I had the pleasure of moderating an online event with Hyun-Seung and Seo-Hyun yesterday, sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s North Korea Study Group. This is part of a monthly conversation series with North Korean escapees I will moderate. Not sure if all of them will be recorded, but this one was, so be sure to check it out on this link! [The intro and Q&A were not recorded, thus the abrupt beginning and end]
Hyun-Seung and Seohyun Lee are the children of Ri Jong-Ho. He is the highest ranking living escapee who, before his escape, worked at Office 39 – a secretive North Korean party organization that seeks ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leaders.
Hyun-Seung Lee is a former Deputy General Manager of the Korea Miyang Shipping Corporation (business entity of the DPRK regime), who graduated from China Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, where he was the chairman of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, Dalian China branch. After completing his military service in 2005 with the rank of Sergeant, he was granted membership in the Korean Workers Party. Despite his prestigious background and elite-level education, a series of brutal purges by Kim Jong Un forced him and his entire family to defect in late 2014, making their way first to South Korea. Subsequently the entire family emigrated to the United States (2016) where Hyun-Seung has been engaged with several Washington DC think tanks and NGOs in consulting roles.
Seohyun Lee was born and raised in central Pyongyang, North Korea. She went to China to study when she was a sophomore at Kim Il Sung University and earned her bachelor’s degree of Science in Finance from Dongbei University of Economics and Finance in 2014. She defected from North Korea in October 2014 during a heightened period of brutal purges by the Kim Jong Un regime. With her long-term vision to build a liberal democratic system and bring freedom in North Korea, she is currently pursuing further graduate studies.
We talked about their personal lives as students in North Korea, what media they watched inside North Korea, their thoughts on whether or not the North Korean regime will ever denuclearize, and what their future plans are in the United States. Watch the video below for more! And be sure to follow them on their fascinating Youtube channel: Pyonghattan
The Oxford International Relations Society hosted a talk with Mrs. Park Jihyun, who presented a powerful and haunting overview of her experiences of living in and escaping from North Korea. The room was so packed that some students were turned away.
Amidst curious Oxford students, Mrs. Park shared her story with that quiet, still power she so naturally exudes. Her gravitas in undeniable. She is a fervent human rights advocate, fighting especially hard to raise awareness about the vulnerabilities of North Korean women and children. The evening was a somber yet hopeful one, as Mrs. Park shared with a few students of her activism work. Despite her harrowing experiences, she and her family found their way to the United Kingdom where she and her husband are raising their beautiful children. Her fight to survive, her resilience, and her huge heart for others are simply astonishing and inspiring.
The night before her speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Roya Mahboob and I chatted about her organization in Afghanistan. Digital Citizen Fund teaches IT to girls across the country to empower them and their communities through IT, internet, and information. A shy little girl who used to be too afraid to speak in front of her classroom learned about all that the world had to offer through this thing called the Internet. Fast forward a few years later: Roya has created an organization that puts her on the list of the world’s most influential people. To date, Digital Citizen Fund has:
13 IT centers
Enrolled and graduated 7,900 girls
Provided 55,000 people with internet access (5% of Afghanis have access to the internet)
Check out their site to learn more about their programs, snapshots of some of the young women who are students of this organization, and how you can get involved. Click here to donate and support this incredible initiative to empower women and their communities through internet, information, and technology.
Read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s profile of Roya here for TIME’s 100 Most Influential People here.
As a breakout session, our panel was not live streamed so I’ll share a few photos from our session here. Isaac Stone Fish from Foreign Policy and role model Gayle Karen-Young moderated and facilitated the panel and Q&A with Ji Seong-Ho, Hyeon-Seo Lee, and myself.
We shared thoughts about information access in North Korea (an increasingly popular topic, yes!), and the possibilities and challenges that surround the future democratization in North Korea. At the last minute, Oslo Freedom Forum had to get a larger room and double the time for our session because of the sheer demand! The panelists and I were so encouraged to see the diverse audience that packed into the room to listen to and participate in the very last session of the Forum. If you haven’t seen Ji Seong-Ho’s speech from last year’s Oslo Freedom Forum, you must watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk0p0zcvlnU
Also, Lee Hyeon-Seo shared teasers about the NGO she is starting up soon. Keep your eyes and ears out for it! If you have any specific questions about what was discussed, feel free to message me.
As the Syrian Civil War wages in its fifth year, we continue to see images and read news articles of how increasingly bloody and more complex this conflict is becoming. With ISIS having gained a stronghold in Raqqa and elsewhere in Syria, the situation seems ever more intractable and hopeless.
Meet Abdalaziz Alhamza. He’s a young Syrian journalist from Raqqa who couldn’t stay silent while watching people from his hometown be ravaged by Syrian dictator Assad, only to be further controlled and slaughtered by ISIS who continue to use Raqqa as the ISIS “capital” today. He and a few courageous friends started a group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” to smuggle images and news stories of Raqqa out of the city and for the world to see. In addition to informing the world of the atrocities that are taking place in his hometown, his group works to counter ISIS’ propagandistic narrative that ISIS territories are beautiful, thriving places for people to live.
Humble, powerful, and relentless. Listen to Abdelaziz’ speech here: https://oslofreedomforum.com/speakers/abdalaziz-alhamza
On the last night of the Freedom Forum, a bunch of us hung out and were amazed at how bright Oslo was, despite it being 4:30AM. We, of course, had to take a selfie.
His colleague Hussam Eesa was there as well. When I asked Hussam how non-Syrians can help their organization, he said “We don’t need your money. Just your prayers.”
At the Oslo Freedom Forum, I listened to incredible speakers, activists, and practitioners who are defending human rights in various parts of the world in their own way — small and large. Over the next few posts, I will share a few highlights from this incredible meeting of a diverse, relentless, and courageous collection of people.
Hyeonseo Lee graciously offered to do a Q&A with Parlio, an online forum for intelligent conversations on issues that matter. Please read her Q&A with Parlio on this link. She carefully answered every question that was asked on our platform and I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot from her Q&A!
She defected from North Korea and has become a very vocal North Korean human rights activist over the years. You gotta pick up a copy of her recently published book: The Girl with Seven Names. Her Ted Talk captured global interest in her story and the larger issues she spoke of, which you could watch below:
I”m a community manager at Parlio, so if you have any question, let me know. Please join Parlio today!
Ji Seong-Ho walked 6,000 miles with just one leg and one arm on the crutches that his father made for him to defect North Korea for the second time to reach freedom in South Korea.
He was caught during his first attempt to escape North Korea, and was beaten severely by North Korean soldiers. When I met with him a few weeks ago in Seoul, he told me that the worst part of being punished by the soldiers was their fury they expressed at a “disabled freak” for bringing dishonor to their country. People like him were supposed to die in silence, not make a mockery of North Korea, they said.
He now runs an incredible organization titled “Now, Action, & Unity for Human Rights.” His organization is raising funds for him to move into a new office to continue the work his organization does: rescue North Korean children, raise global awareness about human rights violations in North Korea, and broadcast radio programs into North Korea for North Korean people to illicitly listen to. I watched him walk up the stairs to his tiny office on the fifth floor (no elevators) and thought, “my goodness. Humans are truly capable to overcoming any obstacle.”
I just made my contribution to his campaign on this site. Please check out the site and make your contribution today!
Normally, I try to avoid re-posting articles on the blog (even though there are so many good ones out there!) but this one was too good, too interesting, and too unique to not re-post.
Mr. Yeong-Jin Jang arrived in South Korea in 1997 after escaping North Korea and only recently came out to tell his story in an autobiographical novel, “A Mark of Red Honor.” Also, read this interview he gave with Mr. Choe Sang-Hun at New York Times, where he speaks of feeling like a “double alien” in South Korea.
Song Byeok went from being a North Korean propaganda artist to political prisoner to now a dissident artist. His work will be exhibited in New York City for the next few weeks (May 7 – June 13) and I’d love for anyone in NYC to check his work out. This is an extremely unique show.
The exhibition, titled “Looking at the World’ is “dedicated to all those who have suffered from the physical and psychological abuses of a flawed government pivoted on the lack of human rights and freedom.”
After listening to all of NPR’s Weekend Edition stories, I browsed Ted.Com to find a good talk to listen to while writing emails before heading to bed. I was reminded, once again, that Ted.Com talks simply cannot be put on as “background noise.” It’s all-consuming, and Bryan Stevenson’s talk is the perfect example of this.
Bryan Stevenson is the the Founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based non-profit that “provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.” Check out the incredible work that his organization does. Meanwhile, I’d like to highlight a section of his ted talk titled: “We Need to Talk About an Injustice” that I thought fit this blog content and narrative perfectly. (I’ve added the bolded emphasis.)
“… I believe that many of you understandthat the moral arc of the universe is long,but it bends toward justice.That we cannot be full evolved human beingsuntil we care about human rights and basic dignity.That all of our survivalis tied to the survival of everyone.That our visions of technology and designand entertainment and creativityhave to be married with visionsof humanity, compassion and justice.And more than anything,for those of you who share that,I’ve simply come to tell youto keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”
Enticing much? Check out the whole talk! It’ll be an inspirational way to start off a new week.
In March 2013, I went on a spring break trek to Palestine with a a bunch of HKS students, led by Asma Jaber. I was thinking about going to Morocco, China, or some other trek, but after learning a bit about Palestinian history, culture, and political tensions, I knew that I had to go on this trek. It would be my first trip to the Middle East, and the trek would come to open my eyes, ears, and heart to the region. (You can read one of Asma’s powerful articles here.)
George was our local tour guide, a Christian Palestinian, and introduced us to this beautiful land with a culture and history unparalleled in its richness, vibrance, and tensions. For seven days, we trekked through the West Bank –Nablus, Ramallah, Jerico, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. We couldn’t get into Gaza Strip (no surprise there), but video-conferenced with some Gaza residents. My one week in Palestine pulled me to return to the Middle East many times since then, and I certainly plan to visit many times throughout my life. It’s one of the most actively misunderstood regions, and by studying and traveling throughout different countries since Palestine, I fell in love with the region.
Fast forward to last year, 2014. With her passion for studying and sharing the history of Palestine, Asma founded PIVOT, “an app that lets you see what a place looked like in the past and digitally streamlines the preservation of culture & history” and is starting with Palestine. Her co-founder and finance Sami Jitan and team won the Harvard Dean’s Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge at the Harvard Innovation Lab and a variety of other awards and recognition.
They’re currently raising money for this project on kickstarter (check it out) and are looking forward to making this a widely useful, relevant, and fun tool for everyone.
Asma’s ability to convert her passion for her ancestry, culture, and her history into an innovative and relevant app is so inspiring. I hope you check it out!
I Sell My Daughter for 100 Won, by Jang Jin-sung (N. Korea)
Exhausted, in the midst of the market she stood
“For 100 won, my daughter I sell”
Heavy medallion of sorrow
A cardboard around her neck she had hung
Next to her young daughter
Exhausted, in the midst of the market she stood
A deaf-mute the mother
She gazed down at the ground, just ignoring
The curses the people all threw
As they glared
At the mother who sold
Her motherhood, her own flesh and blood
Her tears dried up
Though her daughter, upon learning
Her mother would perish of a deadly disease
Had buried her face in the mother’s long skirt
And bellowed, and cried
But the mother stood still
And her lips only quivered
Unable she was to give thanks to the soldier
Who slipped a hundred won into her hand
As he uttered
“It is your motherhood,
And not the daughter I’m buying”
She took the money, and ran
A mother she was,
And the 100 won she had taken
She spent on a loaf of wheat bread
Toward her daughter she ran
As fast as she could
And pressed the bread on the child’s lips
“Forgive me, my child”
In the midst of the market she stood
And she wailed.
When working at Google a few years ago, I connected with some North Korean students at Yeomyung school, one of the few private alternative schools for North Korean students who fled their country and currently live in Seoul. Some generous Googlers donated 70 flip cameras to the 68 students at the school and Tribeca Teaches connected with YeoMyung school to teach media literacy to these students who came from a country where all media was centered on state propaganda.
I visited a few times and stayed in close touch with a few students at the school. In particular, I connected with the school’s art club. The art teacher told me that many of the students who enrolled at the school refused to speak, socialize, or share much about their lives. After all, each one of the students went through horrific experiences of defecting from North Korea, some of them having been repatriated, tortured, or worse. The art teacher said that art helped many of the students begin their journeys of healing. With permission, I took photos of some of the drawing and paintings made by some of the students. See below.
I had an extremely insightful conversation with Srdja Popovic, one of the leaders of the Otpor! (Serbian for “Resistance”) movement, which has been largely credited for bringing down the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Popovic now co-runs the Center for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) with Slobodan Djinovic, in Belgrade to train non-violent political activists to bring freedom across the world through people power.
Srdja and I chatted about the possible applications non-violent resistance tactics in North Korea among citizens and defectors. Although I won’t share the content of the specifics here, I will point readers to publicly available material about Srdja and Slobodan’s work that is extremely powerful and can be applied to political contexts across the world.
This past weekend, a North Korea Hackathon took place in Silicon Valley, hopefully the first of many. The New York City-based Human Rights Foundation organized this event in San Francisco that drew a diverse crowd of about one hundred people, including engineers, college students, investors, journalists, and four prominent North Korean defectors. People who do excellent research, writing, and journalism like Martyn Williams, Chad O’Carroll, and Kurt Achin were there. The goal of this weekend was to tap into the Silicon Valley’s brains and skills to come up with creative solutions to send foreign media and information into North Korea, the most intentionally isolated regime in the world. As many of you know, accessing foreign information is highly dangerous for North Korean people, yet many risk their lives to secretly watch dvds, read foreign news, and listen to radio programs in order to desperately learn more about their world outside North Korea. You could read more about the happenings throughout the hackathon in real journal articles that I’ll share below, so I’ll refrain from describing much of the event’s official agenda in this blog post.
HACKATHON: DAY ZERO. I flew in on Friday, the day before the hackathon to meet up with Mr. Kim Heung Kwang, the executive director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (click here for English version) and the other three North Korean defectors who were all flying in from Seoul. The Wikimedia Foundation graciously hosted us and the Human Rights Foundation organizers for a wonderful dinner at their headquarters office in San Francisco to learn more about the individuals’ work centered on sending information into North Korea against the regime’s will. There was a lot of conversation around how the Korean wikipedia is already being sent into North Korea onto USB thumb drives, and more side discussions about how more individuals and organizations can get add to this effort.
I think that the delicious southern-inspired meal was too heavy for the defectors, so after the Wikimedia dinner, the North Korean guests, two bilingual friends, and I walked into Chinatown to eat Chinese food and have some Japanese and Chinese beer. Interspersed with lots of laughter, Mr. Park shared stories about how he got into a lot of scuffles in Seoul for the work that he does.
HACKATHON: DAY ONE. Jetlagged, the four North Koreans and their facilitators, including myself, piled into cabs to head over to the hackathon venue where we had bagels, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast. “I don’t know how you Americans could eat bread all day long. I need rice!” one North Korean guest said. The other three laughed, and said that he brought microwaveable rice and kim-chi, a Korean staple side dish, with him in his luggage from Seoul. Another said, ‘Don’t you bring that kim-chi out here…the Americans will run away from you if you bring that out! Instead, hand it over to me. I’ll eat it!”
Each of the four gave brief introductions about their individual defections, background stories, and their respective NGOs’ work before the eight hack teams broke out to start brainstorming, coding, and creating their tech solutions to help bring information into North Korea.
Kim Heung Kwang is a North Korean defector and a former professor at Pyongyang Computer Technology University. He graduated from the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang, where he majored in data processing. Kim pursued graduate studies at Hamheung Computer College, where he studied operating systems, hardware technology and network theory. He spent 19 years training students for the North Korean regime’s cyberwarfare units. Kim was also in charge of analyzing seized contraband South Korean television dramas and foreign books, until he was caught renting some of the classified loot to a friend. He escaped North Korea in 2003 through China and settled in Seoul. In 2008, he founded the North Korea Intellectuals Society, a group of high-level defectors that promotes freedom, democracy, and human rights for North Korea. As the executive director of NKIS, Kim conducts research on unification, formulates and critiques ideas on how to foster North Korean civil society, and cultivates the skills of North Korean defector intellectuals.
Park Yeonmi is a North Korean refugee and an expert on the country’s black market economy. As a child, Park lived as part of North Korea’s elite until the regime punished her father and banished him and his family to the northern part of the country, where poverty, starvation, and “disappearances” became a part of everyday life. Park and her family escaped North Korea through China and Mongolia in 2007. She is currently a media fellow at Freedom Factory, a think tank based in Seoul, and studies at Dongguk University. She co-hosts the “Casey and Yeon Mi Show,’’ a podcast about North Korean issues, and is featured on “Now On My Way to Meet You,” a TV show in which North Korean women discuss their past and present lives.
Choi Song Il is a North Korean refugee who worked as a dentist before escaping the country. Choi lived in China for two years until he was caught and repatriated back to North Korea, where he was incarcerated in a detention facility for six months. On his second attempt to escape, Choi successfully arrived in South Korea. He obtained an undergraduate degree from Yonsei University in management and worked in the private sector for five years. Determined to work for the rights of North Koreans, Choi joined the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in 2010. Choi has conducted many research projects regarding the North Korean people’s change of consciousness and oversees NKSC’s North Korean field operations and media dissemination projects. He recently obtained a master’s degree in political science with a special focus on North Korea.
Park Sang Hak is a North Korean defector and democracy activist. Park worked in a propaganda unit of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League until 1999, when his father, a spy for the government, defected with his family to South Korea. Since then, Park has worked for the democratization of his homeland. He is the chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, an organization that uses helium-nitrogen balloons to float human rights and pro-democracy literature, DVDs, USB drives, and transistor radios from South Korea into North Korea. Park’s educational efforts constitute such a serious threat to the Kim dictatorship’s mass brainwashing system that he is known as “enemy zero”. As a result, Park was the target of an assassination attempt in 2011 at the hands of a North Korean spy using poisoned needles.
Each of the eight teams broke into groups and sat around this warehouse space and spewed ideas about how they could get information in and out of the country. Ideas ranged from super low tech (e.g. slingshots to get USBs from China into North Korea across the Tumen River) to much more high tech ideas that used satellite networks to enable intra-country communication among North Koreans. My North Korean friends kept sharing their surprise over how so many non-ethnic Korean Americans were so passionate about coming up with solutions help inform North Koreans about the outside world. This hackathon scene, where people were scrambling to come up with ideas to help North Koreans,would never happen in South Korea, they said.
HACKATHON: DAY TWO. We spent the morning speaking to journalists and chatting about different ideas over delicious Ritual coffee in the hackathon space. In the early afternoon, each of the eight teams presented their ideas for four minutes each and answered questions for two minutes each. You could see the winning team “Team SkyLife” present their idea in the photo below.
“The winners were Team Skylife, made up of Matthew Lee, a former Google employee now working on a stealth start-up in San Francisco, and Justice and Madison Suh, a 17-year-old brother-sister pair who had flown from Virginia to compete in the event. Their winning concept involved the use of Luneberg lens research to develop flat, iPad-sized satellite receivers that could be snuck into North Korea through smuggling routes on the Chinese border, or floated into the country via hydrogen balloons from South Korea. These portable, easily concealable devices would hook into the pre-existing coaxial and USB technology commonly found in North Korea and pick up signals from Skylife, a South Korean broadcaster that sends more than 200 channels of programming to customers in China. The panel of judges – consisting of North Korean defectors, Silicon Valley tech executives, and HRF senior staff – were impressed by the potential impact the concept could have on information flow into the world’s most closed society.” [HRF]
After the event ended, the different teams continued to develop their ideas in order to possibly implement them with the help of the North Koreans’ contacts and NGOs. Afterwards, the North Korean guests and I went to a dinner with the San Francisco chapter of South Korea’s National Reunification Advisory Council, who asked a lot of questions to our guests about their lives and experiences from defection to their assimilation process in South Korea. Exhausted, the four guests, Henry Song, and I went to Twin Peaks close to midnight to try to catch a glimpse of the city through the fog. Though we couldn’t see past 5 feet in front of us, it was nice to “drink the clouds” as Mr. Kim said.
POST HACKATHON: A few of the guests stayed for the day after the hackathon, so we went sightseeing. Alex Gladstein, an associate at HRF, graciously drove us around San Francisco. It was so nice to be back in the city I lived in for two years! Wael Ghonim, the Googler who was credited to having a significant impact on the Egyption Revolution in 2011, hosted us along with his two colleagues Osman and Karim, for lunch at a *delicious* Middle Eastern restaurant in Sunnyvale. Over lamb and yogurt, we talked about shadow internet and its various applications. After having baklava to finish our meal, our team drove up to Stanford to check out its beautiful campus. We continued to drive north around Corona Heights, Hayes valley (my old neighborhood!), and had coffee, beer, and wine to enjoy the afternoon.
Spending four full days with old and new friends from North Korea centered on the idea to bring information into North Korea was both heartbreaking and inspiring. If you are interested in helping any of these organizations, please let me know!
On May 15, my classmate Amandla Ooko-Ombaka and I moderated the opening panel for HKS Ideasphere with the former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (HKS Class 2000, HKS Fellow 2013) and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (HKS Class 1971) to discuss their paths of leadership that ultimately led them to the presidency in their respective countries.
While Amandla and I were getting warmed up in the green room with the two heads of state , Dean Ellwood, Dean Bohnet, the two presidents’ huge security detail, and our own American secret service, I was so surprised to witness how humble, funny, and emotionally accessible the two presidents were. When I tried to pour water for the people sitting around the table, President Calderon swiftly reached across the table, grabbed the glass water pitcher from me, and said, while shaking his head, “You shouldn’t have to do that. I’ll do that.” This small gesture was a shock to my familiarity with East Asian social norms rooted in hierarchy. Throughout the time I spent preparing for this panel with Amandla — with the deans of our school, and the presidents themselves — I was repeatedly surprised by how humble and grounded these high-profile leaders are.
When I asked President Johnson-Sirleaf from where she draws her strength, she answered her parents and a vision [I’m paraphrasing her eloquent words here]. I realized that this “Iron Lady of Africa,”–who has achieved so much for her country that rightly earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011–is, at the end of the day, a person. A daughter. A sister. A friend. A mentor. And mentee.
In addition to the extreme anxiety of speaking with heads of state (I was sweating bullets on stage!), my other poignant memory from this experience is that the more power some people have, the more humble they are.
Sara Minkara, a close friend from HKS, is an extraordinary person. She’s created this NGO called “Empowerment through Integration” that works to empower young people with disabilities in order to help integrate them into their communities. She started off with Lebanon, opened a branch in Nicaragua this past summer, and is off to start branches in many other places.
She lost her sight when she was 7 years old. But you can’t really tell in the video (or like, ever). She’s the most capable and intelligent person I know. (I have a TON of fun stories about her, but will refrain from over-sharing on a blog. You’re welcome, Sar!! :))
Check her out. She’s an outlier. She’ll be the most impressive, most courageous person you’ll meet in a very long time.
I came across this 12-minute Ted Talk with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. That quote above are the words of Secretary of State’s Madeleine Albright’s youngest granddaughter, who’s living in a time where her grandmother, Dr. Rice, and Secretary Clinton have been Secretaries of State. I thought it was extraordinary to listen to a the words of a little girl who is growing up in a world where it’s just not that extraordinary for women to be in the most powerful positions on earth. Of course, there is a LOT of room for improvement for bridging gaps in gender equality in terms of power, income, rights, and freedoms. But I thought I’d share this video. It’s definitely worth a watch!