A voice for refugees

UW-La Crosse Communication Studies Professor Tony Docan-Morgan has been volunteering with Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR). He was recently appointed to Senior Fellow of Communication and Advocacy for the organization based in Seoul, South Korea.

UWL professor engages in humanitarian work with North Koreans

UW-La Crosse Communication Studies Professor Tony Docan-Morgan has helped plenty of UWL students overcome the obstacles of public speaking and be more effective communicators. Now he’s taking his expertise to a group of North Korean refugees settled in South Korea who will use newfound communication skills to integrate into society, build their future, and spread awareness about their lives in North Korea and the country’s regime.

UW-La Crosse Communication Studies Professor Tony Docan-Morgan. Photo courtesy of Jeana Pierre Photography.

In a volunteer capacity, Docan-Morgan has become an integral member of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), based in Seoul, South Korea. The non-governmental organization empowers and supports North Korean refugees to develop their English writing, public speaking and leadership skills. Docan-Morgan was recently appointed to Senior Fellow of Communication and Advocacy for the organization.

“The mainstream media tend to focus on North Korea as a nuclear threat, and hence, often fail to provide an understanding of the plight and human rights abuses endured by North Koreans and North Korean refugees,” says Docan-Morgan.

To date, tens of thousands of North Koreans have attempted to escape from the suppression and severe human rights violations in their country. Tight regime control has deprived North Koreans of basic rights such as freedom of political and religious expression, citizens’ communication with one another and outside the country, and even the right to have food, according to The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Attempting to escape North Korea poses enormous risks — in some cases even death. Fleeing via the North-South Korean border is nearly impossible due to the 2.5 mile wide Korean Demilitarized Zone, created during the Armistice Agreement signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Currently, land beyond this buffer zone is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. Therefore, North Koreans who wish to defect do so via the North Korean-Chinese border, although it is still a highly risky undertaking.

North Koreans who make it to China, however, are still highly vulnerable to continued human rights abuses. They are susceptible to apprehension and imprisonment by Chinese and North Korean authorities, and must inevitably decide to return to North Korea, survive on the margins in China, or attempt to exit China via Mongolia or Southeast Asia to permanently resettle in South Korea or other countries that will accept them. Estimates of North Korean refugees hiding in China vary widely; however, governmental and academic sources have provided estimates of approximately 100,000. It is estimated about 31,000 North Korean refugees have legally resettled in South Korea, 2,000 in Europe and about 200 in the U.S.

Although some North Koreans are able to escape and resettle, many deal with continued challenges, including psychological adjustment, personal threats from the North Korean regime, threats to family members still living in North Korea, discrimination in their new location of residency, language barriers and cultural difficulties. Organizations like the one Docan-Morgan volunteers with aim to help with that adjustment.

To date, TNKR has helped more than 300 North Korean refugees gain skills in English language learning and public speaking with one-on-one assistance from more than 600 volunteer tutors and coaches from around the world.

Through TNKR, Docan-Morgan has provided public speaking coaching for refugee learners, collaborated on fundraising efforts, provided guidance and introductions for TNKR’s recent English Speech Contest, helped orient new volunteers, and introduced and moderated multiple TNKR events focusing on the lives of North Korean women, imprisonment in North Korea, and North Korean refugee issues.

Recently, TNKR was featured on Arirang TV show Heart to Heart. Docan-Morgan provided testimony about TNKR’s co-founders and co-directors, Casey Lartigue, Jr., and Eunkoo Lee.

“We are a small all-volunteer organization, so having Professor Docan-Morgan join us has been like Michael Jordan or LeBron James joining a college basketball team,” says TNKR co-founder and International Director Casey Lartigue, Jr. “He has brought expertise and professionalism beyond our dreams, joining us when we most needed him. The refugees have been ecstatic about the feedback and assistance he has given them.”

Docan-Morgan says he has drawn from his UWL experiences, including his development of UWL’s Public Speaking Center, to collaboratively develop TNKR’s Global Leadership Program. This program provides refugee learners with the opportunity develop and improve their public speaking, writing and leadership skills. Throughout the next year, he will continue working with TNKR staff to track, develop, and improve the Global Leadership Program. Docan-Morgan will also continue to coach TNKR learners, including Cherie Yang, TNKR Special Ambassador and winner of a previous TNKR English Speech Contest, for her upcoming international presentations.

While on sabbatical during the 2017-18 academic year, aside from his work with TNKR, Docan-Morgan is also editing an academic handbook on the topic of truthful, deceptive, and ethical communication.

Docan-Morgan says volunteering with TNKR has helped him grow professionally and develop new skills and knowledge he’ll bring back to UWL students. It has also helped him begin to answer questions about how he can use his skills more broadly.

“Over the last few years, I started asking myself critical questions I think we should all be asking ourselves: As a professional, who am I helping and why? Who is benefiting? How can I use my knowledge and skill set to help empower those who may be powerless? How can I raise others’ awareness about pressing social, human rights, and humanitarian issues? How can I directly help others gain voice and help them tell their stories? And most importantly what direct and meaningful action can I take that will create positive change and improve the human condition?” says Docan-Morgan.

Through his work, he has witnessed refugee learners transform into stronger, more confident and skilled public speakers and conversationalists. He has been able to help people gain a voice and, ultimately, work toward improving conditions for those who are suffering.

For more information on TNKR, visit http://teachnorthkoreanrefugees.org/.