The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] ‘For NK refugees, learning English is about finding their voice’

Since 2013, some 750 TNKR volunteers have helped 350 NK defectors improve English, boost confidence

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : July 11, 2018 - 16:28

    • Link copied

For North Korean refugees who made the perilous journey to South Korea to escape the repressive regime, learning English is not only about surviving in the hyper-competitive South Korean society. 

It is also about pursuing their new freedom, finding their identities and regaining their voice, said Casey Lartigue, co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees, a Seoul-based nonprofit group.

“They were at first either so shy or afraid to speak in English,” said Lartigue during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office on Monday. “We help them gain skills, find their own ways. This is a self-directive program where they have to take the lead.”

Whether they are looking to apply to university, get ahead at work, travel abroad, or teach their children English themselves, the North Korean refugees are given chances to design their own curriculum. That way, the refugees realize they have control over their own lives, not only in studying English, he said. 

In South Korea where English test scores are required at schools and workplaces, learning English is essential to complete their education, land a job and climb up the social ladder, just like their South Korean peers. 

“In South Korea, there are lots of challenges for North Korean refugees because of English,” Lartigue said. “First, every day, they are walking around signs in English. And then if they apply for university, if they get accepted into university, then so many classes use textbooks that are in English. Lectures are in English. Discussions are in English. Tests are English. Graduation requirements now include English.”

“Let’s say they get through graduation and they are hired, they work at a company, a lot of Korean is mixed with English in everyday conversations.”

Casey Lartigue (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald) Casey Lartigue (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

To help defectors integrate into South Korean society through free English lessons, Lartigue, a Harvard graduate and a former policy analyst, and Lee Eun-koo, a South Korean national who worked for the government, founded TNKR in Seoul in 2013.

“My life changed on March 1, 2012. Up to that point, there were about 30 North Korean refugees who had been caught in China and were about to be sent back to North Korea. And I was like, ‘This is crazy,’” Lartigue said. He then joined protests in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, which was the beginning of his fight for North Korean refugees here.

TNKR matches North Korean refugees with volunteer native English speakers for free, one-on-one language classes and public speaking coaching sessions. The students can pick their own tutors and the topics that they want to study in a self-directed environment.

“It is all about them having the power to choose for themselves,” he said.

Over the years, some 800 volunteers have helped about 400 North Korean refugees improve their English skills through the programs at TNKR. At the moment, some 60 refugees are engaged with some 90 volunteers.

The North Korean refugees seeking help from TNKR are mostly in their 20s and 30s. 

“About education, the reality is that a lot of North Koreans come here years behind,” he said. “Then, a lot of them struggle, I’ve heard, grade points on average are lower, more likely to drop out and struggle with their studies. When they graduate with lower grades, it is harder to get a job.”

According to the Ministry of Unification, there are about 31,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea as of this year. 

A 2015 survey by Korea Hana Foundation of 912 North Korean defectors attending colleges or universities here showed that 185 of them had taken a leave of absence and 150 had dropped out of schools. The most often cited reasons were to earn a living (30.3 percent) and to study English (28.6 percent).

Equipped with English skills and confidence, some of the refugees went on to talk about their experiences and the human rights situation in North Korea by publishing books and appearing in media.

Among those who received help from TNKR is Park Yeon-mi, who fled North Korea at the age of 13 and authored the best-selling English-language memoir titled “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.”

“I want them to be able to decide for themselves and to have more skills so that they can get a better job and lead the lives they want,” he said. “Freedom. That’s it.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (