September 3, 2015 Print

It’s difficult to imagine the life experience of those who have lived in the totalitarian regime of North Korea and managed to escape, or the cultural adjustments they need to make once they begin life in a relatively free society. Atlas Network partner Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) is dedicated to helping North Korean refugees by providing them with educational opportunities and helping them prepare to determine their own way in life. One of its exciting projects is a speech contest in which North Korean defectors explain, “What freedom means to me,” the Korea Times reports.

“My freedom has changed throughout my life depending on the circumstances,” the Korea Times quoted 1999 North Korean defector Sehyek Oh as saying in his contest-winning speech. “From being ignorant of what freedom is, and to becoming rebellious to the unfairness imposed by the system of North Korea. Now what freedom means to me is to overcome social and personal limitations. I realized, because of freedom, I could harbor thoughts of challenging all the social discriminations and barriers and my personal limitations.”

The event, held in conjuction with the law firm of Shin and Kim in Seoul, took place on the same day that North Korea had been threatening to shoot at loudspeakers broadcasting high-volume South Korean radio transmissions across the demilitarized zone between the two countries, pointed out TNKR co-founder and co-director Casey Lartigue, who also serves as Atlas Network's Asia outreach fellow.

“The North Korean regime has been shooting at loudspeakers, routinely denounces refugees as ‘traitors,’ ‘cowards,’ and ‘human scum,’ and continues trying to block information from the outside world,” Lartigue said. “They say they are strong, but as one refugee friend of mine likes to say, it shows how weak they are, afraid to have North Koreans hear a different viewpoint.”

From left to right: Lee Eunkoo (TNKR co-founder); Kim Young-dam (Shin and Kim chairman); Sehyek Ho (winner of the August 2015 Teach North Korea Refugees (TNKR) speech contest; Casey Lartigue (TNKR co-founder and Atlas Network Asia outreach fellow); and Fiona Fong (TNKR tutor and coach) at the law office of Shin and Kim in central Seoul, Korea, on Aug. 22.

The contest participants are all members of TNKR’s two primary course tracks: “Track 1: Finding My Own Way,” which teaches the basics of English and other languages, as well as improving their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.; and “Track 2: Telling My Own Story,” which provides coaching in writing, public speaking, and presentations.

“We have had 180 refugees and 280 volunteer tutors come through the program,” Lartigue said in an interview with the Korea Times. “Our Language Matching session in August included nine refugees being matched with 12 volunteer tutors, plus nine volunteer staffers participated in the event.”

Lartigue, who cofounded TNKR in March 2013 with South Korean researcher Lee Eunkoo, explained that the program has a three-month waiting list for new participants, and additional volunteers are lined up for tutoring.

“Refugees express their satisfaction by returning to the program, recommending their friends,” Lartigue told the Korea Times. “When we first began, we had to recruit refugees. Now, they find us. In one week, I had four refugees contact me directly on Facebook, with messages like, ‘Hi, teach me English?’”

The contest was open to all North Korean refugees who currently or have previously lived in South Korea and who had joined TNKR by June 20. The final contestants were chosen from a pool of applicants who were asked to submit a video. For many of the contestants, it was their first time giving public speeches in English.