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North Korea is a harsh and isolated dictatorship, but Jieun Baek is not about to let that minor detail get in her way.
“My obsession, my life passion, is with this idea of trying to bombard this country with information about the outside world,” said Baek. “To get people to not only think about what’s outside their reality, but also trying to build mental capacity to act on that. I’m not trying to start a revolution, because the regime has no qualms about wiping … people out, but trying to inform that citizenry is something I’m really interested in.”
Baek’s parents were born in South Korea, but her interest in the North began when she arrived at Harvard College. “It was November of freshman year, and some cute guy asked me to come to a talk at Kirkland House. I didn’t even know what Kirkland House was at that time. I went, and speaking was Kang Chol-Hwan, who was sentenced to a prison camp [in North Korea] at the age 9 for 10 years. He was talking about how he was being tortured and all these awful things, and it was just a shock to my system,” she said.
Following a gap year working at the U.S. State Department, Baek graduated in 2010 and took a job in her native California with Google, managing ad sales and researching projects to help North Korean defectors access information.
Despite the job’s enviable prestige, Baek, 27, always intended to return Cambridge and the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), where she has earned a master’s degree in public policy.
“There are lots of amazing kids at Harvard, obviously, but she’s a very amazing one,” said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at HKS. “She is determined that North Korea is going to be free. She’s determined that this is going to happen sooner rather than later, and if you tell her anything she could do to make that more likely, I’d say watch out, she’ll probably do it.”
Baek started “Inalienable,” a blog that provides a conduit for North Korean defectors to freely tell their remarkable and often heartbreaking stories, and she co-produced “Divided Families,” a documentary about families torn apart by the icy relations between North Korea and most of the world.
“Trying to instill human dignity on a one-to-one basis, it’s a very powerful experience. Hearing people’s individual stories … the shocking, haunted element of every story, has not worn off,” she said. read more