Atlas Leadership Academy alumnus and Atlas Network Asia Outreach Fellow Casey Lartigue Jr. has had a remarkable journey during the past few years, going from a well-established career working on education policy at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., all the way across the world to South Korea, where he built a new non-governmental organization (NGO), Teach North Korean Refugees, devoted to teaching life, language, and career skills to those who have managed to escape from the communist regime. Lartigue recently accepted a position with American Orientalism University, as its director of the North Korean Refugees Education Center.
“I say that Casey is one of a kind because I simply know of no other Harvard-educated black Texan libertarian who has dedicated himself to the plight of North Korean defectors,” Atlas Network CEO Brad Lips wrote last fall in his review of In Order to Live, a book by refugee Yeonmi Park that chronicles her escape from totalitarian North Korea, then from a different kind of captivity in China. Park was able to bring her story to the world thanks in large part to her time working with Lartigue and his classes.
Lartigue taught English in South Korea in the 1990s, when he met the founder of Atlas Network partner the Center for Free Enterprise, based in Seoul. He maintained a connection with them through the years, and in 2007 began editing and writing articles for them from the United States.
“In 2012, March 1, I attended a rally that motivated me to get more deeply involved in North Korean issues,” Lartigue said. “A month later, I was at the Think Tank MBA workshop. I began to think about making North Korea my focus during the session. I began to think about ways I could get more deeply involved, and things I learned gave me the basic foundation to get started.”
After his Think Tank MBA training, Lartigue continued with Atlas Leadership Academy’s programs and webinars. He began connecting North Korean refugees with volunteer tutors in March 2013, at first without a long-term plan.
“We just wanted to connect refugees with people who could help them,” Lartigue said. “In December 2013, two things changed. One, I became a fellow with Atlas Network, and two, I became the director for international relations at Freedom Factory. Both changes gave us credibility, giving us the confidence to expand our little project.”
Lartigue’s “Teach North Korean Refugees” became a project within Freedom Factory, and the team began focusing on how to make it stronger internally. Lartigue began participating in Atlas Leadership Academy’s mentorship program in 2014, paired with Rainer Heufers, founder and executive director of the the Indonesia-based Atlas Network partner Center for Indonesian Policy Studies.
“We had a really active 2014, it wasn't long before my volunteer project began to take over my job at Freedom Factory,” Lartigue said. “We were really grateful when Atlas Network offered us a matching grant opportunity. It let people know that their donations would be matched by a solid organization with superior transparency. We then made the tiny little project into an official NGO, as of May 2015. We were able to use the money we raised through the matching grant to establish the North Korean Refugees Education Center at American Orientalism University. Each year, we have taken another step. Atlas Network has provided us with assistance every step of the way, with a fellowship, speech opportunities, strategic advice, and a matching grant opportunity that has helped us grow despite having limited resources.”
Lartigue’s focus on humanitarian work is a natural outgrowth of the ideas of liberty that he has explored since his earliest days of discovery in the world of political philosophy.
“I read all three of Frederick Douglass’s books when I was 12,” Lartigue said. He would go on to join the Board of Trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C. “The idea of self-ownership and the right of locomotion were within me from a young age. The shocking moment for me was losing a debate to objectivists. I had started hanging out with progressives; they seemed to be more action-oriented and caring. Then the objectivists knocked some sense into me using language and phrases that attracted me. I was into minority issues, and they reminded me that ‘the individual is the smallest minority.’ The focus on individualism brought me back to where I had been a few years before, and have been ever since.”
Despite “zig-zagging across various ideologies and ideas” in his early years, as Lartigue puts it, he has found a lasting home in the worldwide freedom movement, where he makes an extraordinary difference in the lives of people who need it the most — those who have escaped the lifetime prison of a totalitarian regime, often with nothing but their lives.
“These days I quote Walter Williams,” Lartigue said. “I am an extremist, and extremely proud of it.”