“Koreans all pronounce coffee as ‘kuh-pi,’ but I was saying ‘koh-pi, koh-pi’—like ‘nosebleed.’” Yeo (27), a North Korean defector living in Seoul, would receive second glances from the baristas when he ordered coffee at cafes.For Yeo, who arrived in South Korea fourteen years ago, speaking English would cause a sense of dread. During middle school and high school in South Korea, he was ridiculed during English classes due to his poor pronunciation, which was due to his lack of exposure to English while living in North Korea. Scared that his defector status would be exposed while talking to his South Korean classmates, he would often avoid conversations entirely.
In the summer of 2015, Yeo met his ‘savior’—fourteen-year-old, blonde-haired Kay Youngstrom. Youngstrom’s parents, both Professors of Psychology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, teach at the Korea University International Summer Campus, a six-week program at Korea University every year. The past 9 summers, the Youngstroms have spent their time in Seoul, where they discovered the North Korean human rights organization PSCORE (People for Successful COrean REunification) three years ago. As they began to attend weekly English classes for North Korean defectors held by PSCORE, Kay began to realize the difficulties and fears that the defectors felt while speaking English.
“For the defectors, the everyday English phrases used by Koreans here are like a foreign language, and it’s very hard to correct accents and pronunciations,” said Youngstrom. When she and Yeo first began their one-on-one English classes, they began entirely from scratch—starting with the alphabet. Yeo said, “As my English improved, my confidence while performing everyday activities also increased. If it weren’t for Teacher Kay, I would’ve forever been a failure at English.’”
For Youngstrom, teaching English to the defectors gave her an opportunity to learn more about North Koreans, which she found was very different from what she saw on the news. “In America, the image that pops up when discussing North Korea is ‘Pyeongyang.’ However, I learned that most ordinary citizens are completely cut off from Pyeongyang, which completely shocked me.” She added, “My school friends only think ‘North Korea is evil, South Korea is good,’ so they don’t know about the pain and suffering of the North Korean citizens and defectors.”
To raise more awareness about North Korean human rights abuses and the lives of North Korean defectors, Youngstrom created a PSCORE chapter at her high school in North Carolina. The club has held various fund-raising activities for PSCORE, and members of the club also had the opportunity to make video calls to the North Korean defectors. Currently, 50 of the 400 students at the school are members of the club.
“At first, my friends often teased me, saying, ‘Are you sure you’re not a North Korean spy?’ But now, more and more of my friends are getting interested in North Korean human rights. I’m already looking forward to seeing the defectors again next summer.” Youngstrom, whose great-grandfather was injured while fighting in the Korean War during 1950—a national hero—is determined to continue helping North Koreans.