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Only looking forward?

“In front of the office of the NGO stood a traditional ‘hanok’ house which caved in just a few days before I took this picture.”

By Maaike van Nus       “My initial expectation before meeting them was that they would be more, ehm, that they wouldn’t be as assimilated as they are, I mean it’s a good thing that they are, but it seems they all have cell phones, and they all have grown fairly accustomed to the life here”

This was told to me in an interview with one of my informants about the North Korean refugees he’d just met. For my master in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU I conducted three months of fieldwork in Seoul, South Korea. I worked with an NGO that provides North Korean refugees with free English lessons by matching them with volunteers who speak fluent English. My research revolves around these volunteers. North Korea has always been a great interest and concern of mine, as well as the resettlement of North Korean refugees once they have escaped their homeland through China, and thus I decided to focus my research on volunteers who help them in this resettlement process.

One thing that struck me during my time with the NGO was a similar sentiment to the one expressed by the volunteer above. Although the focus of my research was on the volunteers, I spent so much time at the office of the NGO that I of course ran into quite a lot of students, all North Korean refugees. We would have simple conversations, never discussing their life back in North Korea or their escape and resettlement in South Korea. It was not the time nor my place to ask: they were there for English lessons, and I was there to speak with volunteers. As the co-director would always put it: “Here we look forward, not back”. There was only one exception: the speech contest.

Nearing the end of my fieldwork the NGO organised a speech contest. About a hundred people would attend and students of the NGO could, if they wanted to, give a speech in English. This year’s theme revolved around a pivotal moment in their lives; such as when they realised they needed to leave their home. When I just started my fieldwork the participants in the contest were matched with volunteer tutors who would help them write, improve and practice their speeches. This was often done at the office of the NGO because speaking about these sensitive issues in a coffee shop (where usually normal tutoring sessions were done) brought with it several privacy problems. As such there were several contestants whom I saw on a regular basis, and got quite friendly with. As the day of the contest approached I heard snippets of some speeches every now then, but never really paid attention. And so the first time I heard those speeches was at the contest itself.

Volunteers after the speech contest, waiting to clean up the room.

I can’t share any details about the speeches held at the contest since it was off the record. Many stories were sensitive and could potentially endanger family members still in North Korea or China. Suffice to say that the speeches were emotional and heartbreaking. It is one thing to read and hear these stories through the internet and other media, it is a whole other story to hear from people whom you’ve met and usually had cheerful conversations with. It was hard to reconcile the image that I had of young, enthusiastic people trying to improve their English with that of young, vulnerable refugees who had stared death in the eye. Although their stories saddened me, I was also very impressed that they had been able to stand there, in front of a hundred people, and share their personal stories in a foreign language.

Many volunteers attended, and they felt the same. A few days after the contest I had an interview with another volunteer, who’d been there. We quickly came to speak about our thoughts, and just the memory already made us emotional. So there we were, in a coffee shop in a rather fancy area of Seoul, trying to hold back our tears as we spoke about what we had heard. She had been a coach for one of the participants, but hearing the speech at the actual contest – as well as the other speeches – had touched her deeply.

I decided to share this story because it was a very important one for me and gave me perspective into the feelings of my informants. As illustrated by the quote of my informant, students at the NGO are really just students who are quite assimilated already. Of course, they certainly face many challenges and moments such as the speech contest show these past and present difficulties. But the speech contest also gave volunteers and extra boost: they could directly see the results of their contribution and the potential of their students.

Seoul, South Korea, where the NGO is located.


Maaike van Nus is a master student Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU, writing her thesis on the moral worlds of volunteers working with North Korean refugees.

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