By Michael P. Downey
As a volunteer English teacher and speech coach for Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) I've found a great deal of meaning in my life for this very reason. TNKR is an NGO headquartered in Seoul that was founded to give a voice to North Korean refugees who have escaped and now live in South Korea. TNKR matches teachers with refugees for one-on-one tutoring in English.
Why English? It's a good question. Recently one of my students told me the following story. After escaping from North Korea and sojourning through China, she expected life in South Korea to be idyllic. On the contrary, she found it to be no bed of roses.
She was intently aware of her status as a refugee. She felt she was discriminated against because she spoke Korean with an accent. In the beginning she tried hard to remove her North Korean accent but it was not easy.
One day at her church she became aware of a group of people gathered around two young men at the door to the cafeteria. At first she thought they might be some sort of celebrities. She went closer to listen and she heard the folks praising the young men because they spoke English so well.
A light bulb went off in her head; these guys were admired for speaking English well. Of course it was the prestige language that many in South Korea aspire to master. She decided on the spot to stop trying to lose her accent and to focus on learning English. She has been quite successful.
Nowadays in South Korea, at least some degree of English ability is important for success. Many folks have made a lot of effort even from kindergarten on to acquire some English skills.
In addition the modern day Korean language is littered with "konglish" words that baffle most who grew up in North Korea. Many folks from the North that I have tutored started at the ABC level. For these reasons they say English is important to them.
Most meaningful for me are the English Language Speech Contests that TNKR holds twice a year. At each contest seven to 10 refugees stand up in front of an audience and give a 10-minute speech entirely in English. They talk about their lives in the North, their escapes, and their hopes and dreams for their futures.
You may remember the old American folk song "If I Had a Hammer." The words, in part, go like this:
It's the hammer of justice
It's the bell of freedom
It's the song of love between my brothers and sisters
When we tell the truth, we ring the bell of freedom. Who knows better than these folks the truth about North Korea? I'm proud to assist them in preparing and practicing their presentations. Along the way I've learned a lot.
There are market forces at work inside North Korea that, given time, can produce regime change from the inside. Have you heard of jangmadang? This is the market generation and describes the lifestyle and mindset of the generation that came of age in the 1990s.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of its huge subsidies had just about brought the small communist nation to its knees. By the mid-1990s the cash and government rice rations had run out and people began to starve. How many died of hunger and its resultant diseases is controversial but after the first million it becomes a moot point.
Everyone knew someone or had relatives who had starved to death. Then there were those who were simply shot for stealing food. Many recall being forced to watch public executions as the government struggled to maintain control of the population.
In order to survive many turned to the black market. Today it is the markets that feed the people and drive the economy of North Korea. Surprisingly, I learned that much of the capital that fuels these markets comes from North Korean refugees living in South Korea who work hard and send money to loved ones left behind.
Most refugees that I've talked to, and also prominent formerly highly placed defectors, say the same thing. Never lift the economic sanctions. The regime and the Workers' Party are broke. They desperately need hard currency to continue in power.
Whatever humanitarian aid they receive from abroad goes directly to prop up the party and the third-largest standing army in the world. Through the markets people are thinking for themselves and eating well. Don't give the regime anymore money and it will collapse.
The winds of change are blowing across the Korean Peninsula these days. We have been treated to images of leaders meeting, shaking hands, and making promises. I'm reminded of the Korean folk song "Our Cherished Hopes Are for Unity." Hope abounds.
Without a doubt many people are sincerely longing for unification but the devil is in the details. Most folks I've talked to who were born in North Korea are saying we need to focus more on the people of North Korea in their efforts to be free than the promises of leaders with their own agendas.
Let's tell the truth and continue to ring the bell of freedom for the people of North Korea.
Michael P. Downey (email@example.com) is an author and teacher living in South Korea. In his free time he is a human rights activist primarily working with refugees from North Korea. As a volunteer English teacher and speech coach (with Teach North Korean Refugees) he is endeavoring to give them a voice by assisting them in telling their stories.