The first time I recall being fascinated with North Korea was while I was living and teaching English in Japan (2000-2002) where I heard for the first time about the abduction of 13-year-old Megami Yokota by North Korean agents. The idea that a nation state could order the kidnapping of a school girl and then have that order carried out totally stunned me for all the obvious reasons.
A couple of years later (and a year after first encountering a notorious cult in Korea), I read my first North Korean defector story. It wasn’t, however, a normal defector story if such a story exists; it was the story of a defector who had been rescued – with thick cultic strings attached – from China by the same cult I encountered. I had no idea that cult was involved when I began reading the account and actually spat out the coffee I was drinking at the time in surprise when I read the sentence that revealed the connection.
That piece introduced me to the lives of North Koreans living in South Korea. As someone interested in cults and totalitarian regimes, it’s no wonder they are a demographic I find quite interesting. While living in Daegu (2005-2013), I heard about volunteering programs associated with North Korean refugees, but I had no luck in finding a program nearby to participate in.
Upon moving to Seoul in early 2013, it quickly became apparent there were numerous opportunities to meet and hear defectors speak. So far I have had the pleasure and honor of hearing speak Yoo Young-Bok, author of Tears of Blood: A South Korean POW’s Fight for Freedom, Family, and Justice; Shin Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden, authors of Escape from Camp 14; Jang Jin-sun, author of Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea; PSCORE Korea’s founder Kim Yong-il; and Guem-ok. Hearing their stories also led me to explore the rather unique and often difficult situations defectors find themselves having to deal with inside South Korea and in other countries. Here is a list of articles I have gathered together that explore those difficulties.
In 2014, I came across Casey Lartigue and Lee Eunkoo and the NGO they established called Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR). As far as volunteering opportunities go, this was a dream come true.
I applied to join and was matched with my first student in October that year. Work commitments and a trip home kept me away from the program throughout the winter, but in early 2015 I attended two matching sessions and was allocated two students on each of the program’s two tracks. I’ll leave it to Casey to explain the program in this presentation given at Harvard recently. I was happy to see that he included two photos of me in his presentation even though the first is not one of my favorites as I look bigger than I think I look – and that’s a reason to keep that strange exercise diary of mine going.
The TNKR program has received some great media attention of late, and I’m rather proud to have played a small part in two of them, the Korea Joongang Daily article and the Arirang TV spot:
Project Helps Defectors Adjust to a New Society (Korea Joongang Daily)
The following feature two of my students, Sharon and Ken. I’ve taught thousands of students in Japan and Korea over the last 15 years, and I generally don’t like to play favorites, but I think if I only remember two of those students, those students will be Sharon and Ken:
Here are a few of my favorite photos from my experiences so far volunteering with TNKR: