By: Kim Hyo-jin

An American expat is running a free tutoring program in Seoul that teaches English to North Korean defectors.

Casey Lartigue Jr., co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), bridges English-speaking volunteers with North Korean refugees. More than 200 defectors have learned English through the program over the past two years.

Park Yeon-mi, a 22-year-old North Korean defector who publicizes human rights violations in North Korea on the international stage, is a graduate of the program.

“I’m like a high school coach,” Lartigue told The Korea Times, Monday. “My star player has gone off to the NBA,”

Park was eager to learn English so she could share with the world her experiences growing up in the reclusive country. So she knocked on the door of TNKR in 2013, Lartigue said. She had 18 tutors in eight months, he recalled.

“We don’t limit the number of tutors the students can work with. We just help them with what works best for them.”

The TNKR program is popular among North Korean defectors because it gives the students choices in how they want to learn. During an introduction and matching session, students choose the tutors with whom they want to work. Then they work with the tutors at everyone’s convenience.

Lartigue said that he launched the program at the request of his North Korean friends.

“They kept asking me to teach them English. They were having trouble adjusting to life in South Korea because English is in demand here. Not knowing English cuts you off from job opportunities,” he said.

His first job was connecting six North Korean defectors, former teachers in the North who hoped to get teaching jobs in the South, to volunteers willing to help them with their English.

The program grew to cover not only English but other languages such as Spanish and Latin. Volunteer teachers come from English-speaking countries and from Europe and the Middle East.

The program is divided into two tracks. One is to help North Korean defectors improve their English-speaking proficiency, and the other is to help them make good public speeches.

“We get messages from students all the time about how the program made a difference in their lives,” he said.

He plans to expand the program to provide help for North Korean university students who have difficulties with their homework.

Lartigue officially launched TNKR as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in May after two years of volunteering and organizing the program on his own. This month, he is scheduled to give a 10-day speaking tour about his activities at U.S. universities, including Harvard, Yale and Colombia.

The NGO activist is also the international advisor to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean defectors in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, a fellow of Atlas Network and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C.