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Casey Lartigue Jr.

Interview with Casey Lartigue Jr.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is a trusted authority and avid writer on international affairs and education. Lartigue is co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), as well as a columnist with the Korea Times in Seoul. In this interview, you can read about his career, which has been dedicated to protecting the freedom of others, especially North Korean refugees.

What got you interested in helping North Korean Refugees?
My professional career has been focused on freedom, opportunity and individual choice. I’ve been involved in a variety of causes, but meeting North Korean refugees put me face-to-face with people who had to risk their lives to escape to freedom. Suddenly, getting up to give a “brave” speech didn’t feel so fearless. That put things into perspective for me, I suddenly felt like I had been a freedom advocate who had been giving toasts for liberty, but not doing anything practical to make a difference in the lives of people. The moment I decided to commit myself to getting involved came on March 1, 2012. About 30 North Korean refugees had been caught in China, they were going to be sent back to North Korea where they were at risk of being tortured or executed. I organized some expats to participate in protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul. The turning point came when I saw a South Korean politician named Park Sun-young holding a hunger strike. Looking at her, I realized that I could do more. That was the moment I devoted myself to helping North Korean refugees. Ever since then it has been like the mafia–it is easier to get in than it is to get out.


What is the biggest obstacle that North Korean refugees face after escaping to South Korea?
There are several obstacles. For some, it is just finding a job. Unemployment rates are about 35%, about 80% of NK refugees reportedly work in one of the 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, difficult). For some others, English is a surprising barrier. Of North Korean refugees who drop out of college, 32% cite English as the main factor. That’s even higher than the 28% who drop out because of financial difficulties.


How are your keynote presentations unique?
What I hear from audience members is that they learn something practical based on my professional experience and ideas, and that they get inspired to get involved rather than to remain as analysts or by-standers. So many people go to speeches or watch them online to be amused or to learn something. Talk can be great, but it is important to also do something, even if it is just one thing, to put action behind words. Many speakers and analysts are fine with giving a nice speech then moving on to the next audience, but it is great for me when audience members later follow up because they want to get involved in a practical way.


Do you have a favourite experience from your career?
There are three that stand out. First is when a North Korean refugee did a radio broadcast into North Korea that named me as a “Pretty Flower Man” who is helping North Korean refugees adjust to living in South Korea. It was an honor to have a North Korean refugee highlight me like that, publicly and in a broadcast meant to be sent to North Korea. Hearing the wonderful things she said about me was one of those rare cases that someone who benefits from your work takes the time to thank you unconditionally and in a moving way. Second is when one of the refugees told her sister who is still in North Korea: “Come to South Korea. Don’t believe what they say about Americans. There’s a nice American here who can help you study English. You can get as many American teachers as you want.”. I have heard a few refugees say this. It is incredible to think that North Koreans enslaved by the regime are being told that they should escape because of the work I am doing. Third is when I was awarded the “Social Contribution” award by the Hansarang Rural Cultural Foundation in South Korea. I had been delighted to be nominated, then so honored when I won. There are many people doing great work. I had no connection to the organization, so it was surprising because many organizations give out awards to people they already know.


Who or what inspires you most?
Freedom. Life is short, people need to be in charge of their own lives. It started when I was about 12 years old; I read all three of the autobiographies by slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass. His personal story and arguments in favor of individual freedom, locomotion, and “owning oneself” moved me from a young age.

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