The TNKR Global Education Center is a private, nonprofit facility committed to helping North Korean defectors learn
English. One-on-one lessons by native English-speaking volunteers help defectors gain a competitive edge and
equal opportunities in South Korean society with its emphasis on English proficiency.
Statistical data show that the language gap between the two
Koreas has grown by nearly 40 percent since the national
division in the mid-1940s. It has been widened further by a
deluge in South Korea of online slang words and odd abbreviations.
Many foreign words South Koreans use without a thought are very
unfamiliar and bewildering to the defectors. In a 2014 survey by the
Unification Ministry, 40 percent of respondents indicated that the
plethora of unfamiliar foreign words in everyday use was one of the
biggest difficulties defectors who settled in South Korea were experiencing.
For example, a defector living in Seoul went to a laundry
store displaying a sign, “Computer Cleaning” (meaning “computeraided
cleaning”), to have his computer fixed.
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“English competency,” a hefty burden, has been added to the
defectors’ list of difficulties. They want to advance in their studies
and jobs by learning English. But most of them do not dare to even
think of it because just surviving in their new home is a challenge.
The TNKR Global Education Center helps them get over those
hurdles through a highly personalized teaching system that many
South Korean families would willingly pay premium fees for if they
could. TNKR is the abbreviation of “Teach North Korean Refugees”;
it’s a private, nonprofit organization that runs a facility (located at
180-8 Dokmak-ro, Mapo District, Seoul) that teaches North Korean
defectors English for free. It was founded in March 2013 and is
directed jointly by Casey Lartigue, an American, and Lee Eun-koo, a
TNKR has a unique program and system of operating as a language
teaching organization. They do not teach students themselves,
but connect defectors who want to learn English with native
English-speaking volunteers who want to teach English. Unlike private
cram schools that teach students in classrooms under a preset
curriculum, TNKR arranges for students to learn English with
teachers one-on-one. Where, when, how, and what to teach depend
on the students’ wishes. If they want other teaching styles, students
can ask for a change of teachers.
Many students are so enthusiastic that they sign up with several
teachers at once. It is very helpful for students to learn from multiple
teachers because some are good at teaching spoken English,
others at teaching grammar, and still others at giving inspiration to
defectors, Lartigue said.
Students can choose teachers at regular matching sessions
that are aimed at building mutual trust and increasing efficiency
in studying. About 50 such sessions had been held until late 2016. Those on a waiting list come for in-house tutoring sessions at the
TNKR office before they are connected to teachers.
Casey Lartigue (standing) and
Lee Eun-koo (seated to his right),
co-founders and directors of the
TNKR Global Education Center for
teaching English to North Korean
defectors in South Korea, meet with
Some 250 defectors have learned or are currently learning
English at TNKR. About 55 percent of them are undergraduate or
graduate students who want to catch up in school or study abroad.
Some 30 percent are office workers, housewives, and job seekers.
According to Lartigue, those defectors who want to learn English
to find better jobs and adapt to a new life in South Korea more easily
are knocking on the TNKR office’s door. Some 470 volunteers have
taught or are teaching here.
The day I visited the TNKR office, I heard that as many as 80
defectors were on the waiting list for matching sessions. Priority is
given to orphans, formerly trafficked persons, and those under 25
years old. Those who have learned or are learning English at the
center agree that the English education they have undergone here
is very helpful to them in finding jobs and adapting to South Korean
“It seems that students are satisfied with the English education
here because it’s a customer-focused program that gives students
a choice,” said Lee. She keeps a journal of feedback received from
Though still early in its history, the track record of TNKR’s allvolunteer
teaching program can
be expected to be studded with
many inspirational stories of students
as well as teachers. The
name Park Yeon-mi comes up
as Lartigue speaks of their most
unforgettable student. Park did
not speak English well when he first met her in December 2012
before TNKR opened. Park then joined the TNKR program in late
2013. Beginning as a student of a re-matching program in January
2014, she studied hard for nearly 40 hours a week, learning from as
many as 18 teachers, one-on-one for eight months. She had great
enthusiasm for learning English and TNKR gave her a chance,
Once a promotional ambassador for TNKR, Park is now studying
at Columbia University in the United States.
Yang Che-rie, a student in her 30s, said, “Thank God, I now have
the courage to express myself in English during classes at school.
I’m really grateful to the TNKR for helping us defectors adapt to
South Korean society by undergoing substantive English education
in a new environment and having a chance to build a human network.”
Some 250 defectors have learned or are
currently learning English at the TNKR Global
Education Center. About 55 percent of them are
undergraduate or graduate students who want to
catch up in school or study abroad. And 30 percent
are office workers, housewives, and job seekers.
Eom Yeong-nam, an editor and publisher in his 30s who learned
English from teachers from Australia, Canada, the United States,
and New Zealand, said, “I think I now have a useful tool: English
proficiency. I hope more defectors will gain self-confidence at
Volunteers come from several countries and are working in various
kinds of jobs. Americans top the list, followed by those from
other English-speaking countries like Britain, Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand. Their jobs in Korea range from university professor,
schoolteacher, and cram school lecturer to graduate student
and freelance writer. As TNKR volunteers they commit to perform
the following duties as a minimum: they should teach for at least
three months, more than twice a month, and more than 90 minutes
Students learn English in one-on-one sessions with native English-speaking volunteer
teachers under the TNKR (Teach North Korean Refugees) program, a teaching approach
that would be the envy of most families keen on English education of their children.
Volunteers have various reasons why they are taking part in the
TNKR program. The teachers fall into roughly three categories:
those who want to understand North Korea and North Koreans;
those who want to add their experience of teaching defectors to
their résumé of volunteer work; and those who simply enjoy teaching.
Others are teaching English here to experience something new
and still others want to teach adults for a change, as a break from
teaching English to children.
Matthew McGawin, an American teacher in his 20s, proudly said
that most students spoke accurately after their pronunciation and
grammar were corrected. He pledged to teach better whenever he
saw his students’ English improve.
Ryan Gardener is a British teacher who has taught English to six
defectors. He notes that the strongest point of the TNKR program
is its system that allows defectors to choose native English speakers
from various countries to learn many things as well as the language.
Furthermore, he said one of the important things is to let
students learn English in different settings each time.
The TNKR program consists of two parts to help students
improve their English. Track 1, the first step, helps students
become familiar with the English language through actual use
while learning basic English skills, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation,
and finding ways to study by themselves. In the process
of communicating with native speakers, students will naturally
learn how to overcome their fear of speaking English with foreigners.
Currently, most students have reached this stage.
Track 2 is the step at which students cultivate their ability to
express themselves formally in English, including public speaking.
It is a special program designed to improve their ability to do busi
ness or give public speeches in English. At this stage, they learn
how to write and give a speech or a presentation. English speech
contests are also held regularly to help defectors overcome both
stage fright and the fear of speaking in English in front of other people.
The center tries to hold such contests twice a year, in February
and August, if possible.
Other languages are also taught at the center. For example, it
teaches Latin, which is often used in legal terms, to those students
who want to become lawyers.
After earning an MA in pedagogy from Harvard University, Lartigue
taught English at Yonsei and Hanyang universities in the
1990s. When he revisited Korea in 2010, he learned about the dire
reality in North Korea and began taking a deep interest in North
Korean defectors. He was greatly shocked by the news about China’s
repatriation of about 30 defectors to North Korea in March
2012. He helped recruit volunteers to join protests in front of the
Chinese Embassy in Seoul. There, he met the legislator Park Sunyoung
of the minor opposition Liberty Forward Party who had
staged a hunger strike in front of the Chinese Embassy. He told her
he wanted to get involved in helping North Korean refugees.
At the time, Rep. Park brought up the idea of establishing
Mulmangcho (Forget-Me-Not) School, an alternative school
for young defectors. Lartigue joined her program as a volunteer
board member for international cooperation to help
recruit English-speaking volunteer teachers for the school.
It was at Mulmangcho School that Casey Lartigue and Lee
Eun-koo found each other in search of a practical way to help
North Korean defectors. They readily agreed to work together
towards their shared goal by using Lartigue’s network of
English teachers and Lee’s network of defectors. The idea
that took shape was to lay a stepping stone path for defectors
by helping them acquire English language skills, an essential
asset in South Korea’s job market as well as in society as a
whole. For Lartigue, it was the natural thing to do: Each and
every defector he had met asked him to teach them English
and he knew that it would be difficult for them to find jobs in
Korea unless they had a certain level of English proficiency.
Lee obtained an MA in North Korean studies from the University
of North Korean Studies and another MA in international
relations from the University of Sheffield in England.
She had worked as a researcher for about 10 years at the
Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and at the
Education Support Center for Young North Korean Defectors
of the Korean Educational Development Institute, a government-
funded education think tank. Concurrently working for
Volunteering Korea, a civic group, she is a co-director of the
The program started only with a handful of students and
volunteers, without even an office or a website. It is now
widely known among defectors. These days, students who
want to learn English can have lively communications with
aspirant volunteer teachers via Facebook (https://www.
facebook.com/TeachNorthKoreanRefugees), Twitter (@
TeachNKRefugees), or through the TNKR website (www.
The biggest difficulty is the effort’s limited finances. Over
the past four years, TNKR has had to move to various places
around Seoul, including Itaewon, because it was financially
strapped. It has now rented a shabby house in a back alley
which fits within the budget. This is, in fact, its first independent
office since the TNKR program started.
Office expenses are borne by donations alone. Many
teachers buy books for their students on their own or give
donations. Impressed by such dedicated outpouring of free
volunteer services, some students, too, donate what little
money they have. Lartigue and Lee are also contributing
their own money. Their eyes sparkling, they both said that
they can never give up, no matter how hard their job may
be, because they know how eager the defectors are to keep