5/7/14

How can I help North Koreans? (The Korea Times, May 7, 2014) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.






By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

During my 
mini-speaking tour last month in the U.S., giving speeches in Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York City, I enforced the same rule that I use in South Korea whenever I discuss North Korea: Only one question about reunification will be allowed during Q&A.

The reason for the rule: I have seen many discussion sessions destroyed with most of Q&A focusing on an issue that no one in the audience can do anything about. Reunification is the ultimate talking topic with no direct consequences for being wrong; kind of like debating about your favorite sports team. The reality is that 99 percent of us have no influence on reunification and will never receive invitations to the six-party talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons.

I try to get audience members to focus on doing something practical. Many people get stumped by that challenge, and continue to ask other intellectual questions that are all talk, no action.

I try to be polite to such questioners, but I do want them to recognize that there is a difference between talk and action, and that their questions and observations should not be mistaken for action. Some will ask, "Okay, then how can we help North Koreans?" But that depends on who you are and what you can do, so I advise people to ask how can "I," not "we," help.

The first step to prepare yourself to help is to avoid being distracted, whether real or imagined, by titillating stories about North Korea or fat jokes about the dictator. I suggest two questions to guide people: 1) How does this article inform me in a constructive way about North Korea? 2) How does this story lead to action increasing freedom for North Koreans? With that test, it is clear that most stories are just chit-chat that won't make a difference.

But how to make a difference? Few engage North Korea directly because of its blockades against information, migration and trade. Most work is done at the edges, such as sending USB drives and other information into North Korea, shortwave radio broadcasts into the country and rescuing North Koreans refugees from China.

There is not one right way to help, as was demonstrated by a fascinating article by NK News asking North Korean refugees how the international community can help. The refugees disagreed among themselves, recommending things from, as the sub-headline suggests, a "mixture of isolation, engagement, and carrot and stick strategies." So what can individuals do to help, if even North Korean refugees can't agree?

In my case, I have concluded that my most valuable role is to help North Korean refugees who have already escaped. It is less glorious than attending important international meetings, trips directly into North Korea or holding endless discussions about reunification, I know. As I like to tell people who ask why I am not rescuing people or helping the United Nations do whatever it does, I consider myself to be part of the welcoming party for North Korean refugees who make it to South Korea.

I'm especially proud of the program I co-founded that matches North Korean refugees with volunteer English teachers. I am also proud of my work with North Korean refugee children and adolescents at the Mulmangcho School. I look forward to every time Yeon Mi Park, a North Korean refugee who speaks great English, co-hosts with me the "Casey and Yeonmi Show" TV podcast that we recently launched.

Others may not be interested in what I am doing, and that's fine. There are many NGOs in South Korea that are helping North Korean refugees. People who want to help can do so by a) volunteering consistently, b) donating money, or c) organizing a fundraiser. Or, they can start their own projects, such as internships and scholarships for North Korean refugee students and professionals.

Those things can help groom future leaders in North Korea, help them develop practical skills and help North Korean refugees with their adjustment to the outside world. This can have the side effect of helping them have positive messages about their experiences abroad and to have money to send back to relatives who are trying to escape ― testimonials and help that will be more powerful than even USB drives, shortwave radio broadcasts and others forms of information seeping into North Korea.

Even after I said these kinds of things in the U.S., I was disappointed at a few sessions where the first questions were about landmines, reunification or some titillating story the questioner had heard about North Korea. I am still trying to be respectful about such questions, but I am thinking about a new rule for Q&A sessions: No questions about landmines, reunification or six-party talks until after the Q&A session has ended.