Voices from the North 2018-04-15: Why do North Korean defectors learn English? (2)

Q: Many North Korean refugees struggle to learn English. Many refugees who drop out of college cite English as a major reason. What was the moment you realized you needed to learn English to adjust to life in South Korea?

Suhyeong, female, arrived in South Korea in 2015

I studied basic English when I was in North Korea, but I feel like a baby at English here. What I learned wasn’t good enough and because there was so much propaganda, I didn’t learn anything useful outside of North Korea. I have been eager to study English here, but because I have three children, it hasn’t been easy, and my experience at a hakwon was not good.

I encountered Konglish shortly after I arrived in South Korea because I was lucky to get a job quickly. But I couldn’t understand so many things that my South Korean co-workers were saying. Sometimes a colleague would ask me to bring something, but I would bring the wrong thing, and they would laugh all day about it. It felt cruel because they would whisper about North Korea, but it did wake me up to the reality that I need English to survive here.

Sung, male, arrived in 2014

There are so many times that I have realized that I needed English. I had studied some English in North Korea, but it seems that I learned everything the wrong way and that my teachers weren’t good. It seems that my pronunciation is so bad, even people who can’t speak very well want to correct me.

When I took an English class at a hakwon in Seoul, I could see there was a big difference between me and native South Koreans, even the beginners were so far ahead of me. When I applied for university here, I needed help with my essay; it was clear that I could not write an essay in English on my own. There have been so many times that I could see that I needed English. I look forward to the day that I can have a deep conversation in English, and that the person can understand my pronunciation.

Jiyeon, female, arrived in 2017

The first moment I thought about trying to learn English was after I escaped to China. I saw many Hollywood movies when I was there; that kind of became my hobby. I became curious about the English in the videos, and it started to feel like English could be something fun.

The second moment I thought about learning English was when I was suffering from depression here in Seoul. I didn’t want to come to South Korea; I got tricked by a man who lied to me. I haven’t been enjoying my life here, I haven’t been active, and I haven’t been making friends. I don’t know what will happen, but for the first time I think there can be a positive change through studying English.

I recently learned that I could study with English speakers willing to teach me 1:1. I fear South Koreans because they are so quick to judge North Korean refugees. I heard from a friend studying with your program that the foreigners don’t judge us, they just want to help. I hope if I can learn English that people can forget about my North Korean accent and just consider me to be a human being.

Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, compiled these statements from interviews with refugees.

Voices from the North: “Why do North Korean defectors learn English?


[특파원 리포트] 탈북자 영어 말하기 대회…갈고 닦은 영어 실력 맘껏 발휘 by 김현진.
(reposted by Korean Headline News)
By John Max Redmond
The Korea Times
Elizabeth Shim
United Press International
Join the Teach North Korean Refugees Book Club


“Defectors speak on freezing reality of North Korea’s winter”


I remember back when I was a high school student that many lazy students would read Cliff’s Notes based on books rather than reading the original books. Of course, I was never one of those students, I would read the original texts.

But I feel like being a lazy reader because of Eben Appleton. Sometimes I feel like reading Eben’s Notes rather than my own Korea Times column. She reads my columns, then will write a summary on Facebook. I don’t know how many people read my column, but I can be sure that at least two people do so–Eben and the opinion page editor of the Korea Times. And sometimes I’m not so sure about my editor!

You can read her latest summary, and/or if you have time, you can read the original column. You decide: Eben’s Notes or Casey’s Column. 🙂

And here is Eben’s fundraiser for TNKR.



A bit earlier, a friend I haven’t seen since September asked me if I’m still busy. I said: “I’m not busy. I’m active!” That means that I’m doing many things, meeting many people. But I can always squeeze fun into my schedule, no matter how busy I may look to some people.


TNKR’s upcoming schedule.

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The Korea Times roundtable invited Korea Times columnists with many years of journalistic experience and Park Jin, former lawmaker and experienced hand in foreign affairs, to take the pulse of the rising tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Thanks to Youngmin Kwon for scanning these articles.

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TNKR volunteer tutor Arrooj Nawaz was teaching her student the phrase “Don’t even think about…”

As usual, they showed the enthusiasm of military draftees when I said it was photo time. So I taught the student the phrase: “Don’t even think about taking my photo.” I think such ‘Live English” helps students remember key phrases. 🙂

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We had an incredible speech contest yesterday! We should have taken the day off, but instead, we were back at the office today.

  1. Training session for the new TNKR curriculum
  2. Tutoring session
  3. Feedback sessions with refugees
  4. Storytelling by Michael Breen as part of the TNKR-Korea Times discussion.
  5. Nuclear-fire chicken fundraiser for TNKR!

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I had a great time at a Korea Times Roundtable discussion. I had planned on skipping it because it was a high-level policy discussion. But my boss, Oh Young-jin, Chief Editorial Writer at the Korea Times, gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I also didn’t plan on writing a column based on the discussion, but other columnists, especially Michael Breen and Don Kirk, encouraged me to do so.


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