A Policy of Public Diplomacy with North Korea: A Principled and Pragmatic Approach to Promote Human Rights and Pursue Denuclearization

I convened an all-star working group of 9 people who volunteered countless hours to meet over several months and provide insights to craft this policy recommendation to the Biden Administration. The working group members were: Guy Arrigoni, Markus Garlauskas, Hyun-Seung Lee, David Maxwell, Dr. John Park, Greg Scarlatoiu, Dr. Sue Mi Terry, Skip Vincenzo, and myself.

A Policy of Public Diplomacy with North Korea: A Principled and Pragmatic Approach to Promote Human Rights and Pursue Denuclearization” was published earlier this month at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Skim the report and watch the report roll-out below.


I’m excited to share that LUMEN has launched! With a shared passion for increasing information flow into and out of North Korea, our stellar team will continue to quietly work hard to mobilize cutting edge ideas, technologies, and and big thinking to make our world accessible to the North Korean people. If you are interested in contributing to our work, please reach out! www.lumen.global

Talk @ EU Parliament (and movie recommendation with Chuck Norris)

On March 22, Member of EU Parliament Lazslo Tokes hosted an event at the EU Parliament on the power of information in North Korea. He played a big role in sparking the Romanian Revolution in 1989, and hsa been very active in human rights affairs in the EU Parliament.   Willy Fautre, the director of the Human Rights without Frontiers organized the panelists and the event drew almost 100 attendees to discuss this subject. While I spoke of the importance of information getting INTO North Korea, Mr. Do spoke (to my left) spoke about the importance of information getting OUT of North Korea.

Mr. Do, a South Korean activist for human rights in North Korea, helped arrange to smuggle out what is known to be the first work of fiction written by a North Korean dissident currently living inside North Korea. That original manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea, passed through China, and arrived safely into South Korea. “The Accusation” is written by Bandi (the North Korean author’s pen name) and has been translated into many languages, including English. For more on this, please check out a recent New York Times article about the book.

Professor Remco Breuker from Leiden University spoke about his research findings on North Korean forced laborers in numerous countries. Not only are there North Korean workers in the EU, but they are working on projects that are paid for by the EU. For more fascinating reading on Professor Brueker’s research, read his report.

A movie (that I have yet to see, but has been repeatedly recommended to me) brings together all the elements of this blog post: CHUCK NORRIS VS. COMMUNISMInformation access, Romanian revolution, North Korea, Hollywood movies, activists, Christians and the Church all wrapped up into one movie. Go watch it!




Hack and Frack North Korea: How Information Campaigns can Liberate the Hermit Kingdom

I’ve been working on this research and short paper titled Hack and Frack North Korea: How Information Campaigns can Liberate the Hermit Kingdom for a while now and it finally came out today.

Please check it out and share it with people you think may be interested.  If you have Kim Jong Un’s email address, feel free to forward this to him!


——————-Executive Summary——————-

This paper will make a case for the U.S. government to pursue three strategies if its operational objective is to force North Korea to reappraise its own interests. Individual self-determination and access to information—two properties the Kim regime fears most for its citizens to possess –are the short-term goals for North Koreans. This objective and two goals do not necessarily equate to regime change.

Even at its best, information fracking does not portend rapid changes in North Korea. But it does offer the best prospect for creating conditions for the government to consider incremental political changes. The more informed its citizens are, the less North Korea’s political leadership will be able to simply eliminate all the “bad seeds” in society by relegating alleged criminals and their relatives to political prison camps or worse. Otherwise, there will be no one left to rule over. Success of information hacking requires enlisting a broad range of stakeholders as part of its three-pronged strategy:

  1. Strengthen covert operations to hack into North Korea’s information channels and support internal dissidents.
  2. Increase funding for NGOs in the U.S. and South Korea to transmit outside media into North Korea and provide business skills to North Koreans.
  3. Bolster training for North Korean defectors, the primary liaisons between North Korea and the outside world, in journalism, IT, and social media

Each effort complements the other two; all must be pursued in concert. Read the full paper here.

Register your Korean Divided Families with the National Coalition on Divided Families

Thank you to everyone who came out to our Harvard screening last night! We got a lot of questions about you can get more involved. One way is to spread the word to divided family members about registering on the Divided-USA site to give Senator Mark Kirk and other congressmen more data points to push for this issue. Please click here:

Again, thank you for your ongoing support, and please spread the word about registration!

10 Year Anniversary of the North Korea Human Rights Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004

I’m sharing this press release for those who are interested in this message from Mr. Chol Park, Executive Director, Free North Korean Association United States, in honor of the 10 year anniversary of the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act by the US Congress in 2004.
Free North Korean Association United States (FNKAUS) is an organization representing the 171 North Korean defectors who have resettled in the United States.
Please direct all media inquiries for Mr. Park and FNKAUS to Henry Song at 202-341-6767 or songajee@gmail.com

Regarding the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, 10 years later


Today, October 18th marks the 10th anniversary of the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA), by the United States Congress.


The members of the Free North Korean Association United States (FNKAUS) would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to the US government for its continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korea, for passing the NKHR Act, and for allowing free North Koreans (defectors) to enter and resettle in the United States.


Of course, the South Korean government recognizes free North Koreans (defectors) as South Korean citizens and has guaranteed the best conditions and benefits for those who have resettled there.

However, it is a sad reality that in South Korea, the country that should be the leader in reunification, a legislation regarding North Korean human rights still has not been passed, despite the international community taking up this issue – for example in the United Nations, where an important side event occurred last month regarding the human rights situation in North Korea, and also with calls for the dictatorship of the North Korean regime to be held accountable at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The North Korea of today went from a Japanese colony to a slave nation ruled over by the Kim family dictatorship.


For the people of North Korea, if one’s father was a farmer, a miner, or laborer, that person is destined to become a farmer, miner, or a laborer; in the neighboring country of China, a socialist country, Chinese citizens can travel anywhere they want to, but only in North Korea are the people living like slaves to the Kim family dictators, unable to travel anywhere without permission, and unable to do anything without permission – this is the reality of North Korea today in the 21st century.

The Kim family dictatorship can also purge and kill anyone who is their ‘slave’ – be they their uncle, aunt, or whoever it may be; all the laws in the world are useless in the face of this slave state power structure.


Countless number of patriots and citizens have given their lives, countless number of meetings have been held, proclamations made, and ‘agreements’ have been discussed, but there is no end in sight regarding the division of South and North Korea, a division that has been ongoing for more than 60 years.


Many experts, scholars, and think-tanks say that the extinction of the North Korean regime will pave the way for reunification, but what is the reason behind the three generations of succession in power, and the continuing existence of the regime?

The most important thing is that those who are closest to the Kim family dictatorship in North Korea and allow the regime to survive and function, these few are the ones who know so very well regarding the reality of the outside world and the international community.


These elites and regime supporters know very well that the democratization and freedom for North Korea as supported by the international community, will lead to reunification, which will ultimate lead to their own demise; these elites and regime supporters know and realize that the only way to maintain their own power and lifestyle and livelihood is to continue aligning with the regime in exploiting and oppressing the people, no matter how young and inexperienced and bumbling the dictator may be.  They will continue to allow the dictator to remain in power, and despite clamoring for reunification, it is only in words, and their actions will never allow for reunification to happen.

Also, another important factor for the regime in North Korea not collapsing is the fact that the propagandizing and brainwashing of the people in idol worship of the dictatorship will continue and become even more strengthened, and interaction with the outside world can be something to only dream about; the eyes and ears of the North Korean people are closed off, since the people cannot even freely listen to radio broadcasts.


What can the deaf and blind do?

The most rational, common-sense way to bring about the collapse of the regime is to surround and encircle North Korea – through the Tumen River, Yalu River, East Sea, Yellow Sea, the DMZ – and send in radios, smartphones, and find ways for and allow Wi-Fi signals to be broadcast into North Korea, thus providing an opportunity for the North Korean citizens to be able to access outside information and find out about the truth.  If this can lead to just a small spark being created in opposition to the Kim family dictatorship, that small spark can grow to be a fearsome, huge fireball or volcano that cannot be put out.


THIS is what the regime fears the most, and right now in North Korea if the regime senses any small spark about to be ignited, they will do whatever it takes to block out and oppress the people.


The North Korean regime has already purchased anti-riot gear and equipment from China in case anything should happen, and a few years ago even banned the movie ‘Rim KokJung’ [a film made in 1987 in North Korea set in the feudal times where the oppressed rise up against the corrupt yangban-class rulers, that was banned starting from 1997 as the conditions in the country deteriorated], and also punished those found to be singing the theme song from the movie, “Arise, Brother”.


This is the reality of North Korea, yet some in the international community have a delusional fantasy regarding the country and go into North Korea for visits, as tourists with tour groups, and for various other reasons, but we as free North Koreans and defectors who were born, and grew up and escaped from North Korea, beseech all

nations, organizations, and private individuals once again regarding this.

Please face the fact that the North Korean regime is currently holding three American citizens as prisoners for political purposes.


Today, as we celebrate in the United States the 10th anniversary of the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, we implore the ruling and minority parties in the South Korean National Assembly to put down party politics and scheming, and pass a North Korean human rights legislation and thereby proclaim and guarantee the basic human rights of the North Korean people.


We free North Koreans will continue to support and encourage the US as it takes the lead in sending the leadership of the North Korean regime to the International Community Court (ICC), and we also implore all those in the world with a conscience and a sense of justice to do so as well.


Please rise up and help in guaranteeing the most basic human right to the North Korean people.


Cheol Park

Executive Director,

Free North Korean Association United States; and –


Members of the Free North Korean Association United States (FNKAUS), representing the 171 North Korean defectors in America



미국 북한인권법 제정 10주년에 즈음하여


오는 10 18일은 미국에서 북한인권법을 제정한지 10주년이 되는 날이다.


우리 미주자유북한인들은 북한인권문제에 많은 관심을 가져 주시고 북한인권법을 제정하고 자유북한인(탈북인)들이 미국에 입국할수 있도록 많은 노력을 기울여준 미국정부에 감사의 인사를 드린다.


물론 대한민국 역시 자유북한인들을 대한민국 국민으로 인정하고 그들에게 잘 정착해 나갈수 있는 최선의 조건과 혜택을 보장해 주고 있다.


그러나 국제사회가 북한인권문제를 주제로 유엔총회를 가지고 북한의 독재자들은 국제 형사재판소에 회부하는 안건을 논하는 현 마당에앞으로 통일의 주체가 되여야 할 대한민국에서는 아직도 북한 인권법이 통과되지 못하였다는 것은 안타까운 현실이다.


오늘 날의 북한은 일제의 식민지로부터 김씨일가의 노예국가로 완전히 전락해 버렸다.


북한 인민들은 태여날 당시 아버지가 농민이였거나 탄광광산 노동자였으면 자식들도 대를 이어 농민으로탄광광산에서 일하여야 하며옆나라 사회주의 국가인 중국인민들 까지도 세계각국 어디나 가고 싶은 곳 다 갈수 있으나북한인민들만은 김씨가문의 노예로 김씨가문의 허락이 없이는 어디 갈수도그 무엇도 할수없는 것이 21세기 글로벌시대 오늘날 북한의 현실이다.


뿐만 아니라 김씨가문은 자기 노예가 그 누구든 삼촌이든고모부던 죽일수도 살릴수도 있으며 그러한 노예주의 공권력은 이 지구상의 그 어떤 법도 무용지물이다.


남과 북의 통일은 반세기가 훨씬 넘어 60여년의 세월이 지나 온 동안 수많은 애국구국지사들의 목숨을 바쳐가며 많은 조약과 선언회담들을 진행하여 왔지만 아직도 그 끝이 어디인지 보이지 않는다.


한국의 국가 안보 전략연구소북한문제 연구소 등에서 북한의 멸망이 통일의 길이라고 명시하고 있는데 그러면 망할 듯 망할듯하는 북한이 3대로까지 세습을 이어가며 저토록 유지되고 있는 원인은 무엇인가?

가장 중요하게는 김씨가문에 붙어서 북한의 권력을 유지하고 있는 몇 안되는 자들의 국제사회의 현실을 너무나 잘 알고 있다는 것이다.


이 자들은 국제사회의 자유민주주의를 인정하기에 통일이 될 경우 무능력한 자신들이 설자리가 없으며 지금 자기들이 누리고 있는 부와 향수를 지키는 길은 오직적수공권의 인민들을 착취하고 독재자가 아무리 어리고 무능 할지라도 그 자리를 유지할수 있게 만들고 있으며 통일을 말로만 외칠뿐 통일이 절대로 이루어 지지못하게 하는 것이다.


다음으로 북한이 붕괴되지 않고 있는 원인은 수령우상화로 쇠뇌교육을 강화할뿐 외부세계와의 교류는 꿈도 꿀수 없고 라디오하나 들을수 없게 만들어 북한인민들의 눈과 귀를 막은것이다.


귀먹어리소경이 무었을 할수 있겠는가?


북한의 붕괴를 가져올수 있는 가장 합리적인 방법은 두만강압록강,서해 그리고 38즉 북한을 포위하고 북한에 라디오와 스마트폰을 공급하고 무선인터넷(Wi-Fi)이 북한 전지역에 터지도록 하여 그들에게 현실을 알려주고 북한에서 노예주 김씨가문을 반대하는 한점의 불씨만 일으킨다면 그 한점의 불씨는 제거 할수없는 무서운 화산처럼 타오를 것이다.


북한당국이 제일 두려워하는 점도 이 점이며 현재 북한에서는 한점의 불씨가 일어날 요소이면 그 어떤 것을 막론하고 봉쇄 억압을 하고 있다고 한다.


실지로 만일이 경우를 대비하여 중국에서 폭동을 진압할 장비들을 구입하였으며무능한 봉건관료배를 척결하는 봉기를 다룬 북한 영화 “림꺽정을 볼수 없게 DVD를 모조리 회수하였으며 이 영화의 주제가를 부를 경우 엄격히 처벌한다고 한다.


북한의 현실이 이러한데 국제사회의 일부에서는 북한에 대한 환상을 가지고 방문관광 등 여러목적으로 북한여행을 하고 있는데 북한에서 나서 자라온 우리 자유북한인들은 이에 대하여 모든 국가와 단체개인들께 다시한번 부탁의 말씀을 드린다.


북한이 미국인 3명을 정치적목적으로 억류하고 있는 현실을 직시하여 주시기를.


미국에서 북한인권법 제정 10주년이 된 오늘날 한국의 여,야당들에서는 당리당약을 내려 놓고 북한인권법을 제정하여 한민족 북한인민들이 기본적인 인권법을 보장하는데 앞장에 서주기를 바란다.


오늘날 미국이 북한지도부를 국제형사재판소에 제소하는 안건에 전 세계에 있는 자유북한인들은 더 없는 지지와 성원을 보내며 전 세계의 정의와 양심을 가진 모든 분들께 호소한다.


북한인민들의 가장 기초적인 인권을 보장하는데 한사람같이 나서 달라.


미주자유북한인 연합회 일동




Join “Save North Korea Refugees Day” MONDAY, Sept 22nd. Washington DC

Suzanne Scholte and her North Korea Freedom Coalition are leading up Save North Korea Refugees Day this Monday. If you’re in DC, please consider showing up to this event.  I’m copy/pasting her press release below.



North Korean Escapees, Activists Call for Action to Save Refugees: Events at State Department, Chinatown

WHEN: Monday, September 22, 2014

Press Conference 4 pm at US State Department — across from C Street entrance

Dramatic Demonstration at 5 pm Chinatown — US-China Friendship Gate (7th & H NW)

(Washington, D.C.) … Members of the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), joined by North Korean escapees, will hold a press conference outside the State Department at 4 pm on Monday, September 22, 2014 and stage a demonstration at 5 pm in Chinatown to highlight the increasingly horrific situation facing North Koreans trying to escape to South Korea and other countries.

The dangers facing North Korean refugees has continued to escalate since Kim Jong Eun took power and China has recently stepped up deportations of those trying to help North Koreans making the situation increasingly dire.  Even the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea decried China’s treatment of refugees when they concluded North Korea was guilty of crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights.

“There is absolutely no reason for China to continue their brutal policy of repatriation,” said NKFC Chairman Suzanne Scholte.  “North Koreans are the only refugees in the world who have an immediate place to go for resettlement as they are recognized as citizens of South Korea, and they have also been safely resettled in the United States and other countries.”

While NKFC has regularly highlighted China’s cruel action, it is also calling for the United States to do more.

Present at both events will be refugees who have resettled here who are deeply grateful to the United States but believe more must be done including Jo Jinhye, who established NKinUSA to help rescue North Koreans.  Jo, who has testified before the UN Commission of Inquiry and the US Congress on the situation, will reveal current information on refugees in immediate peril.

“While China is guilty of horrific treatment of North Koreans, the United States must do more to help,” said Jason West, a spokesman for NKFC who is helping organize the events.  “There are refugees right now who have been held in detention centers in Thailand for months simply because they want to resettle in the US.”

Each year NKFC has marked September 22nd as their annual Save North Korean Refugees Day as September 22nd marks the anniversary of the day in 1981 when China became a signatory to the Refugee Convention, an international agreement it violates every time it forces a North Korean back to North Korea.

The public is invited to participate in support of NKFC’s simultaneous calls for the United States to take more action to save refugees AND for the government of China to end their brutal, inhumane, and horrific treatment of North Korean men, women, and children.  The public can sign their online petitions to President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama to save North Korean refugees.

The North Korea Freedom Coalition is a nonpartisan coalition founded to work for the freedom, human rights, and dignity of the North Korean people.  The Coalition has public member organizations representing millions of people around the world along with many individual members.  The Coalition also has private members that provide humanitarian relief inside North Korea and members in China and other nations that feed, shelter, and rescue North Korean refugees.  For further information, please visit www.nkfreedom.org.

Media inquiries may be directed to Jason West at (301) 660-7009.

Lessons from our visit to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

As part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Asia Leadership Trek, my 40 classmates and I visited the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul to learn about the abhorrent human rights situation in North Korea.  Personally, I have been learning about these issues for almost 10 years now, but the shocking nature of the situation still hasn’t worn off, nor should it. I have heard so much about this organization’s good work and was excited to finally meet some of the individuals who are helping to run this organization.

The event kicked off with a 20-minute documentary that shared some facts about the North Korean prison camps, forced labor, widespread starvation, public executions, and the horrendous realities around defections. Familiar faces such as Kim Young-Soon and Kang Chol-Hwan came on the screen and spoke about their experiences when they were living under this regime.  I first heard some sniffles and gasps, and as the documentary continued to play, I heard soft sobbing behind me (I sat in the front row), and classmates offering tissues to each other.  After the documentary ended, Michele and Miri briefly introduced Ms. Kim EunJu to speak about her experiences living inside North Korea before she defected.

Ms. EunJu Kim. The young, petite woman who was sitting a few feet away from us was sharing about her experiences in a world that was a universe away. Though it’s easy to know the fact that North Korea is less than 60 miles north of where we were sitting, it was just so difficult to understand just how such a horrific place could exist this day in age, in a place so geographically close to us.   As I looked around the room, I saw my classmates and friends—people representing 22 nations—who were hanging onto every word coming out of this young woman’s mouth.  People’s eyes were glued to Ms. EunJu, and for those who were meeting a North Korean defector for the first time, or were learning about the human rights violations in the regime for the first time, I could tell that their worlds were being transformed.

Classmates formed a circle around me during our 10-minute break to ask me question after question to clarify their understanding of the social, legal, political, and humanitarian situation of North Korean citizens and refugees. Why and, more simply, how could the Chinese government forcibly repatriate these refugees? How could they be considered as economic migrants and not refugees who were desperately seeking political asylum and basic liberties? How could our governments, and private actors not doing more to bring down this despicable, despicable regime?

After we left the Citizens’ Alliance office and loaded the bus, my classmates continued to ask me questions centered more on actions that they could take. My 40 classmates and friends, dressed in somewhat geeky red Asia Leadership Trek polo shirts, come from 22 nations, and are diplomats, military servicemen, deans of universities, politicians, consultants, and NGO members back home. A 90-minute meeting with this organization with a purpose-driven passion instilled outrage, heartbreak, and disbelief in these 40 people, and I have faith that these classmates and I will work to transform this outrage of the egregious injustices we learned about into practical, compassionate action to help create changes for North Korean people.

A baby has no past. Yet political constructs dividing countries like North and South Korea determine people’s fates before they are even born.  Human beings are born as equal creatures in the eyes of God and I am fascinated by how humanity — with all of its complexities and similarities– is segregated by man-made boundaries and are destined to fulfill extraordinarily different fates that are largely determined by the political circumstances into which they are born.  The sheer arbitrariness of people’s birthplaces obligates some people with moral duties to serve those who have been born in countries with fewer opportunities and freedoms.  As my classmates and I have been fortunate enough to have been born in countries whose political leaderships allows us freedom and education, I believe we all have a moral duty to channel our fervent commitment to human equality to help protect the basic rights for those citizens who are born under this regime that refuses to protect and provide for its citizens.

Some people may be skeptical of the awareness-raising efforts of the North Korean human rights situation. After all, naming and shaming this regime hasn’t led to any meaningful changes to its behavior towards its citizens. However, I have full faith that with more and more passionate, compassionate, and empowered people who are educated with these issues, changes to the human rights situation inside this regime, and the very existence of this regime, will occur in our lifetime.



Classmate from Denmark asking a question to the panel
Classmate from Denmark asking a question to the panel


Classmates and I chatting during break
Classmates and I chatting during break

Myanmar: A Long Arduous Journey towards Democracy



The kind faces of several women wearing beautiful longyis greeted the trekkers and welcomed us into the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy. Larger-than-life banners and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” of Myanmar, surrounded the small entrance to their party office. On either side of the front door were street coffee vendors with kid-sized plastic chairs and tables covered in dirt, with stray dogs and cats lazily hanging out under the vendors’ carts, finding respite from the humid heat.  (Remember, this is in the middle of June.)  These coffee vendors were seen everywhere across Yangon. As someone who has been following the NLD’s activities for some years now, I was greatly looking forward to this particular meeting. I looked at my classmates’ faces and observed slight bewilderment as they looked around with wide eyes. I knew what they were thinking: could this be the party headquarters office for the NLD? The party of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi,  the beautiful face and incorruptible figure of Myanmar in western media?  The room we walked into past the front door was dimly lit with an odd, yellow-ish light. Piles of old newspapers were scattered across table tops with few older men and women reading books, some on cell phones, casually fanning themselves. A few turned to look at who entered the office, and, with equal disinterest, turned back to what they were doing.

In a single-file line, we walked up a narrow flight of wooden stairs to the second floor, which was even hotter than the first floor. A non-English speaking elderly woman directed me and my friends into their conference room. This was another poorly lit room with a dozen or so chairs surrounding the four wooden tables pressed together. Old photos and bulletins of the NLD party were tacked onto the wooden columns around the room. More piles of newspapers and bulletins decorated this room, along with bronze busts of The Lady, and outdated NLD calendars. We sat around, murmuring amongst ourselves, red in the face from the heat, seeking direction for how we were going to spend the next hour together.

I was assigned to moderate this session, so I was getting pretty nervous as the older men in the room were not providing any direction. Someone said “Ah, I didn’t know so many people were coming” and yelled for more chairs. Plastic chairs were sent in, but the small space couldn’t hold forty chairs, so many stood, others perched on table corners. I took the seat next to the men wearing longyis and waited for everyone to get situated. Two fans were sent in, and I watched as my beautiful German classmate tried to plug the fan in. The plug refused to stay in the outlet; it kept falling out. She tried all sorts of angles to keep the plug inside the outlet, but this turned out to be a fruitless effort.  Each time the plug fell out and the fan stopped, more classmates became agitated.  Given how hot the air was, people sitting in that area were desperate for this sputtering fan to work. I turned to the speakers who were watching this same scene with amusement, and then turned back at my friends, determined to get this fan to work. I thought to myself, slightly annoyed, “Gosh, how many Harvard graduate students does it take to plug in a fan?” Another classmate offered to hold the plug into the outlet, but there wasn’t enough space for him to squeeze in around the others, so the fan issue was dropped. No more fan. I noticed that this conference room didn’t have a door in the door frame.

Three very old gentlemen, dark skinned, wearing collarless dress shirts and green longyis, stood next to me, waiting silently as the forty guests got settled in. These were patient men. Patient men with extreme gravitas, the type of weight and dignity that comes only with age, experience, and hardship. They have been fighting for democracy in their country that was previously controlled by a military dictatorship for decades. They had no problem waiting a few extra minutes for their fidgety guests to settle down.

I peered around the room, looked up at the three gentlemen from my seat, took a deep breath, smiled, and asked the group, “Shall we start?”


The three men who held top leadership roles spoke to us at length about party’s efforts to engage the country’s youth and to incorporate them into the ongoing process of democratization. They shared some facts with us:

  • Among the 1.3 million NLD members across the country, 50,000 are under 30 years of age.
  • There are 280 township youth conferences
  • NLD runs 200 schools and provide free education, targeting students from poor backgrounds. They engage 20,000 students and about 1,000 teachers

They smiled, joking that they– at 65 and 70 years of age — were the young ones in the party, alluding to the reality that only small pockets of Myanmar’s youth are actively engaged in politics and efforts for social change. These are men who have been involved with the party since its inception in 1988, and have been part of the political struggle to open up Myanmar long before the 8888 Uprising. As part of their description of the difficulties of engaging youth into national politics, the men also stated that 1 million of Myanmar’s youth are currently working in Thailand.  Right when the country opened up with its first democratic elections in 2010, much of the frustrated youth tried to leave their country to pursue opportunities abroad. The combination of brain drain, corruption and mismanagement of resources at the national level, poverty, and ethnic strife continually disillusions this country’s young people — as it would in any other country — from getting involved in politics. This leaves the “young people,” the 60, 70 year old men and women, to push forward in this effort to democratize and unify a country marked with 65 years of domestic conflict and its continuing legacy, 135 ethnic groups (and many more unrecognized ethnic groups), and widespread poverty.

Ninety edifying (and very hot) minutes of discussion later, we made our way back to the rickety entrance of the building, and spent some time buying NLD paraphernalia, mostly with The Lady’s beautiful face on it. NLD was built around, and continues to be centered on, Aung San Suu Kyi, and this was reinforced when I looked around the NLD’s “concession stand.” T-shirts in different colors, books, calendars, fans, pamphlets, posters, pins all with images of her beautiful face and orchids in her updo were all for sale, presumably for mainly foreigners’ consumption. I bought a book on The Lady written by her cook who stayed in her home during her two decade-long house arrest. I also took a few photos with several young women who worked at the front desk who were wearing longyis and wore the Tha Nat Khar, the yellowish-white make up made from ground wood with which women paint shapes onto their faces. We all said Khay Zoo Tin Bar Dae, which means thank you, and parted ways.

We piled on the bus and debriefed the session. Some of my classmates expressed deep frustration and disappointment of the party leaders’ calm and peaceful demeanor that lacked an aura of urgency, passion, and verve. “No wonder Myanmar’s peace process is so slow,” a friend chided. Another classmate complained that the party leaders were too skittish about difficult subjects, such as the severe persecution of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State (which some refer to as the Rohingyas genocide), and the future of the NLD after Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer able to be politically active.

While these critical comments were being tossed around in our bus, I thought back to the old, wrinkled faces of the men who spoke, and imagined what their lives as political activists must have been like. How tired they must be. How drained they must be from fighting for a political situation that their nation could enjoy, without having sufficient funding, resources, or public recognition. How exhausted they must be from fighting for democratic values in a military dictatorship, and then not have widespread popular support when the country does open up. Of course there is no spirited zest, or a pep in their step! How could outsiders such as ourselves, who have no skin in the game, the game that is Myanmar’ democratic future, demand that these decades-old fighters have a renewed sense of almost juvenile-like rebellious spirit? This has been their lifelong commitment, and I honor their past, their continuing dedication to their country’s future, and their devotion to a democratic society.

I do not know what it is like to continually face physical and psychological danger to fight for something I crave, and I certainly do not know what it’s like to fight the same fight for decades without seeing an end in sight. But what I could reasonably suspect is that this ongoing fight for democracy by not just the NLD, but other political parties and organizations, is going to be a long, arduous journey.


First floor of the NLD Office
First floor of the NLD Office

The NLD office 'concession stand' [I bought a book from them]
The NLD office ‘concession stand’ [I bought a book from them]

Me and the ladies who work there. We're all in longyis and some of the ladies are wearing Thanaka, the yellowish-white make up
Me and the ladies who work there. We’re all in longyis and some of the ladies are wearing Thanaka, the yellowish-white make up

Leaders on Leadership: A Conversation with former Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

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.

Research trip to Lebanon

Happy New Year everyone! I returned from Lebanon a week ago to conduct interviews with my classmate Laila Matar to work on our Policy Analysis Exercise together. I will write more about my trip to Lebanon in a separate post, but for now, for those interested in applying to Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and its capstone project, I’ll direct you do a post Laila and I wrote for the HKS admissions blog.

For a little over two weeks, Laila and I ran around Beirut, Bekka Valley, Saida, and elsewhere trying to meet and interview as many people as possible, ranging from Ministers, politicians, activists, journalists, UNHCR staff, Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria, a Catholic priest, Iraqi security forces, and more.  The more we learned, the less we knew. Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon’s porous borders with no coordinated national policy to properly serve and absorb the refugees while securing existing Lebanese communities.  The Syrian refugee crisis — not only in Lebanon, but Turkey, Iraq, and other neighboring countries — is one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time, and unfortunately, the end is nowhere near.

at exhibition in Beirut of drawings by Syrian refugee children



drawing by Syrian refugee child of war

Drawing of crying mother by her daughter
Drawing of crying mother by her daughter

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 3.39.55 PM

I gave my camera to a few Syrian kids at the exhibition, and they took over a hundred photos of themselves, each other, and their art work. These are a few of them
I gave my camera to a few Syrian kids at the exhibition, and they took over a hundred photos of themselves, each other, and their art work. These are a few of them

Syrian refugee kids
Syrian refugee kids

Inside a makeshift home of Syrian refugees in the Bekka Valley
Inside a makeshift home of Syrian refugees in the Bekka Valley

Poster of Syrian Refugee Relief Project on the American University of Beirut campus
Poster of Syrian Refugee Relief Project on the American University of Beirut campus

"unofficial" Syrian refugee camp site in the Bekka Valley
“unofficial” Syrian refugee camp site in the Bekka Valley

"unofficial" Syrian refugee camp managed by the UNHCR
“unofficial” Syrian refugee camp managed by the UNHCR

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 3.46.08 PM


Inside Shatila Refugee Camp
Inside Shatila Refugee Camp

HKS — it’s going to be a great year!


On Tuesday, Maggie and I learned that we won the HKS elections! I am very excited and humbled to serve as the HKS Student Body President with Maggie as Executive Vice President. Looking forward to a fantastic year, HKS! 🙂

Personal Update: Running for HKS Student Body President!


Hey all!

I'm running for Student Body President at Harvard Kennedy School with my dear friend Maggie Williams, who is running for Executive Vice President. Check us out at bit.ly/JM4HKS and at https://www.facebook.com/VoteJieunAndMaggie




Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.31.23 PM

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.33.16 PM

Invitation for freshman and sophomores to apply for Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Policy and Leadership Conference

Hey everyone!

I just received information about this conference from my school newsletter. Please encourage college freshmen and sophomores interested in public policy to apply for this conference!  It’s a fantastic 3-day opportunity for undergraduates to learn more about careers in public policy and lessons in public service and leadership. I cut and paste some information below. For more information, check out this link.


2013 Public Policy Leadership Conference: February 21-23, 2013

What is the Public Policy and Leadership Conference?
The Public Policy and Leadership Conference (PPLC) is designed to inform students about careers in the public sector. The conference will encourage students who possess a commitment to public service to prepare for graduate study in public policy and international affairs, as well as to provide information on financial support through various fellowship programs.

Why Attend PPLC?
Harvard Kennedy School will be offering its thirteenth annual spring conference for first and second year undergraduate college students who are interested in pursuing professional careers in public service. These include careers in federal, state or local government, and work in the nonprofit sector or in international agencies. Our goal is also to provide information on various fellowship opportunities. To find out more about individual fellowships, please visit our resources page.

Who Attends PPLC?
The conference aims to attract students from groups under-represented in public policy and international affairs in an effort to increase the diversity of students receiving these professional degrees. The conference will help prepare future leaders for study in public policy, particularly those from historically under-served communities and people of color. Participants receive paid travel, accommodations, and meals. Please note that the conference is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents in their first or second year of undergraduate studies only.

Selection Criteria
Conference participants will be selected based on good academic standing, as well as demonstrated commitment to public service. Commitment to public service will be measured through student leadership and activism, participation in the civic aspects of school or community, and volunteer commitments in high school and college. Please include this information on your resume.

Apply Online
Application Deadline: November 16, 2012