, , , , ,

Random thoughts, rainy Friday morning

Some random TNKR stuff this Friday morning:
* Who can spit in the face of someone who is smiling? That’s an old Korean saying. This morning, a refugee who recently joined our program was late for her class, again. I was going to read her the Riot Act, but she had such a big smile on her face, greeted me with such a happy “Good morning!!!” that even the grumpy TNKR co-director laughed, decided to save the lecture for another day.
* Volunteer doesn’t have to mean low quality: We have had 50 people apply to join TNKR since March 11. That’s even though we have raised our expectations for volunteers. I’m happy to report that I have failed, once again, to destroy TNKR!
* Big Day Tomorrow: I emailed all of the applicants accepted for tomorrow’s orientation for Track 2. I hope others will join the Open House, but the Orientation is invitation-only for those who have already fulfilled all of the items on the application checklist.
* Reality: Some people whine that I mention TNKR’s pathetic budget too often, but I have learned when I mention it that we get some donations, when I don’t mention it, we don’t get any donations. So what should I do? Give in to the whiners?
* Resumes: TNKR is volunteer, so perhaps applicants don’t take it seriously. But you would not believe how many resumes I receive with the title “Resume” or “TNKR resume.” What ends up happening is that the resumes get labeled “Resume (1)” and “Resume (2).” If your application has ever gotten rejected by HR or managers at companies, sometimes it is because of the screening process. As one executive VP told me years ago, “If people don’t use common sense when applying for a job, they won’t use it after they get hired, either.”
* All alone: Eunkoo Lee, Youngmin Kwon, Dave Fry and Tony Docan-Morgan are all out of the office today. I’m the only authorized staff member here today. So everyone messaging me should understand that I might be slower than usual in responding.
* Be careful what you ask for: I sent out a reminder to tutors a few days ago to send in their late reports, so it has been raining reports on my head ever since then! Sometimes I think I would be better off just turning TNKR into a hiking club. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with so many reports and other administrative tasks. It is now the end of the month, so I will be going through all of the reports (more than 200 again) from this month.
, , , , , , ,

2017-03-24 Be Nice to Your Favorite NGO

Meeting #1: South Korean professional visiting from Hong Kong. He wanted to find ways he could help from Hong Kong.

Meeting #2: Feedback session with a North Korean refugee who arrived in South Korea in December 2015 and joined our program December 2016 after waiting for a few months.

I imagine that some of my peers who are involved in advocacy, abstract or analytical work about North Korea rarely or never have NK refugees seeking them out to thank them. Some of their work may be valuable, but it isn’t the type of work that leads to the people who benefit from what they are doing to praise them.

Read more

, , ,

2017-03-07 “I have responsibility in TNKR”

One key principle for TNKR: Students in the program must take charge. We put the burden on them to choose their tutors, to choose an appropriate number, to negotiate and book appointments with them, to come to class prepared.

It is a wonderful moment when a refugee admits he or she struggled with that initially, but now loves it! The challenge is convincing tutors to let the refugees stumble through English until they find their way, rather than translating or trying to baby them.

Read more

, , , , ,

2017-02-28 Don’t Even Think About… Taking My Photo

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. 🙂

Read more

, , , , ,

2017-02-26 On the 7th Day, TNKR still didn’t rest

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!

Read more

, ,

2017-02-21 People are everywhere at TNKR!

Sometimes people ask me what we would do if we had more money. Somehow, even though we do so much with so little money, I guess they think we would not know how to spend new money?

The answer is easy. Hire staff. Get a bigger office with numerous classrooms. I have other ideas, but those would come after we stabilized the organization.

Today is one of those days that I am reminded about our lack of space. As Maaike said, “Wow, there are people everywhere.”

Unfortunately, those people don’t know how to WHISPER. And that’s a problem when you have three classes simultaneously, phone calls, media, guests dropping by, staff working at the same time…


TNKR Special Ambassador Eunhee Park with tutor Kaina. I had no idea what Eunhee was doing, so this was my LOL moment of the afternoon after I saw the photo!

Here is Eunhee’s fundraiser for TNKR. Yes, I know people rarely donate when I link the fundraiser, but it is still important to acknowledge when students and volunteers take an extra step to try to help TNKR become sustainable.


Read more


2017-02-09 Dave Fry: “Use me”

TNKR has a new volunteer in the office. Dave Fry joined TNKR officially today, helping out at the office and having his first tutoring session. It was an incredible first day, I wonder if we will survive the second one!

Read more


TNKR Study reports, January 2017

Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) volunteer tutors sent in the following reports for January 2017 classes.

<2017 1 TNKR 수업 보고서>

*본 보고서는  TNKR  선생님들이 제출한 온라인 레포트를 바탕으로 작성되었습니다.


TNKR Tutors submitting reports: 59 -온라인 레포트를 제출한  선생님 수: 59명
Reports submitted by TNKR tutors: 146-제출된 온라인 레포트 수: 146 수업
Total number of minutes tutored: 13,635 -1월 진행된 수업:  13,635분
Total number of hours taught: 227.25 hours – 1월 진행된 수업: 227.25시간
Refugees studying in January: 39 (based on tutors who sent reports) – 1월 한달 공부한 학생수: 39명 (선생님이 온라인제출한경우만)
Average number of classes studied per refugee: 3.7 – 한명 학생 평균 수업시간: 3.7수업
Average number of classes taught per tutor: 2.5 -선생님 평균 가르친 수업시간: 2.5 수업
Average number of classes taught per day: 4.7 -한명 학생 평균 수업일: 4.7일
At 50,000 won ($43.62 US) per hour that supposedly is charged for private tutoring, that would be about 11.5 million won ($9,912) of free tutoring for NK refugees during January 2017. –      한 수업비용: 5만원   


<수업  많이 가르친 외국인 교사 순위>


Tutor                     Classes                  Minutes
선생님 이름           수업                        시간()

Read more


2017-02-05 TNKR is not a slapstick snapshot

Very often when I am interviewed by reporters, they are seeking shocking or strange stories. When I don’t tell them shocking things about North Korean refugees, they move on to the next source.

People in media live in a snapshot world–trying to capture what is going on at a particular moment. Stories that are still evolving are foreign to them, they see only what is in front of them at the moment. Few of them return to report updates.


Teach North Korean Refugees just wrapped up its 53rd language matching session. One of the refugees who joined the session has been in TNKR since September 2015. When Amy first introduced herself then, she only spoke in Korean. The second time she returned, she spoke mostly in Korean, but she mixed in some English. This time, she only spoke in English.

That probably doesn’t interest reporters, editors and directors hunting for slapstick snapshot anecdotes. Last year, her tutors reported 62 study sessions with her. (Not all tutors are diligent in reporting sessions so there could have been more.) She is an energetic lady, she will probably have many more opportunities if she can improve her English, I always hope her tutors won’t be so interested in getting her “story” that they forget the purpose of helping her.


There’s another refugee at the session who has been in our program for a couple of years also. James recently returned from studying abroad for several months. He couldn’t wait to get back to TNKR. “TNKR has been so meaningful to me, I have met so many people from different countries,” he said in introducing himself. He is a serious young man who rarely if ever cancels class. He prepares for his classes, treating them very seriously, always respecting the time of tutors volunteering to help him sharpen his English.

He did make us laugh when he said it was his fourth time to join TNKR, and that we have been at a different location each time. Our current situation caught in a snapshot shows that we have our own small office, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that it has been a struggle, that at times we have been uncertain about whether or not we could continue. One day, if we ever secure funding, then people just learning about us then may complain about us being rich or having a large building.


We have now established ourselves as a reputable outfit. One factor that has strengthened us is that some of the refugees are now sticking to us, encouraging us, telling others about us. They are not afraid to speak publicly about TNKR.

They often complain at us for not raising enough money to build a huge organization. They have been helped in a practical way, not by fancy seminars or fact-finding trips abroad that find facts the discoverers already believe.

We now have a fundraising campaign. Three of the first 15 people to sign up to raise money for us are refugees in TNKR. Our special ambassadors signed up as soon as they heard about our new campaign. We just started, so far they are the top fundraisers.

One of them is Cherie Yang. She joined today’s session, she usually joins as a volunteer and mentor for other refugees, but today she selected three new tutors. It has now been two years since Cherie first graced us with her presence. I don’t mind publicly complimenting or teasing her. How could I not? She calls me an “angel” even though there are certainly contradictory opinions about my heavenly status. We have really seen her develop the last two years. She came on a short trip, she had included me as someone to meet during her trip. She wanted to meet me after learning about my activities here.

She is one of those rare NK refugees who went directly to the USA instead of South Korea, I call her the “North Korean American.” Her short trip to Korea two years ago is still going on! I remember the surprised look on her face in January 2015 when she learned more about TNKR. After becoming a student in TNKR, she felt so encouraged by TNKR tutors that she decided to apply for a university here, as an international student. She is now happily studying at a university, TNKR’s study room has become a second home for her.

The bond that refugees like Amy, James and Cherie have forged with us give us a measure of stability. Part of the reason that we now have government agencies and companies paying attention to us is because North Korean refugees have been praising us so much. That’s why even refugees who are newcomers are finding us shortly after they are released from the Hanawon resettlement center.

Today we had two North Korean refugees who studied in our in-house tutoring program join the matching program.

They arrived in South Korea at the same time last year, went through Hanawon together, both signed up with us quickly, studied with us for a few months, then joined the matching session together today. They even chose the same tutors. The only difference between them today is that one of them arrived today before 12 noon, more than two hours before the session was scheduled to start.


The people who have supported us emotionally and financially the last few years can see beyond the snapshot. We have developed slowly, almost collapsed a few times, at one point we were even down to something like 37,000 won in the bank. Sometimes it was difficult to carry on, but then, we would be contacted by refugees eager to study English with us.

South Korea is English-test score crazy, there are a number of English options for refugees, but they choose us. One refugee who found us months ago insisted on meeting me. She had found me on Facebook, repeatedly asked for a chance to meet me. She was already studying at an established organization, but she had heard such great things from refugees about us that she wanted to study with us. I met her several months ago, I could see how eager she was to study. She had pages of vocabulary that she was memorizing, studying for hours a day on her own without making much progress and also studying at an established organization in small group classes.

Because of her work and having to take care of a daughter, she will study on weekends with the four tutors she chose today. She has learned the hard way that she needs English–for her current job and for future opportunities.

She first learned about TNKR because of Yeonmi Park. She was searching for opportunities to learn English when she came across the podcast that I used to do with Yeonmi. She had been determined to meet me, eager to study English. Today, she was able to select four tutors. As she introduced herself, she began crying, happy she had found the opportunity, thankful there are so many tutors willing to help her improve. I wanted to take a photo with her, I wonder where her relationship with TNKR will lead, what will I be able to say about her two or three years from now?

We have newcomers as well as some who have been in South Korea for some time joining us. We have refugees who want to remain anonymous as well as refugees who have already established themselves joining us. Steven is well-regarded among refugees, he graduated from Seoul National University and now has a professional job with a big company. He made it clear that he was delighted to meet me officially, at last. He said that I am “famous” among North Korean refugees. He has big plans, he is confident that he will be able to improve his English in TNKR. He scooped up four tutors today.

Another refugee who is highly regarded is currently a student at SNU. Jun is another refugee who has potential to become a public speaker discussing political issues related to North Korea and China. He said that TNKR is a “necessary” NGO in South Korea, that North Korean refugees have a lot of stress because of English, and that we provide practical assistance for them. He said that he has known about TNKR for a long time, but he wasn’t able to join us until now. He clearly won’t waste this opportunity, he says that he knows this will be a great chance for him to improve his English.

I know that some people get excited by those refugees who are ready to speak out about North Korea. Reporters and media people used to looking at snapshots see a handful of refugee authors think a revolution has begun. But we also need to remember that most refugees are not the least bit interested in speaking out. We have had more than 260 North Korean refugees participate in the English study part of our project, now “Track 1”, but fewer than 20 have joined “Track 2” to engage in public speaking.

One of the refugees returning to TNKR gave wonderful feedback yesterday, she said that TNKR tutors have “warm hearts.” She joined TNKR before but had to drop out to work. She wasn’t able to win a scholarship, so she has been working and studying. And her job made her realize how much she really needed English, so she has been waiting for her chance to rejoin TNKR. We let the tutors know that there is a great chance she could have to drop out at any moment to make money.

I also inform tutors not to pry about this kind of thing. Sometimes refugees need money just to survive like other humans in Korea, and sometimes it is more serious, such as having to send money to relatives in North Korea. Whatever, we accept it, wish the refugees well, tell them to stay in touch. As I wrote recently, TNKR is like an elevator for refugees to get on and off when necessary.


The Matching session was wonderful. I sound like a broken record praising tutors who are willing to give so much of their time to help NK refugees. Refugees are in the news these days because of the US government’s new policy, but the importance of partnering with people who have migrated to a new country (often out of necessity) is not new. Tutors explained their reasons for wanting to join TNKR. Many of them made it clear that they deeply respect what we are doing. Others are focused on helping refugees directly. Still others are thrilled they can use their English ability to help others who need it.

One of our new tutors is a Texas girl who is now living in Yeosu. I have never been to Yeosu, I have only heard that it is about 4 or 5 hours away from Seoul. The refugees were clearly moved when they learned that she was willing to come from so far to tutor them.

Yes, Viana spent 30,000 won for her ticket to come to Seoul on Saturday, plus other costs (cost of staying in Seoul over the weekend so she can tutor, taxi when she couldn’t figure things out fast enough). Not only that, but she has set up a fundraiser to help TNKR. We had our orientation session at 8 pm. I’m sure she was losing focus as I went through my “Don’t do this, don’t that” orientation with her.

It helps that this group understands the challenges we have in making TNKR a stable organization. They joined us knowing that we have raised our expectations for new volunteers. I think after they heard from refugees today that they will take this opportunity to help very seriously.

In all, we had 9 refugees chose among 13 tutors. All of the refugees who went through orientation showed up, only one tutor didn’t show up. We had planned on having a smaller session, I advertised this one less than usual. But we still had more than 25 volunteers apply. Eunkoo is eager to have as many refugees as possible join each session, so she increased the number of refugees, putting pressure on me to get more tutors to commit.

Handling 19 tutors with 11 refugees last month was too much for us as a tiny volunteer organization. We had planned on having 5 refugees with 8 tutors this time around. The downside to a small session is that we have a waiting list of 70, so we won’t make a dent in that. And there is always the possibility that refugees won’t be able to overcome life, and would skip the session because of problems, then tutors would feel we had lied or were incompetent because enough refugees weren’t there. The downside to a large session is that there are so many tutors to handle, some can disappear or avoid us later on. A lot of my time is wasted just following up asking tutors to send in reports, tracking problems, sending reminders to our tutors to join our activities.

Now that we have some stability with an office, I’m getting better at handling this project. We finally had to break down to buy a computer because the previous one was too slow for me. I am now so much more efficient at handling things, following up, chasing tutors.

But I digress.

If my math is correct about yesterday:

9 refugees chose an average of 3.4 tutors.

13 tutors will be tutoring an average of 2.4 refugees.

Refugee selections:

5 tutors selected by 1 refugee
4 tutors selected by 4 refugees
3 tutors selected by 2 refugees
2 tutors selected by 2 refugees

After the matching session, we had a wrap-up with tutors. For a while, we have been thinking about how to properly connect refugees and tutors. In the past, the refugees were so eager to get started that we would try to match them the same day.

I finally killed that approach. Instead, we had a wrap-up session with tutors to review policies and to discuss how to proceed properly. I have learned that just because I said it that not everyone heard it the same way.

1 pm tomorrow we will be connecting them.


Youngmin Kwon, TNKR’s Assistant Academic Adviser, should be proud. One of his students is moving on. Like many people who come to TNKR, he fell into the trap of using Korean with students, thinking he was helping them. Finally, he began to catch on that he was allowing students to avoid using English, that they stopped listening to English and were waiting for his Korean explanations. He cut back on Korean, began pushing students to use English.

Then, when they could understand, they had a true sense of accomplishment. One of the newcomers thanked him sincerely, she felt that her English began to improve after they began using English. It isn’t just the refugees who develop as a result of TNKR.

As I wrote in my most recent Korea Times, TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee stopped thinking like a South Korean judging refugees based on what South Koreans working with refugees often say about refugees (mainly, that they are allegedly passive). Instead, she began to understand the refugees as they really are, and focused on creating opportunities where they can truly take charge.

I have also had to develop. After getting experience running this program, I was ready to hit the ground running with each new group, but many of the volunteers were showing up clueless, sometimes offended when I discussed our realities and challenges as I tried to enlist them to jump in too.

Now that we have our own office, we have a measure of stability. I can take the time to explain the program to volunteers before they show up for orientation, then try to explain in more detail about what we are trying to do. This is very different than the days I was shuttling between my job at Freedom Factory and volunteering at the make-shift offices and rooms we had around town

Unfortunately, I still must convince our volunteer staff one by one, each time. I must go through the process with newcomers who have no experience with the program but believe they can run it better than I can. I usually win them over by 1) predicting what will happen 2) when I turn out to be right, explaining to them why it was so predictable. I try to tell them that fire is hot, but almost all must get their hands burned before they will take the grumpy old man seriously.

Stupidly, naively, I expected them to trust me because we were working so hard, that we had developed the program without regard of finances so we could do what makes sense rather than trying to satisfy government requirements, but I have learned that I must convince volunteers one by one, and must continue to show them what it is that we are trying to do even after that.

When they contact me, I respond quickly, not with email, but these days with a phone call. Perhaps my writing isn’t always clear, sometimes I’m in the middle of eight things when I will get a question I have answered many times, but some people don’t understand until I CALL them, explaining things, often saying exactly what I had written to them.

We have raised expectations for refugees, volunteers, tutors, and TNKR staff. It has been a beautiful story, the way we have evolved from a rag-tag group holding our initial sessions at TOZ to now having our own office with a dedicated team of volunteers. It is hard to fit all of that in a snapshot, and there is sure to be more to come as we continue to develop.


TNKR’s newest tutors

Annie has joined as a tutor and fundraiser. I’m never surprised to suddenly get an email from her with three or four ideas.

Dave has joined as a tutor and says he wants to help in the office. He has also set up his own fundraiser, with the ambitious goal of $1,500! Then he quickly donated $500!

DK has joined as a tutor and proposed an interesting event idea related to bodybuilding!

Heimin has joined TNKR as a tutor.

Jackie joined TNKR as a tutor in November, and has returned even though she hasn’t finished her first three months with her first student. She proposed an interesting event idea in an unorthodox place, let’s see what happens!

Katie has joined TNKR as a tutor, she says she will be setting up a fundraising page very soon!

Kevin is now a TNKR tutor, coach, and donor! He had tried to join us in March 2016, but work got in the way.

Laura is now a TNKR tutor and coach.


Ryan has joined TNKR as a tutor, he believes his family members will be really interested in supporting us.


Shannon has joined TNKR as a tutor, she will be advising TNKR National Director about grant opportunities.



Viana’s four or five hour trip turned into an 8 hour ordeal. She has already set up a fundraiser for TNKR!

Yutin has joined TNKR as a tutor, she is our first volunteer from Taiwan.


Zachary has joined TNKR as a tutor.

Support TNKR


2017-02-01 Actions speak louder than words

I was on a Skype call a few days ago with a researcher, she asked me if I had taken a survey among refugees to find out if they like TNKR. My response: We have a waiting list of 70.

She also asked if the refugees like studying at our center. My response: We are trying to keep up with the demand. The more that we open our office for tutoring, the more requests we have for using the office. It can save money for both tutors and refugees, plus they can get coffee or tea made for them by Assistant Academic Adviser Youngmin Kwon.

TNKR’s office is still too small to handle the number of classes that we have with tutors and students studying. But we are doing our best to make it happen anyway!

Read more