By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Friends and family who don’t know much about North Korea often ask me why some people conceal their faces in photos I post on my Facebook page.
I explain the usual things I have heard: some refugees maintain low profiles to avoid family members, who are still in North Korea, to be targeted by the Kim regime. Some have been reported in North Korea as being dead. They don’t want to pop up alive on Facebook. I have also heard less serious reasons, such as: they don’t want their friends to know they are studying English. The result has been some orientation sessions at which friends run into each other, accusing each other, “Hey, why did you try to keep this secret from me?”
There is another reason I have recently become more acutely aware of: they are embarrassed to admit publicly that they are from North Korea. I have recently seen some refugees go through transformations.
Teach North Korean Refugees: Building The Other Citizens
Last Saturday, I helped organize an English speech contest where one of those refugees stepped forward. Park Eun-hee had escaped to South Korea in 2012. She later got hired as an accountant at a South Korean company. She realized she had to be fluent in English in order to advance, but her job kept her busy and she was making enough money to pay for private tutoring.
A human rights activist told her about our organization. She waited three months to join us, which she said, “felt like forever”. Eun-hee joined Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) in April 2015, at that time she was Ms. Anonymous. Before the orientation, she said, “I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep the night before.”
Eun-hee later told us: “The most impressive thing is that I could choose the tutors. I received their resumes in advance, at the matching session I could choose as many tutors as I wanted. The entire focus was on refugees.”
She chose three tutors initially, then began studying like a maniac. Before studying with tutors, she had a routine life, commuting between work and home. “I had a whole new world after that.”
Eun-hee would occasionally come to meet me and TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee, to talk about her future. Every time, she talked about how much fun learning English was for her. When she was almost killed in a bus accident earlier this year, we visited her in the hospital, sharing a pizza. Her brush with death had not quenched her joy of freedom. She told us at another counseling session that she no longer felt like she needed to hide her identity. We are strict about hiding the identity of refugees, so we were in a quandary about how to unmask her.
The Rescued Now Resumed Life
After an event one day, she announced to attendees: “My life has changed because of TNKR. Casey and Eunkoo inspire me to live my life fully. They don’t get paid but they spend so much time to develop the program for refugees. When I have trouble or need someone to talk to, I can go to them. They always give me practical and thoughtful advice.”
One day, almost after a year in our program, Eun-hee shocked us. She wanted to give a public speech. Of the 248 refugees who have studied in our program, she is the first to go from being anonymous to a public speaker. On February 2, 2016, at a gathering at the American Woman’s Club, she amused the audience with her story about evading the “fashion police” in North Korea. In 2008, when she was in North Korea, she had seen a DVD of a woman who had dyed her hair.
Eun-hee dreamed of the day she would be free to dress as she wished. When she arrived in Seoul, she did that, enjoying the freedom to control her own head.
As she spoke, I was reminded of American abolitionist Frederick Douglass saying: “I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.”
After that speech, she began to open up, telling people that she was from North Korea. She seemed to have been liberated, once again. She took another step when she let us know that she wanted to join a future English speech contest. When another refugee had to drop out of the contest at the last minute, Eun-hee stepped forward.
If it had been a Hollywood movie, she would have won the contest. She was clearly proud of herself, beaming as we took a photo together. She received an “Honorable Mention” award that day. Yes, I will post the photo, unedited, on Facebook. When I sent her the draft of this column to confirm facts, she wrote, “And, you should write my real name, Eun-hee Park.”
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR) in Seoul.