Skip to main content

The Citizen

Student Spotlight: Jieun Baek

IMG_2950 14 - 7 20140105_163715 IMG_8611What did you do before you came to the Kennedy School?

I worked at Google Headquarters in the Sales Department, and spent a lot of my time working for Google Ideas as Google’s North Korea Lead to bring technology and online tools to North Korean defectors. Before that, I hung out at HKS way too much as a Harvard undergrad, concentrating in Government/International Relations. By hanging out too much at HKS, I mean trying everything possible to get into Professor Brian Mandell’s Negotiations class as a junior in college with zero bidding points (I had no idea what the bidding system meant!). After the third time of sneaking into his course by standing very closely behind tall people walking into the classroom, I was physically escorted from his course by a course assistant who just was not having any of it. I failed at negotiating my way into a negotiations course!

Would you highlight for us two or three accomplishments as Student Body President of which you are most proud?

(1) I am proud that KSSG worked so closely with the Student Public Service Collaborative this year, whether it was for the Public Service week, the launch party for it, or the ongoing 2014 SPSC challenge. This close KSSG-SPSC partnership constantly reminded me and classmates of why we’re even here at HKS, and it was a fun way to learn more about classmates’ passions about different kinds of public service.

(2) I am so grateful that our executive team of 9 VPs and I were able to work constructively with each other. I think that delegation, accountability, and ownership are difficult characteristics to instill in an organization — especially a student organization like KSSG where members’ efforts are overlooked or taken for granted. It was precisely because of our collective ability to build a strong executive team that we had such a successful KSSG this year!

We understand you passionately follow events and issues in North Korea. How did you get started in this work?

During my first month at Harvard College, I attended a lecture by Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector who was sentenced, according to North Korea’s guilt-by-association law, to a political prison camp after being declared a political traitor at age nine.  As he described the camp’s attendance policy to public executions, and how his mother risked severe punishment by raising rats to feed her children, I was struck by how arbitrary his destiny was.  The 38th parallel border that was drawn on a map in thirty minutes at the end of World War II divided a nation, resulting in Mr. Kang’s harrowing existence in the North as well as my South Korean-born father’s relatively comfortable childhood in what is now the world’s fifteenth largest economy.  Both the brutality of human rights violations and the arbitrariness of who is subject to such violations motivate me to devote my career to help solve such problems.

You have travelled to North Korea yourself. What was the most unexpected thing you learned from your trip?

I was very surprised by three things: (1) so many people had the terms “han minjok” and “tong-il” at the tip of their tongues. These words mean “one (ethnic) people” and “reunification” in Korean, respectively.  Everyone I spoke with expressed such strong interest in reunifying with their Korean counterparts living in South Korea.  (2) They were very excited to meet me, an ethnic Korean American who spoke Korean. People asked me so many questions about my life as  an ethnic Korean in America, and I was surprised by just how curious people were. (3)  I was surprised by how people thought reunification was the solution to all of their personal problems. For example, when I asked them when I could meet them again, they answered “I can see you, Comrade Jieun, after the Koreas reunify.” “When can you travel outside North Korea” “After the two Koreas reunify.”

You are also a filmmaker. Can you please tell us about the project you just finished?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m a filmmaker, but I did produce a documentary called Divided Families with two directors and a small army of 70 volunteers.  It is a film that captures the heartbreaking narrative about Korean families living in North Korea and the United States who have been separated since the end of the Korean War in 1953. When the border was drawn between North and South korea, millions of families were left divided. Many families living in South Korea moved to the United States, and are still longing to reunite with their families in North Korea. There are currently an estimate 100,000 first generation Korean Americans with immediate family members in North Korea. Most of these family members have already passed away, or are in their late 80s or 90s.  Given the absence of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea, some have tried to contact their families through informal brokers, but this uncertain channel has left many divided family members disillusioned and exploited. Our mission with the film is to raise awareness in the global community by documenting the stories of first generation Korean divided family members currently residing in the United States, and we are moving on a political advocacy strategy in D.C.

Your Facebook profile says you work for Google. What’s up with that? 

Ah, I didn’t update it! I used to work for them full time before HKS, and then worked on a consultative basis during my first year at HKS.  I also need to change a lot of things on my facebook profile (e.g. delete a bunch of my photos from my college years…)

Ferrari or Bentley?

Ferrari (but only if it’s black!). My father asked me a few years ago what my dream car was, and I said “anything black because I don’t have to wash it as much.

If you were graduating from HKS tomorrow, what is the best memory you’d take away?

I’m going to cheat and share more than one. The Palestine Trek in 2013 opened my eyes and heart to the Middle East (which is why I did my PAE on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and topic i never would have dreamed of writing about!). The North Korea trek in 2013 I co-led with Jiyoung Han with 24 classmates was life-changing for me.  I also loved, loved lingering around the HKS forum for way too long in the early evenings to see who was doing what and chatting with friends. HKS forum definitely keeps the pulse of HKS!

What one item is essential to your everyday life and why?

Black eyeliner. I’m sure this answer is no surprise to anyone! Without it, I look like a 12-year old.  Earlier this semester, I missed school for over a month because of an operation. While I was waking up from general anesthesia in the recovery room at Massachusetts General Hospital, a nurse asked me if I needed anything, and despite the excruciating pain from my abdominal surgery, I apparently whispered to her, “do you know where my Chanel eyeliner is?”

What are you looking forward to most between now and the day you graduate?

My politically moderate knight in shining armor! (just kidding.) I need to turn in my PAE!! I missed school for a month this semester because of a big surgery, and so I’m still catching up on work that I missed. Other than turning in the assignment necessary for me to graduate from HKS, I really look forward to spending every free moment with classmates and hanging out before we are thrust back into the real world.