During my recent trip to the U.S., I participated in the 16thannual North Korea Freedom Week, hosted by Suzanne Scholte's North Korea Freedom Coalition. The theme: "Listen to the North Korean defectors: Then you will know the truth!"
As I returned to Seoul, I wondered: Do people really listen to North Korean exiles? There seems to be more talk about listening than there is actual listening.
North Korean refugees often complain that government officials ignore their advice, starting from what to do about the Hanawon re-education center that almost every North Korean refugee has gone through over the past two decades. It remains a rude welcoming focused more on security rather than actual adjustment.
Are reporters and researchers listening? When I explain to them what I have learned from working with more than 400 refugees the past seven years, it is like explaining the birds and bees to children who are covering their ears because they don't want to hear new information.
Reporters who get paid for articles (or are shopping articles) will cite "journalistic ethics" as a reason they can't pay sources. Can media tell the difference between a) staff hired by organizations to promote their work b) North Korean refugees who on average have salaries 50 percent those of South Koreans or are not employed at all?
Employed refugees are expected to take time away from jobs to get grilled by a reporter or researcher anywhere from an hour to a full day of getting followed around.
Refugees don't get paid for stories about risking their lives, but the reporters, translators, fixers, photographers and editors do get paid. Yes, really. Why should they be surprised their "heads-we-get-paid, tails-you-get-to-volunteer" is unpopular with unpaid sources who are expected to answer every question no matter how personal or embarrassing? I try explaining it, but reporters and researchers are covering their ears.
Even many activists for North Korean refugees don't listen. Back in 2012, I was one of them. Inspired to get involved, I plunged in, helping to send air balloons and USB drives to North Korea, speaking out against China and North Korea, and trying to attract funding to organizations to expand their programming.
North Korean refugees praised me, but friends finally told me (or maybe I finally heard): They supported that activism, but they really needed English for education and employment opportunities.
Later as the international adviser at a school for North Korean refugee adolescents, I began meeting many concerned people who weren't listening. For three years, I recruited and organized volunteer English teachers for the refugee adolescents and sought support for the fledgling school. (As an aside, it shut down recently because of the minimum wage law, another example of government not listening.)
Refugee school leaders finally started telling me: "We don't need more donated books or clothes." They didn't want to offend donors, especially as they struggled to build a school and needed supporters. Many well-intentioned people don't learn or listen before telling others what must be done.
I took a photo of myself with the growing stacks of donated books collecting dust. I began sending it to people who asked if they could donate books, hoping they would be ready to listen.
With my own organization, I have even more people telling me what I should be doing differently based on their pet theories. I have been trying to figure out how to take photos highlighting the need for English immersion.
North Korean refugees often seek out our program because we offer free 1:1 tutoring. After TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee quit her paid full-time job to volunteer full-time, she began conducting in-depth interviews with refugees.
It was loud and clear to anyone listening: Refugees coming to us didn't want bilingual instruction, even though English immersion terrified many of them. Some tutor applicants refuse to listen, one person even compared us to Japanese imperialists of the early 20th century. I doubt such people will ever be ready to listen to contradictory information about their ideas.
As I began listening back in 2012, I came across a speech by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen talking about his theory, "Jobs to Be Done."
He says that businesses need to listen to and observe their customers, then identify the "job" that needs to be done. The example that struck me was when he said that when people want a hole in a wall, they don't want to buy a power drill. They want a hole in the wall. That was the "job" to be done.
It turned out that the job I could help with wasn't shooting information into North Korea, although that is valuable. The job that refugees I was meeting wanted done was to learn English so they could find their own way in this world.
Casey Lartigue, Jr., co-founder along with Eunkoo Lee of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center (TNKR), is the 2017 winner of the "Social Contribution" Prize from the Hansarang Rural Cultural Foundation and the 2017 winner of the Global Award from Challenge Korea.