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North Korean defectors speak about 'little big heroes'

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Speech contest winner Kim Jin-mi with TNKR members at Shin & Kim Law Firm in Seoul, Saturday. / Courtesy of John Redmond
Speech contest winner Kim Jin-mi with TNKR members at Shin & Kim Law Firm in Seoul, Saturday. / Courtesy of John Redmond

By John Redmond

Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) held its seventh English speech contest at State Tower in Seoul, Saturday.

In 10 minutes or less, participants had to speak about people they knew in North Korea, or met while escaping through or living in China, or special people they have met as they settled down here or elsewhere.

Themed "My Little Big Heroes," the contest saw seven participants ― five female and two male ― speaking passionately of loved ones, teachers and mentors.

Many spoke of harsh conditions and sacrifices by parents and grandparents to ensure their safety.

One speaker, who cannot be named, said she had never seen her parents.

"Do you know what it's like growing up not knowing what your parents look like?" she asked.

Others detailed life in China using forged documents to avoid arrest.

"I had to obtain forged documents ― it was the only way to get decent work," another speaker said.

Top prize winner Kim Jin-mi spoke on her sister's insistence on her completing school and her sister's last words to her.

"My sister said at least one of us will have an education and be successful," she said.

She added she could not reveal her sister's name because she had been arrested in Myanmar while trying to flee North Korea.

"I haven't spoken to my sister in seven years," Kim said.

My final words to her before I fled to China were, ‘Goodbye, see you soon.'"

Punishment for being arrested in a third country is harsher, because the crime is considered to be political.

Her sister was sentenced to 10 years in a political prison.

In his opening statement, TNKR co-founder Casey Lartigue Jr. addressed the difficulties of speaking in a second, possibly third, language in front of about 200 English native speakers.

"This is not an easy task. These people have overcome great hardship to present their stories to you," he said.

The English speech event was held at Shin & Kim law firm in Myeong-dong. The law firm and The Korea Times sponsored the event.

TNKR, a Seoul-based NGO, provides free English language lessons for North Korean refugees. It has connected more than 300 North Korean refugees with more than 620 volunteer tutors.

Lartigue and Lee Eun-koo founded the group in 2013.

Its emphasis is on English education because it is the international language of business and education.

Many contestants did not allow their pictures to be taken due to safety concerns for themselves and family still in North Korea. They also refused to reveal their full names.

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