Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Relationships more valuable than prize money

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By Casey Lartigue Jr.

It might sound like an overly dramatic plot twist in a low-budget spy thriller, but it’s true: some Westerners in South Korea went undercover trying to destroy the volunteer project I co-founded in 2013.

One of them admitted to me that he and others were looking for “dirt” on me after they heard I was allegedly brainwashing and abusing North Korean refugees. After he realized North Korean refugees had autonomy and could study English or public speaking with a truly learner-centered approach, he apologized to me and became an advocate and donor.

Another case involved a former volunteer who co-published a research paper suggesting that North Korean refugees participate in our project, speech contests and public speaking in general to “monetize” their “trauma stories” to overcome their “financial instability.”

There are speech and essay writing contests around the world with cash prizes, scholarships, awards and gifts that are much more grandiose than our humble prizes, but some researchers see something sinister and worthy of academic navel-gazing when it involves North Korean refugees.

To such people, I am doing a touchdown dance and spiking the microphone in their faces. What a delight it was on April 13th when that former volunteer project that is now Freedom Speakers International (FSI) held the “I am from North Korea” English speech contest at Harvard University, my alma mater. Despite our announcement that the event would last more than three hours on what turned out to be a beautiful Saturday afternoon, more than 150 people registered for and about 120 people attended our 19th speech contest.

Kim Myeong-hee was the grand prize winner of the contest. I initially met Myeong-hee in 2012; she joined our organization as an English language student in 2017 and became a public speaker with us in 2021. She visited our office this past Wednesday and pledged to donate her prize money (approximately $1,100).

After going through difficult times in North Korea, China, and her early years in South Korea, she is now happily married, a mother, pursuing her PhD in social welfare, and involved in many activities. Myeong-hee has worked with more prominent organizations than ours and interned at a notable media outlet. If she is chasing prize money then she is going about it the wrong way by donating it.

She’s not an exception. North Korean refugee Yumi Lee is an independent business woman with over 500,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. After judges awarded her first place in our contest at Harvard University, she pledged to donate her speech contest prize (approximately $800) to FSI.

North Korean refugees turning down money and making donations is not unusual for us, although it may be breaking news for researchers trying to prove their narratives about North Korean refugees allegedly being brainwashed or pressured to monetize their stories.

Chaeeun, the winner of our 10th contest in 2019, donated her prize money of almost $1,000 to our organization. Her explanation: “I could not have stood on stage without FSI.” She is a mom raising her two children, engaged in her various business activities, and was then a graduate student. Like many North Korean refugees who join our speech contest, she saw it as a chance to improve her English and to challenge herself to give a public speech in English. As promised, she has retired from public speaking although she is a great thoughtful speaker. Her goodbye gift before her family moved abroad was to give a glowing recommendation about us to a South Korean foundation that has become a contest sponsor.

Lee Jeong-Cheol, winner of our 14th contest in 2022 and a former staffer in our office, donated half of his prize money (at that time, the prize temporarily ballooned to about $2,000, thanks to an additional donor). He told us that he is not a rich man, but after working in our office and experiencing our dedication first-hand, he wanted to do something to show his thanks. He is now studying abroad as a Fulbright Scholar.

Cherie Yang is a “North-Korean American” who was the winner of our fifth contest in 2017 and later gave a TEDx Talk in London based on her award-winning speech. After adjusting to living in the USA, Cherie learned about me and thought FSI was the chance for her to keep a promise to herself. She became a student, speaker, volunteer, and the first North Korean refugee to serve on our board of directors.

She said that studying and being a speaker with us helped her find her identity and boosted her self-confidence. She became a regular donor and often sets up fundraisers for our organization. She has remained a trusted advisor even after moving back to the USA. She is a businesswoman who engages in public speaking because she promised herself when she went through hell escaping from North Korea that she would speak out about what happens to North Koreans.

Park Eun-hee, winner of our ninth contest in February 2019 who gave a TEDx Talk based on her speech, donated part of her prize money, donated on other occasions, worked part-time in our office during school breaks, and set up numerous fundraisers to support our activities. She has often said we changed her life and gave her the courage to use her real name.

North Korean refugee TV personality Jung Yu-na, winner of our 11th contest in September 2020, is one of the North Korean refugees in our organization who was a consultant to the TV show Crash Landing on You. I don’t keep track but I heard from FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo that Yu-na often rejects payment for speeches. She considers her work with us as a form of volunteering and helping us get stronger so we can empower more North Korean refugees.

When we relocated to a slightly larger office in early 2020, one of the first things we did was to invite North Korean refugee Ju Chan-yang to use our office to launch her handmade jewelry business. She insisted on giving us part of her profits. We refused, and she continued looking for a way to send money to us. When I suggested that she instead set up a fundraiser for us, she agreed, then sent her personal donation to us that she had tried to donate in other ways. Not only has she participated in our speech contest, but she humorously roasted me during our sixth contest when she was a featured speaker during intermission.

For a few years now, I have been in a birthday gift battle with North Korean refugee Sharon Jang, author of the recently released FSI book “Girl with Black Makeup.” She first joined us as a student and speaker in 2015, worked in our office as an accountant (we keep our operations transparent and have had two North Korean refugees work as accountants with full access to our financial information). She started our friendly battle when she sent me almost $200 to celebrate my birthday (Sept. 5th). When it was her birthday a few months later, I sent her $200. The next time it was my birthday she sent me $200. Earlier this year, I sent her $200 the day after her birthday. Our bankers might be wondering what is wrong with that mysterious $200 hot potato.

North Korean refugee Eom Young-nam, co-author of the forthcoming FSI book “The Strongest Soldier of North Korea,” donated about $700 for the purchase of a new computer when he realized our graphic designer was using an older computer. He has made donations on other occasions, has been a long-term monthly donor, has volunteered in our office, was the second North Korean refugee on our board of directors, and promises when his construction business takes off that he will become a big donor to FSI.

After we finished the main part of our speech contest at Harvard, North Korean refugee author Yeonmi Park held a Q&A session with attendees. A decade ago, before she became well-known, she accepted my invitation to join a podcast I was starting (I was then the big name and she was my sidekick, which riled up conspiracy theorists back then). She refused payment for speaking at our contest. Additionally, she has set up fundraisers for us and donated to us.

As we planned for the contest, several of the North Korean refugee contestants asked if they should help cover costs. We said “no.” It was our role to raise money to cover flights, accommodations and some meals, and their role was to prepare for being on stage at Harvard University.

Other North Korean refugees who have participated in our activities became regular donors, including North Korean refugee Han Song-mi, winner of the 16th contest in August 2022, a former part-time special assistant in our office, and co-author with me of her memoir. She says that I was the turning point in her life.

Oriental medical doctor Han Bong-hee published her father’s story with FSI. She wrote in the book’s final sentence, “I have finally fulfilled my father’s request” by publishing his story in English. Dr. Han thanked us and has donated all book royalties to FSI.

Have I made my point clear enough that even researchers, critics and trolls can understand? The fable of the six blind men and the elephant is true of so many people who comment on what they feel without knowing or understanding the fuller context. I am not criticizing researchers when I point out that they have research angles and try to fit examples to prove their narratives, that is the nature of being a researcher.

Their mistake was naming our organization in their paper and me in a footnote to make their case. As observers, they don’t see the overall relationship we have with North Korean refugees who decline prize money, donate, fundraise for our organization, work in our office at lower salaries, and attempt to support us in other ways.

Some North Korean refugees even advise us to charge tuition or enrollment fees to North Korean refugees. I agree with them, but my South Korean co-founder, Lee Eun-koo, does not, so FSI is tuition-free again for North Korean refugees.

The researchers noted that North Korean refugees may engage in public speaking because of services they receive. North Korean refugees who have not participated in our organization or did not join any public speaking activities have donated money to our organization and encouraged us in other ways. A North Korean refugee who lives in Los Angeles suddenly began donating about $500 a year.

A North Korean refugee who has now become a nurse did give one speech with us, then concluded public speaking was not for her. She sent us regular donations to encourage us. A North Korean refugee who had attempted suicide and was inspired by us decided public speaking was not for her, but became a financial donor to support our activities with other North Korean refugees. We have built up great relations with North Korean refugees that transcend prize money at a speech contest and drive-by observations of researchers.

More than 500 North Korean refugees have studied English, public speaking and career development in FSI with more than 1,200 volunteers (including some, yes, who joined with the goal of destroying me). We have meaningful real-life experiences with North Korean refugees, not interviews probing North Korean refugees for a research paper.

Our experience should be a great lesson for people who have critics and liars targeting them. Do your work in a professional and ethical way. Even some of those undercover critics may eventually acknowledge your greatness. Biased and uncouth people may continue criticizing you, some critics still bark at the mention of my name and seem to see my face in their morning soup at the start of another angry day for them. If you do your work well then you can celebrate your successes as I am doing this year.

Casey Lartigue Jr. ( is the co-founder of Freedom Speakers International with Lee Eun-koo and co-author with Han Song-mi of her memoir “Greenlight to Freedom: A North Korean Daughter’s Search for Her Mother and Herself.”

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