Reciprocal relationships with North Korean refugees

North Korean refugee Kim Myeong-hee during a TV interview at the Freedom Speakers International in Seoul’s Mapo District,  May 3. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

I will start by issuing a warning that there could be numerous heart attacks at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club as a result of this blog post.On Friday, May 3, North Korean refugee Kim Myeong-hee visited the Freedom Speakers International office in Seoul’s Mapo District for an interview with a South Korean TV crew. The crew interviewed Myeong-hee, FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo and me.After the interviews, I returned to my desk and found a notification revealing that Myeong-hee had donated 1.3 million won ($1,000) to Freedom Speakers International (FSI).Myeong-hee was the Grand Prize winner of the FSI’s 19th “I am from North Korea” speech contest, held on April 13 at Harvard University. She said that after winning the contest she talked it over with her husband and they decided to donate her prize money to Freedom Speakers International. Her husband stressed how precious of an opportunity it was for her to speak at Harvard University and together they agreed the donation was a good way to show their appreciation to FSI.Are there any ambulances being dispatched to the Seoul Foreign Correspondent’s Clubs or their various watering holes around town? Myeong-hee’s generous donation may shock some researchers, reporters and others who lambaste North Korean refugees for allegedly trying to “monetize” their “trauma stories” or for rejecting interview requests unless they get paid. What do they have to say about a North Korean refugee gleefully donating her prize money and many other North Korean refugees I recently blogged about who fundraise, donate, and support Freedom Speakers International in other ways?

This is not a one-off relationship. I first met Myeong-hee in 2012 shortly before Lee Eun-Koo and I started what has become Freedom Speakers International. In 2017, she officially joined FSI to study English. In 2021, she joined the FSI North Korean Refugee Keynote Speakers Network. Every one of her tutors and mentors have enjoyed teaching her. Some don’t want to let her go to other volunteers, but an important part of our learner-centered approach is that North Korean refugees meet a variety of volunteers so they can encounter new approaches and perspectives.Myeong-hee suffered greatly in North Korea and China and her initial adjustment to South Korea was also difficult. She expresses gratitude for even small things in life and especially appreciates those who were with her as she successfully settled down here.Every meeting with Myeong-hee is inspiring. It is the kind of relationship that drive-by researchers or reporters may not be able to understand. We respect North Korean refugees as individuals reaching their personal goals, not as one-off or occasional interview subjects.Initially when North Korean refugees joined us a few years ago it was a one-way street with them receiving services. Our first North Korean refugee ambassadors, Yeonmi Park and Cherie Yang, changed that when they also volunteered for our academic team. As our organization has grown and sought to become more stable, North Korean refugees have grown along with us. It is becoming more of a reciprocal relationship in which we are partners with them.Two days after that TV interview and generous donation by Myeong-hee, she gave a speech to Americans visiting South Korea. This year we have about 90 speaking opportunities for North Korean refugees giving speech then engaging with 스포츠토토존 travelers to South Korea.

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