A mission to bring freedom to North Korea

Jieun BaekAs an undergraduate student with her sights set on a career in medicine, Jieun Baek’s (DPhil 2016) aspirations changed markedly after hearing the testimony of a North Korean defector during her freshman year at Harvard. Since then, she has been dedicated to understanding the causes and consequences of human rights abuses in North Korea and possible routes towards freedom. “The speaker shared his experience of being sent to a political prisoner camp at the age of nine as punishment for alleged crimes against the regime committed by his grandmother”, she recalls. “Sitting in a packed room and hearing his story was so impactful. I didn’t know it at the time but my own grandfathers were born in North Korea – and yet I had the privilege to be born in a country where I have limitless freedom.”

During her DPhil in Public Policy, Jieun examined first movers of dissent in authoritarian regimes, with a focus on Myanmar. She hopes that the findings of her research will ultimately be applicable in North Korea. “We already know that there are people with grievances at all levels of society but they’re currently unable to express them in the ways we’re used to seeing, such as through public demonstrations. When the country reaches a stage where this is possible, that is when I hope my research findings could be applied to enable reform.”

Now a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Jieun’s work spans the policy, academic and NGO spheres. She has recently convened a working group of high-level policymakers and practitioners to examine how the US administration can align human rights, information campaigns and denuclearisation in an innovative policy approach towards North Korea. In addition to this full-time role, she is working to grow the NGO that she founded during her DPhil, Lumen, which seeks to provide access to uncensored sources of information and media within North Korea, as well as safe channels of communication.

Despite the immense challenges of working on this issue, Jieun’s commitment is unwavering: “I consider this work to be my life mission and I can’t think of anything more spiritually or intellectually rewarding.”

Jieun received funding from the Blavatnik School of Government, the St Cross KT Soo Bursary and the Oxford-Burma fund

May 2021