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NGO helps through English education, human rights campaigning

This is part one in a two-part series about how PSCORE helps North Korean defectors. Read next week’s Sharing page for a look into the lives of defectors in South Korea.


Outside of the Korean Peninsula -- and often within it -- North Korea receives little attention aside from the provocative, sometimes deadly behavior of its government and military.

Less thought of are the oppressed people within North Korea and their troubles often remain overlooked even if they make the dangerous journey out.

Founded in 2006, People for a Successful Corean Reunification, or PSCORE, works to help them through its offices in Seoul and Washington, D.C. For those in the South, they provide volunteers who help defectors learn English and acclimatize to a very different society. For those elsewhere, including the North, they host campaigns and events to bring attention to the human rights abuses of the Kim regime.

Nam Bada serves as PSCORE’s secretary general, having switched careers about two years ago to fulfill his commitment to human rights and the unification of Korea.

“I was a normal businessman for 10 years,” he said. “The salary is quite different from before, but I’m happy.”

In addition to it being satisfying to help North Koreans, Nam believes it is necessary work, as reunification is inevitable. Furthermore, despite polling data that shows South Koreans, particularly young ones, having doubts about the benefits of reunification, Nam believes it is what the majority of people on both sides of the DMZ want.

“(The media) is talking only about cost,” he said. “If they really know the benefits they will support unification.”

Volunteers are able to set their own schedules in teaching defectors, usually in English, but since many are students the subjects may include math, computers or any other they’d like help with. Since North Koreans are not exposed to any English in their own countries and South Korean society has incorporated numerous English words into its lexicon, defectors can be lost even when talking to Koreans.

“When they come to South Korea, they really need to know English,” said Nam. “They cannot live without English in this society.”

Currently PSCORE is helping about 60 defectors through one-on-one tutoring, and a few dozen more through its special Wednesday class. More defectors, Nam said, are waiting for a volunteer tutor.



Making connections



Austin Mettetal, 22, of California, was until March studying in Japan as an exchange student. Those plans were disrupted by the catastrophic March 11 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster, which occurred while he was out of the country and has prevented him from returning.

It was an abrupt turn of events -- Mettetal still has money in a Japanese bank he hasn’t been able to withdraw -- but it may have been a positive one: Mettetal is now at Yonsei University, and planning to stay here at least until he graduates.

He also spends 90 minutes a week volunteering to teach English to PSCORE students, sharing stories and making friends he has kept even after he is no longer their teacher.

“North Koreans, they’re almost more humble,” he said. “They don’t take things for granted.

“A lot of North Koreans, their stories are kept within North Korea, so when these connections are made it carries over.”

And it has helped give Mettetal, a cultural anthropology major, a better idea of what he wants to do after graduation.

“For my senior thesis I will do research on (North Koreans’) lives,” he said. “I may get a job in humanitarian issues. I would love to work in Korea, I would love to work with Koreans ... any way I could apply myself to this issue.”

Nam said that PSCORE makes use of hundreds of volunteers, several dozen of whom teach. The organization has a staff of just four, though, plus six interns.

Two of the interns are Canadians Gilad and Dawna, who asked that their last names not be used due to plans they have to travel to the North in the near future. Their interest in participating stems from an earlier trip there in 2008.

“We looked outside and got to see a lot of day-to-day North Korean life,” Gilad said. “That kind of sparked an interest.”

After returning to their home country, the two began searching for ways to become involved in helping North Koreans and bringing attention to human rights abuses. After learning about PSCORE, the two quit their jobs in Toronto to volunteer with the organization, where they’ve been working for about a month and a half.

Gilad helps by promoting the cause through social media, including making videos that have been used in the group’s campaigns. Dawna’s tasks include helping with translation but also event planning, including a holiday event scheduled on the afternoon of Dec. 17 at Tool Cafe in Hongdae.

The event, whose details are still under development, will include games, food, gifts and opportunities for foreigners, South Koreans and defectors to meet. The event will help raise funds for the cause, Dawna said, but is “more a way to celebrate holidays with PSCORE and create a new sort of family.”

As they are volunteers, finances will require Gilad and Dawna to return to Canada just after the party takes place. However, thanks to their connections with PSCORE and NGOs in Canada, they expect helping North Koreans to be a lifelong mission.

“North Korea is in terms of human rights a terrible place, and I am continually surprised at how little South Koreans know, and my friends back home,” he said. “Our whole reason for being here is to get people to realize that and make them aware that there are ways to help.”

PSCORE has accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which it updates to keep followers informed of news about the North Korean regime and how its people can be aided.

PSCORE is currently looking for volunteers who can help with teaching, but also through tasks such as translation and grant writing. It is seeking interns in both Seoul and Washington, and more may be learned at pscore.org.



To make a financial contribution, visit pscore.org/donation. 





By Rob York

(rjamesyork@heraldcorp.com)



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