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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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When North Korean refugees discuss North Korea publicly, they do their best to sound diplomatic. I’m amazed, because I would probably be unleashing fire and fury on North Korea on a daily basis if I had to escape from there at the risk of torture or execution, or live with the fear that relatives may be at risk because I couldn’t stand to live in there anymore. Those of us who live in civilized countries where we can leave as we wish can’t identify with what North Koreans have to go through to get to freedom.

A few weeks ago, with some Danish reporters, TNKR Ambassador Eunhee Park unleashed some of her fire and fury at North Korea. One of the reporters even quoted her cursing North Korea. This follows on the heels of her calling Kim Jong-Un “a big fat pig” as she spoke at the Asia Liberty Forum.

The article is in Danish, but look in the upper left corner, you’ll see her cursing North Korea. She has allowed me to post this, but on one condition. I must say: Read more

Jason Jung, editor of T-Club, has published excerpts from his interview with TNKR’s co-founders.

Support TNKR:

A reporter visited the TNKR office, and stayed for about 9 hours. He conducted interviews with staff and refugees, analyzing from every possible angle. We set one hour limits for interviews with refugees, but the rest of us will talk all day long…

Support TNKR

Read more

Friday was a slow day at TNKR, so we did a lot of planning. We did have one TV interview in the morning and one tutoring session in the afternoon.

Become a monthly donor to TNKR

Read more

I continue to be amazed that TNKR gets so much media attention even though:

  • We don’t have a media team or even anyone handling media relations.
  • The American co-founder is a former reporter and communications specialist who is more likely to fight with rather than reach out to media.

Despite those limitations, here we are again, being interviewed by a TV reporter who will be doing a 3-minute segment about TNKR. In TV time, that is eternal life.

Check out the TNKR Media Archive here, and look at how much media coverage we have gotten through April 30.

Support TNKR

TNKR Special Ambassador TNKR Ken Eom was interviewed about North Korea and his experience in TNKR. He’s a new father so you can support his online baby shower here. And here is his fundraiser for TNKR, he called TNKR a LIttle Big Hero.


We had a tutoring session going on, so the reporter also observed that a little. The refugee is often on TV, but she is not the least bit interested being recorded speaking in English. Later, we expect that she will become an advocate for TNKR.


The reporter also interviewed me. The interview was going to focus on me, but I suggested we expand beyond me. TNKR won’t grow if every interview is about me. Don’t get me wrong, I want to explain TNKR to the media, but I also know that people get tired of seeing one person focused upon.


We wrapped up with a meeting with international students from the KAIST College of Business. They said some thoughtful things about ways that we can develop a business model.

Join TNKR’s Book Club.


TNKR Special Ambassador Ken Eom was a special interviewee today! Reporters have been calling us for interviews, but a lot of the refugees in TNKR who are usually ready to do interviews seemed to be busy this week (exam week) or not interested in discussing specifics about the summit. Ken answered the call today and had numerous media requests. So you can expect to see a few news reports in the next few days. He did three interviews today back-to-back-to-back before he had to rush off for a different appointment.
He’s a new father and also juggling grad school. Thanks to those of you who participated in his online baby shower. You can also send support for their baby adjustment time directly to Ken.
I also had a busy day–a speech in the morning at an international high school, an interview with an international reporter, and an in-studio interview with long-time radio host Henry Shinn.
And I’m proud to announce that TNKR will have its first student club!

I was out of the office most of today, here are the things that I know about:

More photos are below. Read more

Back in the day when I was a college reporter, I learned that a good reporter talks to at least three sources for an article. Relying on one person is the laziest form of reporting. I used to get surprised by reporters who didn’t want to talk to others, but I got used to it. I don’t mean enemies and ideologues who even hate what I have for breakfast–I mean, even someone who can add perspective and knowledge about what we are doing with TNKR.

I encourage reporters to talk to others in TNKR who have leadership positions. There is some risk in this, because some reporters only see what they see, and they will report the observations of newcomers who barely understand TNKR. A volunteer who stands up and says someone off-the-wall is a great man-bites-dog story. When I look at some articles about TNKR a few years ago, some include volunteers who probably haven’t thought about TNKR in years, didn’t know much about it then beyond their limited experience, and had no idea about things we were planning or dealing with to build the organization. 

This reporter who is working on an online article interviewed me, co-founder Eunkoo Lee, Assistant Director Dave Fry, Academic Coordinator Janice Kim, tutors, and refugees in TNKR. Plus, he stayed for more than 3 hours to observe one of our matching sessions. He has also followed up with questions. He could, like many reporters, get some facts wrong, but it won’t be because he didn’t try to get an understanding about TNKR. It would be because, like most reporters, he didn’t show me the article in advance. As I’ve learned, most reporters would prefer to get complaints about what has been posted or published rather than discussing it in advance to check for misunderstandings. 🙂

Support TNKR

TNKR co-founders Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee were interviewed twice–once for background, then the second time “for real” for the article.

Read more

TNKR co-founder Casey Lartigue Jr. has been named the recipient of the 2017 Challenge Korea (Global) Award. He will be receiving the award at a ceremony at the National Assembly on March 8.


[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