In defense of NGOs (The Korea Times, September 24, 2014)

Back when I was in America, I was occasionally accused of being a sellout or "enemy of black people" because of some of the organizations I worked with (the funding sources of those critics or their favorite causes were always considered to be squeaky clean). I was recently attacked online by some folks using similar "follow the money" and "guilt by association" arguments. So I wrote the following column about it, in tomorrow's Korea Times..
In defense of NGOs (The Korea Times, September 24, 2014)
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

There's an old joke about two Jewish friends, one of whom subscribes to a Nazi newspaper.
"How can you read that trash?" one friend asks the other.
"This is better than reading the Jewish newspapers," the friend with the subscription responds. "All they ever talk about is problems. According to my Nazi paper, we Jews control the banks, the media and Hollywood too. I love it!"
Most NGOs that help North Korean refugees can identify with that joke. They are small, poorly funded, understaffed, crammed into tiny offices and dependent on volunteers. Critics, however, see them as having unlimited access to taxpayer and foundation money.
I started getting such attacks even before I got into the NGO world. In the 1990s, when I was a young man working as an English teacher in South Korea, I was accused by a Korea Times columnist of writing commentaries to attract attention from foundations.
My response: Is that possible? I immediately put my articles together in a portfolio.
Whenever I have engaged in activism for free or written for fun, critics like that columnist haven't shown up to help. But the prospect of getting support sets off their "guilt by association" alarms and has them asking me to do some soul-searching. Much like authors, speakers and iPhone developers, I am delighted to have people pay me to say and do what I want.
I forgot to thank that columnist for the inspiration, but thanks in part to that personal attack I eventually landed a position at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Later I joined Fight for Children, a nonprofit that financially supports organizations assisting low-income children.
Attacking funding sources is an old tactic. Nineteenth-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass was attacked because of his associates and supporters, to which he would respond: "I would unite with anyone to do right and with nobody to do wrong."
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., worked with communists, liberals, conservatives, labor representatives, church leaders, rich people who didn't march and poor people who did. In short, he united with anyone to further his cause and apparently didn't care who gave him money. If Rev. King had worked only with people approved by his opponents and purists, then it would have been just him _ and maybe his wife, Coretta _ marching.
Asked by a British reporter if he would accept communist support, Malcolm X responded: "It's like being in a wolf's den. The wolf sees someone on the outside who is interested in freeing me from the den. The wolf doesn't like that person on the outside. But I don't care who opens the door and lets me out."
Like Douglass, King and X, I don't care who wants to fund me. Funders certainly have agendas, but I have my own: to advocate for freedom. I'm as likely to go against personal and economic liberty as the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is to serve the grilled meat of animals that were tortured in front of them.
In 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state of Alabama when it attempted to force the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to reveal the names and addresses of its members and agents in the state. The critics' goal then, as now, was to block their opponents from uniting with people willing to finance them. They want their opponents to fight armed with cardboard weapons.
Instead of being defensive, I challenge such critics to a) guide me to funders who can replace the ones they don't like; and b) personally contribute to my latest social cause. They continue talking and questioning without helping.
I have learned that such critics are always ready with "heads-I-win, tails-you-lose" arguments. On the one hand, South Koreans are accused of not caring about North Korean refugees, but the ones who work at NGOs are accused of profiting off North Koreans. NGOs get accused of chasing government money to engage in propaganda, but also get dismissed as paid lackeys when they get foundation money.
A tiny North Korean NGO struggles to get a $25,000 grant from a huge foundation while Harvard University or an orchestra company waltzes in to collect $5 million, and it is the NGO that allegedly has sold its soul.
My regret is that I have failed to raise more money for local NGOs to help North Korean refugees. Many people prefer cracking North Korean dictator jokes and talking about issues like reunification that they can't do anything about. So it is an achievement when private foundations and individuals open their wallets to help North Korean refugees.
I long for the day that NGOs working to help North Korean refugees no longer have to fight with cardboard weapons.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu


Teach North Korean Refugees--directions to Mulmangcho Human Rights Institute

DIRECTIONS to Mulmangcho Institute=Easy, easy, easy. Almost like they chose the location for the people who get lost within a block from home...

* Bangbae station on line 2, exit 1. Walk to the top of the stairs. 

* Look to your left. There will be a Woori Bank teller machine.

* Standing, looking directly at the teller machine location, walk inside the building to the right of it, under the navy blue sign with the telephone number "587-4145-6..." Walk up to the 3rd floor, room 305.

That's it. After you leave the subway exit, it will take you about 5 seconds to get to the building. I don't have a Naver map for it, but if you are driving, use the Bangbae subway as a landmark. Bangbae station (line 2) exit 1 Woori Bank Bd (우리은행건물) #305호

I know people won't believe me, they have been lied to so many times by people in Korea who said a location was "easy to find." I have learned that "easy to find" in Korea means:

“Sure, just go down the street about 100 meters. Turn left, enter the third unmarked building. Take the elevator to the top floor. After you get on the roof, run to the edge and leap to the next building. Climb down the side of the building. Squeeze through the tiny door marked 'danger,' probably turning your body sideways. Haha, just kidding, doors in Korea are never marked 'danger.'

Go down the alley--quickly, fast fast--that is marked ‘run or die.’ Then, dig a tunnel--I hope you brought a shovel--until you reach a wall with the sign, 'Easy to find Supermarket.' Exit through the manhole. If you run into a barricade, no problem, just don’t stop running, especially if it between 5 to 7 p.m. If you see a sign reading ‘Welcome to North Korea’ then you have gone too far and should dig a hole in the opposite direction. Then, look on your left. And you’ll be there! Easy, you can't miss it! I go there once a week! Tell them I sent you.”


Korea is a "hero-less" society

Why doesn't Korea have landmarks named after its great leaders and heroes/heroines? That's what Lee Chang-sup asks rhetorically before answering...

1) Individualism of Americans and that Koreans see things in terms of nations, dynasties, epochs. (Parenthetically, I think this explains things such as why Koreans are fine with a 513% tariff on imported rice.) 

2) Korean's turbulent modern history. Hallelujah! This is one of the most fightingest civilized countries I am familiar with. It isn't enough for Koreans to win, the other side must lose. And opponents are never to be honored. It doesn't matter about the good things a leader may have done, the downside is to be focused on. Yes, it is the same in other countries, in the same way that terrorists chopping off heads and children stealing candy are both criminals...

3) North Korea's deification of leaders. This one is less persuasive to me. A street named after one of South Korea's dictators will conjure up memories of the Kim dictators in North Korea? Okay, not persuasive to me, but apparently so in Korea, so that Koreans will refuse to want to drive down Dictator Street. 

4) Not enough history--this makes some sense. Leaders from 500 years ago are safely praised--King Sejong the Great was king, which should make him even worse than a dictator. Historical perspective may be needed before Koreans can objectively (or at least, somewhat reasonably) assess their leaders. But I wonder if there will enough time, I recently read that Koreans will become extinct by the year 2750.

5) Bias of historians... Yes, I'm always willing to believe that one...

6) Strict criteria...yes, good point... I have noted this one before, that even one flaw in a political leader (especially when it is an opponent) means the person is flawed and illegitimate, resulting in all Korean leaders as being regarded as criminals.

As another aside: 730 streets named after MLK. As Chris Rock, if you know someone on MLK, just say one word: "Run!" That's because many of those MLK street are in dangerous neighborhoods. Proving that Shakespeare (or whoever wrote it) had it right: "What's in a name?"