10 North Korean Millennials in New York City, July 17, 2014

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For those of you in New York City who are interested in learning about North Korean youth’s identity in South Korea, please register for this event.  The Korean American Community Foundation is sponsoring “North Korean Millenials: Exploring Identity and Place” on Thursday, July 17, 2014 in the Engelman Recital Hall at Baruch Performing Arts Center.

 

Registration is at 6:30pm; Program is 7:00-9:00pm.

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

Photo  of our group and members of the Citizens' Alliance of North Korean Human Rights

Photo of our group and members of the Citizens’ Alliance of 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.

Panel

Panel

 

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

Yangon, a Cursory Introduction to Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

With any visit to a new place, fully knowing a country is impossible, much less with a brief visit to one city, especially if that city one of the wealthiest cities in a poor country. But from my few days in Yangon that were jam-packed meetings, interrupted by torrential rain, and where I was  bothered by very determined mosquitoes, I learned that this is an extremely complicated nation striving towards healing, reconciliation, and unity, a nation that I would love to visit again and again in the near future. The society is marred by well-known cancers: the absolutely reprehensible treatment of the Rohingyas, the exclusion of other ethnic groups for the sake of a cohesive national identity, and extreme poverty that is stunting a generation of children. But who said transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democratic society was easy?

I sat in the window seat of our bus throughout our time in Myanmar, and quietly watched people living their lives. I tried to control my attitude and told myself that this was not a voyeuristic exercise, but one of learning and absorbing another’s culture and way of life. Like in any other country — rich or poor, democratic or not –, I watched men and women hustling, trying to make a living by selling coffee under dirt-covered umbrellas, young kids selling gum and tissue packs, and young school girls wearing green longyis with Barbie backpacks walking, hand-in-hand, to wherever they needed to go. I watched young boys, maybe 12 or 13 years old, teasing their girl classmates on the streets, trying to get a rise out of them. Prepubescent flirting, I call it.  There were older girls, maybe late teens or early twenties, wearing heavy eye make up (much like myself) complete with Tha Nat Khar, strolling around in their skinny jeans with swag in their step.

I must admit that the familiarity of what I witnessed from my window seat was relieving. Yes, there is much, much more to people and their realities than what meets the eye, but the familiarity of life on the streets in a country that has been notorious for being closed off just until a few years ago, revealed that humans truly are experts at surviving. The brutal Burmese dictatorship failed to strip the dignity and self-determination of its people, and they eventually failed at sustaining its regime. I suspect that this country will take decades to reverse damages done by the previous government, and to work toward a peaceful domestic existence. But as an outsider, I am thrilled that the country has made the first critical step of transitioning out of authoritarian rule, and is making strides to achieve what its people have been fighting for for so long. I have no doubt that this recent history can, and will, be repeated in the last few remaining dictatorships in our near future.

School's out!

School’s out!

School bus

School bus

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Longyi store in the Bogyoke Aung San Market

Longyi store in the Bogyoke Aung San Market

Street Coffee Shops

Street Coffee Shops

“Come with Me. I have to show you something.” My Conversation with a Burmese Monk

My and a Buddhist monk at Schwedagon Pagoda

Me and a Buddhist monk at Schwedagon Pagoda

Walking barefoot on wet marbled floors of the Shwedagon Pagoda, I tried to serenely be present and absorb the glittering beauty that is the Shwedagon Pagoda while sheepishly snapping photos like any other tourist. I inched around the main pagodas, and watched as people came to burn incense, say their prayers, and quietly find peace, at least for a few minutes. I watched young couples, holding hands and flirtatiously passing their time. Groups of girlfriends sat on steps, chatting away.

I stood still, looking up at the blue evening sky, punctuated by heavy clouds, and focusing on the tip of the 368-foot tall spire. This is SO much gold, I thought. Pretty different from the churches I attended, growing up.

“Do you see the diamond?”

Someone with a heavy accent interrupted my thoughts. I turned to where the voice was coming from, pretty sure that the question was not meant for me. But there he was, a middle-aged Buddhist monk, medium build, wrapped in a reddish-brownish monastic robe, looking at me and waiting for a response.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Diamond?”

“Come with me. I need to show you something.” Without looking back at me, this monk took off, expecting me to trail behind him and await his instructions. A sense of familiarity, a feeling that usually does not describe the first two minutes of a first meeting between two strangers, shrouded my and the monk’s bond. I obediently followed, and put my feet on an unmarked spot that the monk pointed to on the ground. He instructed me to stand in that very specific spot and then look up.  I saw a huge glittery white mark at the top of the spire. It’s a 76 carat diamond that can be seen from only specific angles from the ground level, he told me.  When he sensed that the novelty of the giant diamond wore off on me, he beckoned with his head for me to follow him, and took off again. I followed him, and just as expected, he had another hard-to-find element of the Pagoda to show me. This happened repeatedly.

There were no introductions made between us, no skepticism, no ambivalence, nor suspected ulterior motives that marred this special moment for me. I asked questions about this history of the pagoda, his relationship to the pagoda, his daily routine as a Buddhist monk, and what he thought about my country, the United States. It was time for me to meet up with my group again, so when I pressed my hands together and said thank you, he smiled, pressed his hands together as well, and we parted.

To this day, I don’t know his name, nor does he know mine. All I have is a photo that we took together that captures the fact that despite the different worlds in which we live — a Korean American twenty-something girl, and a Buddhist monk who was raised in a Burmese monastery — we could instantly connect on the common grounds that we have a shared humanity. No questions asked, no introductions needed.

Cool girls at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Cool girls at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Schwedagon Pagoda

Schwedagon Pagoda

Me and a beautiful friend at Schwedagon Pagoda

Me and a beautiful friend at Schwedagon Pagoda

Myanmar: A Long Arduous Journey towards Democracy

Me and a larger-than-life banner of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy

Me and a larger-than-life banner of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy

 

“Minglaba!”

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

6 Destinations in Asia, 40 Students, 30 Days: The HKS Asia Leadership Trek

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Days after my graduation, I took off with a bunch of my classmates and friends for the HKS Asia Leadership Trek, which is a “unique, overseas learning experience that exposes young professionals to the Asia region through active engagement and knowledge sharing of best practices in public leadership, education, and social entrepreneurship. The Trek provides an experiential journey of Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok, Jakarta, and Yangon.”   In a nutshell, we had an extraordinary line-up of meetings (sometimes waay too many) with politicians (e.g. President of Indonesia and his cabinet), American ambassadors, billionaires and budding entrepreneurs (e.g. Proximity Designs in Yangon), beauty queens (many Miss Indonesias!), NGOs (e.g. Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights), Corporations (e.g. Mitsubishi, Toyota, Samsung), etc etc etc. I’ll write more about my experiences in each place, but I thought I’d provide a quick overview of my whirlwind of a trip to Asia. [For the fun stuff, check out our photos on our facebook page here]

 

Chinese Military in Tianamen Square

Chinese Military in Tianamen Square

With the exception of China, I was fascinated by the countries’ own arduous journeys to democratize their societies and governments. Speaking with politicians, editors of major media outlets, NGOs, students and friends we made in the countries cemented by belief that all people truly are hungry to be free. Freedom can materialize in various forms of expression and outlets, but people everywhere — in Myanmar’s Rakine State or poor parts of Seoul — want to be heard, want to be free.   Something else I observed was a fiery urgency in all six countries to create, innovate, and push the frontiers of entrepreneurship while balancing the tension with more Confucianism and Buddhist values of hierarchy, respect, and keeping the status quo.  As Asia quickly becomes an increasingly powerful region for international politics,  business, and culture, these countries, along with their neighboring countries, must be able to figure out how they will be able to sustainably balance their desire for social and political change while staying true to traditional values. On the  contrary, I strongly believe that Western nations, especially my country the United States, could tremendously benefit from incorporating the more traditionally “Asian” values into our commercial, political, and social worlds.

 

There are many differences, tensions, and historical difficulties among these countries and between the US and Asian nations, but as we move forward in a globalizing era, understanding other nations (or at least minimizing misunderstandings and false perceptions) is essential to minimize military conflict and maximize the possibility for regional peace. So while our politicians, presidents, and diplomats have at it, we can all do our part by traveling, reading up on people and places that we just don’t understand or even harbor hatred towards. It’s trite, and almost elementary, but trying to understand parties that we just don’t understand or can’t connect with is our duty!   Although this trip allowed me to only scrape the surface of each country, I tried my best to catch glimpses of life in each place that went unspoken of.  I will, of course, plan return to each of these extraordinary countries.  I hope you do too.

Sign in Tokyo

 

Signage before entering the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Signage before entering the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

 

 

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

 

From left to right: me, President Johnson-Sirleaf, President Calderon, Amandla at the HKS Forum

From left to right: me, President Johnson-Sirleaf, President Calderon, Amandla at the HKS Forum

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.

[Please watch the video below to hear their thoughts!]

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