30 a.m., arrived at our office at 8:45 a.m. We tell them not to arrive before 9 a.m., so we held her official registration until 9 a.m., in case someone else arrived at the official approved time.

* Yesterday we held six hours of sessions in three different meetings–a fundraising workshop led by Maureen Byrne, a social media planning meeting led by TNKR co-founder Casey Lartigue, then a book club discussion featuring refugee dissident Kang Chol-Hwan (translation by Youngmin Kwon). And now we are back, at the TNKR office early this morning.

We are holding this session today against my will, I knew it would be a mistake to hold a matching session in the middle of August because so many people are on vacation or not paying attention. Plus, we really need to be focused on our upcoming speech contest. Today will be the smallest matching session, assuming no one cancels. As I quoted activist Howard Fuller in a recent Korea Times column: “If you are planning a meeting for 100 people, but only three people show up, then you’ve got three people to work with.”

Why are we holding this Language Matching session? It is because of North Korean refugees lobbying TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee (who then began pestering me). We have now had almost 400 refugees study in TNKR–but many ask to return. While it would be better for us to keep bringing in new people, we try to make space for those refugees who want to return. It gives TNKR’s overworked staff even more work to do, but when a refugee who has barely slept after working at a part-time job knocks on your door because she wants to be the first to choose tutors? The squeaky wheels also get the grease in TNKR.

She just watched Thae Yong-ho’s video about TNKR, and said, “He really understands TNKR.”


Why North Korean defectors learn English
The Korea Times
by Casey Lartigue Jr.


Support TNKR

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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On June 17, 2018, TNKR held a “Donor Appreciation” Night featuring author Jang Jinsung, author of “Dear Leader.” We were lucky enough to also have Kang Cheol-Hwan, author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” join the discussion. Below is a summary of the event written by TNKR volunteer tutor, donor and fundraiser Michael Downey. He runs “Living English with Michael” and is author of “This Too Shall Pass and Other Stories.”


Michael Downey wrote:

Dear Leader

On Sunday evening I spent a delightful and informative evening with Jang Jin-sung the best selling author of ‘Dear Leader’, his story of life as a high ranking propagandist in North Korea and his escape to the south. He was among the ‘admitted’ to the protected inner circle of Kim JongIl. In the book he details his disillusionment, fall into mortal danger and, escape to China and on to South Korea in 2004. As an added bonus he brought along Kang Cheol-hwan, another best selling author whose book, ‘Aquariums of Pyongyang’ also deals with real life in North Korea. Kang gracefully participated in the Q and A session.

The evening was put together by TNKR by Co-founders Casey Lartigue and Lee Eun-koo as a Donor Appreciation Night for friends and donors that help keep TNKR alive and functioning. The event was held at the TNKR offices in Mapo district in Seoul and about twenty folks were in attendance. It was an intimate setting with time for questions and photos.

In preparation for the event, I bought the Kindle edition of Jang’s book and read it. It’s not only a good story but is also a window into the lives of both the elite and ordinary people under the dictatorship of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. I am familiar with much of the narrative but was also fascinated by some of the revelations that could come from only a highly placed insider.

Jang was both a musician and a poet. His literary talent and family connections won him a place in an elite work group known as United Front Division, a part of the all powerful Workers Party. His section specialized in targeting both South Koreans and fellow North Koreans by creating works of literature under false South Korean names and styles in order to influence left leaning political groups in the south to accept Kim Jong Il as the leader of all Korea.

Under direction from his bosses he wrote a poem praising Kim Jong Il in this role and the work was read by and commended by the Dear Leader himself. Because of this he was elevated to the rare status of being among the ‘amitted ’. This gave him special statues, a kind of protection ( he couldn’t be arrested by the security services without the approval of Dear Leader), and also invites to personal audiences with the top dog himself.

Of course the closer you get to the psychopath at the top, the more dangerous your life becomes due in part to the absolute necessity to stay at the top amidst the treachery and infighting and also exposure to one’s own conscience to the lie. Jang already was in grave internal conflict over the reality of the difference between the life of the elites and the starving and dying people when an accident intervened. As a part of his work as a propagandist, Jang had access to books, newspapers, and other materials from South Korea. He lent a highly classified book to a friend of similar mind. The friend left it on a subway and they both knew they were screwed. They both could only be charged with treason and they would face torture, imprisonment, or death. What’s more their families would also be dragged into the sewer if they confessed under torture. Their only option was to escape and they left for the border with China immediately and their long, dangerous, and strange odyssey began.

His relatively inside position among the elite allowed him to share some information and perspective that I found enlightening. Here are a few.

UFD United Front Division, a division of the Workers Party

“After the 1970s, it strove particularly to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance
movements that had risen against the then military dictatorship.

Work produced here was circulated under the names of South Korean publishers, and even took on their distinctive literary style, preferred fonts, and quality and weight of paper. In music, too, the styles of instrumental and vocal arrangements were copied from South Korean recordings. Books and cassettes produced in this way were systematically distributed by our department through pro-North organisations in Japan or through other Southeast Asian nations, and passed on to democratic resistance movements in South Korea. My department in this way sowed the seeds of what might at first appear to be a political paradox: even today, sympathy towards the DPRK among South Koreans is almost entirely concentrated within the democratic, progressive and anti-authoritarian camp of the nation’s political divide.”

The Annals of the Kim Dynasty.

Kim Jong Il decided that since even the corrupt Joseon dynasty had its own annals, the Kim family must have their own and ordered the United Front Division to produce one.

“North Korea asserts that Japan’s defeat in 1945 was the direct result of Kim Il-sung’s achievement as a guerrilla leader in the anti-Japanese resistance. The Korean War, which was actually suspended by an armistice, is declared to have been Kim Il-sung’s outright victory over US imperialism. Even the history of the Cold War is taught in North Korea as a Communist history that revolved around the efforts of Kim Il-sung. The international section of the Central Party became active in setting up Juche Research Institutes overseas, in an attempt to encourage foreigners to sympathise with North Korea’s worldview and version of history. One reason why North Korea is unable to pursue reform and open itself more to the world is that this would risk exposing core dogmas of the state as mere

“Kim Jong-il decided that under no circumstances should any potentially harmful source material relating to Kim Il-sung’s past be made available to the public.

Kim Jong-il’s authority had not, as the official narrative of hereditary succession stated, been passed on to him by Kim Il-sung, even though this was what he claimed as the basis of his legitimacy. Rather, the son had usurped the father. The old saying that power cannot be shared between fathers and sons suggests some kind of universal and inevitable fate. The seeds of Kim Jong-il’s vicious struggle for power against his father Kim Il-sung were unintentionally sown when the boy was abandoned by his father at the age of eight, after the death of his natural mother, Kim Jong-suk.

We had to concede that, while Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy might have been based on hereditary succession from father to son in terms of the official narrative, in reality it had involved usurpation by the son of the father. Kim Jong-il had consolidated power by wresting it away from his father instead of receiving it from him.

But Kim Jong-il was careful to keep up the pretence that father and son got along well. In 1994, after Kim Il-sung’s death, the North Korean state publicised artefacts associated with the Supreme Leader’s office. Among them was a speech handwritten by Kim Il-sung before his death, in which he proposed a summit to discuss unification with South Korea. This manuscript was even publicly displayed in the Mount Keumsu Memorial Palace for propaganda purposes in support of the ideology of federal unification of the two Koreas. It seemed that Kim Jong-il supported his father’s pursuit of peaceful unification. But in reality and behind the scenes, he fiercely opposed it. In 1994, alarmed by the threat of pre-emptive strikes made by the US, Kim Jong-il permitted former US president Jimmy Carter to visit Pyongyang. Kim Il-sung took the opportunity to declare publicly his approval for an inter-Korean summit, and many in the international community noted optimistically that North Korea’s leader had reached out to the world. They perhaps did not realise that Kim Il-sung was no longer in control, nor that Kim Jong-il – who did hold power – was pitted against his father.

The document in question is the minutes of a Party meeting that took place in early July 1994, organised by Kim Jong-il himself. According to these minutes, the meeting was titled ‘Today’s climate calls for practical developmental policies for protecting Socialism, not policies for unification of the homeland’. It called on cadres to discredit all thoughts of unification associated with the inter-Korean summit that his father had proposed, going so far as to state that his suggestions were indicators of senility. In fact, the conversation records a meeting that was held among Kim Jong-il’s closest associates not only to criticise Kim Il-sung’s proposal, but to obstruct it.”
Amazing stuff.

Sunday evening’s event took the form of a Q and A session. The first question was predictably, about the recent summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un and what was Jang’s impression.

He started out by commenting that if he could speak English better he’d make more trouble for North Korea by telling the truth about the regime around the world. 
The he mentioned that there are two North Koreas. The one that people around the world know about which is fake and the actual North Korea. He blamed the South Korean government for most of the misinformation about the north. His opinion of the summit is that although Trump started out well by both telling the truth and enforcing sanctions against the north, Trump’s tough stance forced Kim to the summit. But the actual results were disappointing. The summit ended with a cave in to the deception of North Korea. The joint statement referenced the Panmunjom declaration between North and South Korea that gave no specifics or a time table for denuclearization. This allows North Korea to set the agenda from now. He said there is still a lot of hope because Donald Trump can always change course.

When asked what is the most effective way to bring change to North Korea he replied; The North is a paper tiger. Their economy is smaller than one American state and the U.S. could crush them by words alone. In the past sanctions hurt the common people more than the regime. Since 1997 a new black market economy has risen up and has almost created a second state. The people have more than one option, the option of starving to death. Today sanctions hurt the elite and the government agencies much more than the people. Sanctions brought the Kim regime to the bargaining table. Tighter sanctions will bring them to their knees.

Someone asked if Kim will give up his nukes. 
The nuclear weapons are not for the defense of the nation. They are for the defense of the Workers Party. They will never denuclearize until the one party system crumbles.

They were asked if any government agency sought their advice prior to the summit. Kang said the U.S. Embassy in Seoul met with him and asked for his recommendation. He advised them to solve the nuclear issue as quickly as possible and then turn to the gulag system still in place and approach it as a human rights issue. In South Korea, the media and the government is blocking the input of the defectors because it doesn’t match their narrative. Refugees are not advisors but can only give testimony.

I asked, in light of the power struggle between Kim Jong Il and his father, are we sure who we are dealing with? Who is the real power in North Korea today?

The answer made sense to me. The most powerful people around Kim Jong Un are the ‘Third Floor’. There was considerable discussion as to what the proper translation should be. The butlers was one suggested translation. They left it at ‘third floor’ but I think that the correct translation should be the Secretariat. These are the folks who control the daily schedule, control what the dictator sees or reads, and controls access. The Workers Party is firmly in control.

A young lady who grew up in North Korea and escaped and is not an eloquent out spoken opponet of the regiem said that when she was growing up she witnessed public executions almost everyday and asked why this has, seemingly, stopped now.

Jang replied that probably it is because Kin Jong Il and his son have had different educations. Kim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland and is more sensitive to public opinion, on the other hand his father was educated in the north under the Workers Party and felt the need to maintain control through public terror. His son wants to be loved by the people and feels the most threat from those in high positions an thus he has exexuted many high ranking cadres. Executions of ordinary people are now carried out in seclusion. Kim Il Sung executed folks with the AK-47. Kim Jong Il used machine gun, and now the grandson uses artillery rounds. This escelation is a sign of increasing nervousness of the party’s control. The elite of North Korea are most afraid of war. They have everything to lose.

Jang said, sanctions are the best way to change North Korea. Pressure is the right way to confront them but until now the world has not properly pressured North Korea. Information into the north will bring the best results. Information aimed at the ordinary people will change everything.

Next both Jang and Kang were asked what was the best way to get information into the north. The young lady acti ist spoke up again and said she watched movies in the north and said why can’t I wear earrings and makeup?

Both Jang and Kang recommended USBs with information and movies, literature, and radio broadcasts. They said the best information is to directly dispute the dogma of the Kim dynasty and the Workers Party.

The most important conclusion to a meeting like this is the call to action. What can I do? The next big project of TNKR is Information Into North Korea. Let’s flood North Korea with the truth. You can help by supporting TNKR financially or with your talents.