August 9, 2016 Print

Jang Jin-sung, former poet-propagandist to the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, and author of the memoir Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea. Photo credit: Richard Cannon

When refugees manage to escape from the totalitarian confines of North Korea, they have a tremendous learning curve as they adapt to the much freer outside world. Atlas Network partner Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) has consistently earned accolades for its work empowering North Korean refugees with English lessons and skills training, and a new interview with TNKR’s directors provides an in-depth look at the organization’s background, success, challenges, and plans for the future.

The interview was published by Jang Jin-sung, former poet-propagandist to the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, and author of the memoir Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea, which chronicles his own journey fleeing into China and building a new life as a refugee. Jang also founded the magazine, New Focus, in which the interview is currently featured.

“During the three years of running TNKR, I have been inspired by how hard some of the students study,” said Lee Eunkoo, TNKR vice director, in the interview. “They already have strong motivation, which translates into a great passion for learning. Some are nervous when they first join, they will speak in Korean when they first introduce themselves to the tutors, but after studying with tutors, they return with much more confidence, they will then introduce themselves in English. That is one key thing we have noticed, they increase their confidence. We really feel the program is worth it when we see how much they develop.”

One key to TNKR’s proven track record of success is that its educational opportunities are flexible and geared toward the needs of the refugees themselves, rather than to the requirements of rigid institutional education.

“Our program is not from the teacher’s point of view, but from the point of view of learners,” said Casey Lartigue Jr., TNKR executive director, in the New Focus interview. “That’s how we encourage our students’ independence in learning. We give students more choice — they choose the tutors, they choose as many as they want, and they choose what they want to study. At a typical session, students and tutors introduce themselves. The tutors are chosen by the students. Naturally, teachers have to think about that, but thankfully they are willing to go through the process of being selected. Learning is focused on students, not the teachers. Another thing is diversity. They get to meet many tutors of different nationalities, experience, and teaching styles. In TNKR, refugee students have power. So, even if tutors come here, they don’t get to be a tutor unless the students choose them. However, you don’t need to be a tutor to help. TNKR has many volunteers doing translation, graphic design, fundraising, and so on.”

Jang wanted to draw a contrast, Lartigue said, between TNKR on one hand, which refugees seek out based on word of mouth, and the government's Hana Foundation on the other, which must recruit and chase refugees to participate in its programs.

“We are honored and delighted that Mr. Jang wrote such a great article about Teach North Korean Refugees,” said Casey Lartigue Jr., TNKR executive director. “He has been hearing so many great things about TNKR from refugees that he contacted us, and he wanted to come visit us to learn about us directly. He said that almost every refugee he has talked to in the last year has told him about TNKR, and that the students in our program have been saying he needs to meet with us.”