11/4/14

A Meaningful Experience (The Korea Times, Nov 5, 2014) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.



Dearest Casey,
 
Congratulations! Your colleague Yeonmi Park has been named in the BBC's Top 100 Women in the World 2014. This has meant she has given speeches around the world and been featured in major media such as the New York Times and Huffington Post. This all occurred in the last two weeks of October. Who would have believed she would become so well known internationally?
 
Actually, you did. You have known it since Feb. 14, 2014, when you spoke together at an international school located outside of Seoul. On the subway coming back from the discussion, you told Yeonmi, one of the 124 North Korean refugees in your Teach North Korean Refugees Project (TNKR), that she had the potential to become a leading advocate for liberty. She didn't believe you, but you offered to help make it happen: "If you don't become a star for liberty, raising awareness and attracting others to get involved, then that will mean I have failed. I feel like a college basketball coach who suddenly realizes Michael Jordan is on his team," you said.
 
Within two weeks of Yeonmi's debut speech in English, you recruited her to join you as an ambassador of TNKR, a media fellow at Freedom Factory Co. Ltd., and also a co-host of a TV podcast you were planning. That first week, a documentary team came to town and you recommended four refugees as interviewees. They rejected one ― Yeonmi. You pushed them: "Just meet her." They did, and she turned out to be their favorite.

You messaged every TEDx event host in South Korea, but only one responded ― with a polite rejection. You pushed: "Just meet her." They relented, and within 10 minutes of talking with her, the production team was gushing. Six weeks later, the TEDx@hangang audience was astounded.

It happened with other events too ― you pushed for opportunities for her despite hesitation or rejection; then she became a featured speaker. In your first TV podcast together last March, you playfully ignored her in the introduction. She interrupted to ask, "Am I invisible?" Yes, but not for long. A stream of successes came: an SBS (Australian) TV showfeature, a widely republished Washington Post article you co-authored, a slew of documentaries and interviews, the LiNK summit, the Hacking North Korea Summit, the Atlas Network Experience in Hong Kong, the Shanghai Austrian Economics Summit, then her incredible month of October that led to international recognition and awards.

Casey, we know this is not your first rodeo. In 2012, you were co-chair of the committee to get Hyeonseo Lee onto TED (congrats, she was spectacular). You were also a close adviser to North Korean refugees (Yeonmi and Hyeonseo) who spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway on Oct. 21. Two other North Korean refugees (Yeonmi and Jihyun Park) later spoke before the UK Parliament on Oct. 29 as students in the TNKR project you co-founded with Lee Eun-koo.

Friends and foes ask how you did it. Your strategy was simple: 1) Work with anyone and everyone to increase Yeonmi's opportunities, instead of restricting her simply to the Freedom Factory. You would remind her, "Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous." 2) Her English had improved from your first meeting in December 2012, but she sharpened it by studying more than 35 hours a week last winter with volunteer private tutors she met through TNKR. 3) Be on call 24/7 to help her.

You warned her from the beginning that talkers and stalkers would target her, questioning her story, motivation, sincerity, associates. She assured you that she could handle it ― their words, no matter how hateful, couldn't compare with the terror of escaping North Korea, the '"hell" she experienced in China, brushes with death while crossing the Gobi desert to freedom, and threats from the North Korean regime.

Yeonmi opened up, crying as she told you at a café about her mother being raped by a Chinese broker their first night in China, about the ways her family suffered. You talked for a long time on May 1 when she was informed by South Korean law enforcement that she had been put on North Korea's target list, and then on Sep. 5 (your birthday) when she was placed at the top of the DPRK's target list. Was it worth the risk? She concluded then that it was, but you re-consider this from time to time because of the threats and attacks.

When you first started collaborating with Yeonmi, you told her that you had three "rules" for projects: 1) Be proud of what we do. 2) Let's not get sued. 3) Let's have fun.

The world is now seeing what you saw on Feb. 14. Proud? Yep. Sued? Not yet! Had fun? Oh, yeah.

* * *

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.
original Korea Times link

2012-12-07: first meeting. She could barely speak Eng
2012-12-07: first meeting. She could barely speak English, she barely spoke
IMG_6408
2012-12-07: first meeting with Yeonmi. Hyeonseo (on Yeonmi's right) and Yeonmi were featured speakers at last month's Oslo Freedom Forum.

2013-06-19: as Yeonmi was preparing to go overseas, she joined the English Matching program (now, TNKR) for about a month.
2013 (May or June): as Yeonmi was preparing to go overseas, she joined the English Matching program (now, TNKR) for about a month.

2014-01-18 Yeonmi rejoins Teach North Korean Refugees, collects several teachers, studies like a maniac. Here she is with 3 Harvard graduates who were her teachers and mentors.
2014-01-18 Yeonmi rejoins Teach North Korean Refugees, collects several teachers, studies like a maniac. Here she is with 3 Harvard graduates who were her teachers and mentors.

2/14/14--Yeonmi takes a deep breath, then begins her debut speech in English.
2/14/14--Yeonmi takes a deep breath, then begins her debut speech in English.


Yeonmi was a replacement speaker at "Don't Ask My Name," hosted by Casey Lartigue of Freedom Factory a month after he heard Yeonmi's debut speech in English.
3-15-14: Yeonmi was a replacement speaker at "Don't Ask My Name," hosted by Casey Lartigue of Freedom Factory a month after he heard Yeonmi's debut speech in English.
3-17-14: "Am I invisible?" Yeonmi was then, but the whole world sees her now.
3-17-14: "Am I invisible?" Her first words on the podcast we launched then. Yeonmi was invisible then, but the whole world sees her now.

2014-04-26 When Yeonmi wasn't yawning in her university classes, she was studying intensively with English teachers. At one point, it was more than 35 hours a week.
2014-04-26 When Yeonmi wasn't yawning in her university classes, she was studying intensively with English teachers. At one point, it was more than 35 hours a week. I joined this class with Lolu Ayo--3 1/2 hours of non-stop English engaging English studying.

2013-06-04 the TedX team initially rejected her, but you suggested that they meet Yeonmi. Within 10 minutes, they were gushing about her.
2013-06-04 the TedX team initially rejected her, but you suggested that they meet Yeonmi. Within 10 minutes, they were gushing about her.

2013-07-19: Sharing the stage at the Shanghai Austrian Economics Summit. They also took some time to embrace her, then she became the star of the conference.
2014-07-19: Sharing the stage at the Shanghai Austrian Economics Summit. They also took some time to embrace her, then she became the star of the conference.

2013-07-26: Before Tedx speech, she was really nervous. You bought her a pair of boxing gloves for "fighting," she began punching, said she relaxed.^^
2013-07-26: Before Tedx speech, she was really nervous. You bought her a pair of boxing gloves for "fighting," she began punching, said she relaxed.^^

2013-09-06 at the Atlas Network Experience. The night before, she had been informed by law enforcement in South Korea that she had been placed at the top of NK's target list.
2013-09-06 at the Atlas Network Experience. The night before, she had been informed by law enforcement in South Korea that she had been placed at the top of NK's target list.