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Look forward, not back: how best to work with North Korean exiles

Casey Lartigue Jr
Casey Lartigue Jr explains the work of TNKR in South Korea, with Jihyun Park (left) and Eunkoo Lee (centre)

If I had been given a fiver every time a journalist or PhD student asked to be put in touch with North Korean refugees in the London area I wouldn’t be exactly rich, but there would be a few more books overflowing from my already full bookcase. Whether it be for reaction to the latest purge of a high-ranking general or input into a postgrad social studies dissertation, there’s never a shortage of interest in our North Korean population, and it’s always us wanting something from them.

When Mike Glendenning, founder of EAHRNK (European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea), gets similar requests, his question is always: “what help can you give to them?” After an evening spent in New Malden Methodist church hall on 5 April I can now understand that.

The purpose of the evening was to introduce the work of two organisations that work with North Korean exiles, and discuss the various ways in which we resident / native English speakers can help. Visiting from Korea were Casey Lartigue Jr and Eunkoo Lee from the Teach North Korean Refugees organisation – a voluntary group who aim to provide English language tuition to exiles in South Korea. North Korean migrants in the South tend to be in low-skilled employment, and their ticket to advancement is education. But in order to get a decent university degree in South Korea nowadays, English language ability is a requirement. Of the North Koreans who attend higher education in South Korea, many drop out. 33% of these dropouts cite difficulty with speaking English as a reason (28% drop out because they need to earn a living). People liken the situation to someone moving from Virginia to Pennsylvania and finding they need to learn Bulgarian in order to prosper.

Building the migrants’ ability and confidence with English is therefore key to their completing higher education and consequently making a better life for themselves. Fortunately, in South Korea there is an abundance of native English language speakers who are happy to volunteer to do one-on-one tuition with learners who are in greater need than the average hagwon student – but TNKR are always looking for more, and for funding for their own day-to-day needs as an organisation.

Mike Glendenning and Jihyun Park
Jihyun Park (left) and Mike Glendenning

Mike Glendenning and Jihyun Park of EAHRNK were the home team, talking about the needs of the North Korean exiles in New Malden, of whom around five hundred are documented (and probably another 200 or so undocumented). Many of these migrants will have suffered terrible hardships both before their escape and during their long journeys to relative safety in the UK. Now they are here, their difficulties are more mundane: simply getting by. Getting access to medical services; understanding what to do with a parking ticket; dealing with the Home Office on residency and asylum issues: all these things are pretty tough when you do not speak the language.1

Over the past couple of years North Korean exiles have been more willing to put themselves in the public eye. Some – for example Kim Joo-il and Park Jihyun – have become well known for speaking out against the DPRK regime in conferences and in the media. But most have done so anonymously – no names, no photos – for fear of reprisals against their families back home. But their anonymity does not make their stories and experiences any less real.

The most powerfully moving part of the evening in April came when two exiles took to the stage to talk for the first time in public about the daily struggles facing them and their children in New Malden. There are plenty of shocking testimonies about the brutalities and hardships of life in the DPRK that you can find in memoirs and NGO reports, and there is perhaps very little that someone in London feels he can do to alleviate such huge problems. The simple words spoken that evening in New Malden were just as compelling as those published accounts. The problems of course are less life-threatening, but when the people are on your doorstep you can connect with their issues with much more immediacy, and there is much more that you can do to help on a personal level. All of these ways are very practical, enabling the exiles in the here and now.

The four speakers

It’s very tempting when meeting an exile for the first time to ask about life in the country from which they have escaped. But one of the mottoes of the the evening was “Look forward, not back.” If the exile wants to talk about past experiences, he will. But what is most important is to interact with these people on a day to day level, giving them the confidence with English which in the UK even more than in South Korea is needed to thrive.

At the start of the evening, I happened to arrive early and was helping to lay out the chairs with a Korean gentleman. At that point I didn’t really know what the evening was going to be about: I had just come along to show support to EAHRNK and to listen to whatever was going to be said. My fellow furniture-mover asked me if I was a teacher, and I wondered why he was asking. He then sat down next to me and proudly showed me his English language exercise book, filled with his own childish-looking handwriting. He told me in broken English that he had been learning for a year. It was only then that I began to realise that he was a North Korean exile. Then, perhaps guessing what was expected of him, he explained to me that he was on his own as his wife was shot as they were crossing the Tumen River together. There is not much you can say in response to that, and I was saved in my awkwardness by the events kicking off on stage.

The evening ended with several of the audience, including around half a dozen exiles, going to a local pub to continue the discussion. I looked around for the man who had been sitting next to me earlier, but he had slipped away – perhaps lacking the confidence to test his language skills further and discouraged by my earlier coldness. I immediately regretted not being more warm and friendly towards him at the start of the evening, and hope I can make amends if he joins future informal gatherings.

EAHRNK suggests several ways in which we can help. The easiest, for former English language teachers in Korea (or indeed elsewhere), is English language tuition for an hour or two per week. For those not able to commit that amount of time, there are likely to be periodic informal language exchange meetups which give migrants practice in speaking English and building their confidence. Other ways are less language-focused: for example exile children would benefit from mentoring to open their eyes to the longer term opportunities available – such mentoring would best be done by a Korean longer established in the UK and over a continuous period of a year to be of benefit to both mentor and mentee. Finally, practical assistance with job skills (eg CV preparation) or in co-ordinating programmes (such as internships) designed to give exiles opportunities that would not otherwise be available. For further details, or to offer help, please contact [email protected]


  1. And also not easy when the UK is the only EU country whose policy is to repatriate North Korean exiles to South Korea rather than give them asylum in Europe. []

One thought on “Look forward, not back: how best to work with North Korean exiles

  1. Being one who follows TNKR (Teach North Korean Refugees) on a daily basis via fb, i have been amazed at the dedication and hard work offered by this NGO. Both Casey, Lartigue Jr. and Eunkoo Lee have Masters Degrees in Education and in Human Rights. Co-Founder Lartigue by Harvard standards is educated in various teaching methods that promote proper learning of the English language. It is called prodigy, I believe. I am in hopes that those NK Korean Refugees in the UK can benefit from the TNKR program to help them to suceed in the UK. i really enjoyed your article. It describes their work in Seoul in such a favorable way
    Mrs. Park, is such a wonderful example of one who is willing to give her life for her NK people. Her Human Rights efforts are to be greatly admired. She is a wonxerfully brave woman.

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