|Eunhee Park speaks at TEDx in December 2018. Courtesy of Casey Lartigue Jr.|
By Casey Lartigue Jr.
In April 2015, Eunhee Park joined Teach North Korean Refugees as a novice at English. At that time, she was embarrassed to use her name and hated to admit that she was from North Korea. She even refused to be in the group photo that we take after Matching sessions where refugees choose tutors (refugees have the option to hide their faces, but even that wasn't enough for her at that time).
In December 2018, Eunhee Park gave a TEDx Talk at TEDxDongdaemunWomen before a packed audience.
When Eunhee began studying English in 2015, she was focused on learning the basics of English, eagerly studying one-to-one with volunteer tutors at TNKR.
She sometimes came to visit us to discuss her life. She said that she wanted to challenge herself, by doing things such as living or studying abroad, learning new things and even giving a public speech.
She had escaped to South Korea in 2012, excited about living in freedom at last. She met the reality of adjusting to life in South Korea: She was fired from her first job within a month, because her English skills were so limited. She later got a job handling accounting tasks for a small company. As she said, her life consisted of going from home to office, and vice-versa.
When she began studying with our tutors, she says they showed her "a beautiful new world," and she wanted to thank them for helping her so much. We happened to have a speech opportunity coming up with the American Women's Club on February 2, 2016. She said that she wanted to give it a try, the process of challenging herself. At that point, she still requested anonymity.
She continued studying with tutors in addition to working full-time. Less than 18 months later, she had started to open up. She told us that she didn't feel embarrassed about being from North Korea. At last, she said, something had happened because of her being from North Korea.
She had started monitoring our activities. One activity we run is a speech contest twice a year (co-sponsored by The Korea Times). When one of the contestants signed up for our sixth English speech contest dropped out, Eunhee joined.
She didn't win, but it was quite an accomplishment to make a public speech before a large audience. I wrote a column after that contest, discussing her metamorphosis from anonymous to public speaker. After she reviewed my draft, she reminded me: "My name is Eunhee Park" and she requested that I add it.
It was an incredible moment. The invisible woman without a name or country was proud to announce who she was and where she was from. As she said in one of her speeches, "Before I found TNKR, my name was Eun-bin Park, and my face was always hidden in photos. I sometimes hated the fact that I was a North Korean, and it was often an obstacle to adapting to the South Korean society. If someone asks me what is the moment that I will cherish the most as long as I live, I would say it is the time I found TNKR and saw the beauty of this world."
Last February, I arranged for Eunhee to give her first international speech, at the Asia Liberty Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia. Teach North Korean Refugees had been named a finalist for the 2018 Asia Liberty Award.
We celebrated that achievement together, but Eunhee's speech felt bigger than that; my co-director Eunkoo Lee and I knew how far she had come in a short time. She inspired the audience with her speech "The Joy of Freedom" and amused them by saying that, at last, she had the freedom to call Kim Jong-un "a big, fat pig."
Six months after that, she placed second in our increasingly competitive English speech contest. Unlike some speakers who get stuck on one speech, Eunhee continued evolving, trying new ideas as she reflected on her life and about North Korea. Her speech was "The Unseen Part of North Korea."
An important aspect of developing a public speaking program for North Korean refugees is creating opportunities for them to develop their own voices. It isn't a snapshot that others see as being frozen.
A speech delivered by a North Korean refugee who has just arrived will be different from a speech delivered by a North Korean refugee who has been in South Korea for six years. It is the human difference, for example, as your understanding at reading a book at age 16 compared to age 46. You're the same person, but also a different human being.
North Korea watchers will analyze each speech by a refugee as a snapshot, probing and analyzing each word from their ivory towers or favorite coffee shops, and wondering why a refugee didn't mention something a few years before.
On the other hand, we see it as a process providing conditions for refugees to develop speeches in their own ways. Some of them are ready to discuss some things initially, but some others take time. As I have written, some start as "refugees," but become "defectors" as they begin to critically analyze within the global context of what had happened to them.
As a refugee told me recently, she had accepted North Korea as being a normal country, but after escaping and learning about the world, she realized what an oddball country it is.
We had established our public speaking program to answer requests from organizations and media seeking comment and speeches from refugees. I didn't want to develop one that looked like many others: Poorly organized events with a speaker who wasn't prepared.
I had been to events where it was clear that someone knew a refugee, then someone had the great idea of inviting the refugee to give a speech. Occasionally someone might have the refugee practice or, in some cases, write those speeches for them. In some cases, I doubted if the refugees really grasped the words and concepts that had been planted in their speeches by well-meaning people.
I have over the years heard from several refugees that they regret some of the speeches they gave before studying with us. They hadn't been prepared, just got on stage or in the corner of a coffee shop and gave a speech. They could see how unprepared they had been, that their speeches had not been good and that they hadn't given thought to the issues they discussed.
We connect refugees with volunteers who help them get prepared. We run the volunteers through an orientation and demand that they keep us involved so they won't write the speeches for the refugees.
Great outcomes are that refugees gain confidence in their English ability, have ample opportunities to practice and they are prepared. They report having great experiences speaking before audiences and often get invited for speeches after studying with us.
Last month, I was the MC and Eunhee was one of the speakers at a TEDx event in Seoul. It was my great pleasure to introduce her, a student in my organization who less than four years before, she says "I could only smile when you talked, because I couldn't say or understand anything." I was really proud of her as I handed her the microphone, confident that she would be fantastic. Her many hours of preparation had been worth it.
It was so delightful. I could see how far Eunhee had come. She had drafted the speech, analyzed points she wanted to make, then worked with our senior mentor who challenged her to memorize her speech.
And when I challenged some parts of her speech that I didn't agree with, she stood her ground. We let refugees know: They are the presidents or bosses of their individual speeches and the rest of us are advisers. Eunhee, a woman who discusses the joy of freedom and being the captain of her own ship, has embraced our philosophy and asserts authority over every aspect of her speech.
After our mentoring sessions giving her numerous opportunities to practice her speech, Eunhee was ready.
On stage at the TEDxDongdaemun, I watched her deliver an incredible speech. With no notes, she spoke about "The Lives of North Korean Women." It was a moving speech, as she weaved her personal story along with analysis about North Korea.
Our process in getting refugees ready for the public stage is: Have the refugee write the speech in Korean, one of our volunteers will translate it; we edit for clarity when necessary, keep a paper trail and track changes to make sure the speeches reflect what refugees are attempting to say. It is important to keep the voices of refugees authentic. Our process is more important than the particular outcome or content. Some of the refugees give speeches with content that I disagree with; my joy comes at seeing them express themselves.
As I tell our speech coach mentors: A mediocre speech that is authentically what the refugee is trying to express is more important than a fantastic speech written by a coach who is a North Korea watcher injecting his or her own ideas into speeches.
That's not a problem with a speaker like Eunhee. She knew what she wanted to say and had developed her own ideas and structure.
Numerous TNKR volunteers joined the big day last month, to cheer on a model student who is inspiring others with her determination and courage. Our volunteers have for the most part embraced our approach of respecting the autonomy, privacy and authenticity of speakers and their speeches. They don't unnecessarily probe refugees to ask about the latest breaking headlines about Kim Jong-un or drill down into details unrelated to speeches by refugees.
The point of having volunteers help directly with students is to build a team of support around each refugee as they start or continue their journey of studying English or engaging in public speaking.
Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder 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.