HKS Student Reflects on North Korea and Giving Back

January 6, 2014
By Catalina Gaitan, Belfer Center

International and Global Affairs student fellow Jieun Baek MPP 2014 has had a busy two years. After leaving a prestigious job at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California to pursue her masters at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Baek has written a memo with Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Director Graham Allison, traveled the world, and ran a successful campaign for president of the Kennedy School Student Government (KSSG). Along the way she’s kept a blog, “Inalienable,” which catalogues stories of her travels and her ongoing work with North Korea.

“It was phenomenal to gain a lot of personal experiences that are nearly impossible to gain from merely reading and watching the news,” said Baek, 26, whose blog posts followed her through various Asian and Middle Eastern countries including Turkey, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and China.

Born in Los Angeles to Korean-American parents, Baek attended a magnet school and went on to get her degree in Government and International Relations from Harvard in 2010. Prior to graduating, however, she took a year off to intern for the U.S. State Department in Austria and Germany, where she gained firsthand experience of Middle Eastern conflict, including multiple civilian-led protests in Istanbul and Bahrain.

Baek furthered these travels in August, when she co-led a group of 25 Harvard students on a week-long trip to North Korea. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Baek, who was the first in her family to have contact with North Korean soil since her grandparents left in 1948. “I thought I was going to be condemned, that people would shun me or think I was the child of a traitor. But people approached me with sheer curiosity, because number one, there aren’t a lot of American tourists, and number two, there aren’t a lot of ethnic Korean Americans coming through.”

Since returning to the Kennedy School for her Masters in Public Policy in 2012, Baek has used these traveling experiences to help her work as a research fellow for Professor Graham Allison. Her primary focus is currently working on a memo that suggests strategies for improved U.S. - North Korea relations.

In addition to this work, she is starting her term as the KSSG president with vice-president, Maggie Williams MPP 2014. Campaigning with the slogan “One School; One Community; One Network,” the newly-elected pair’s mission is to bring students at the Kennedy School together.

“It’s a relatively small school, only about 900 students, and it’s probably one of the most interesting student bodies in the world, but after a few weeks of school it becomes a very siloed community,” said Baek, who is implementing programs and events to help students develop both friendships during graduate school and a professional network for after graduation.

A common theme with Baek’s work – whether it is developing strategies for improved international relations or helping her peers develop lasting friendships – is serving others.

“The biggest lesson I’ve internalized is the importance of using higher education to serve society. I think I’ve learned from college and especially at the Kennedy School to use my knowledge for others,” said Baek, who hopes to serve in the U.S. government after graduation. “I gained so much from a personal standpoint, a professional standpoint, and for my academic career, and I know I have a duty to give back."

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Jieun Baek, Belfer Center International and Global Affairs Student Fellow

Jieun Baek, Belfer Center International and Global Affairs student fellow

Photo Courtesy: Jieun Beak

“The biggest lesson I’ve internalized is the importance of using higher education to serve society."

Jieun Baek with North Korean soldier. She blurred the photo to protect his identity.

Jieun Baek with a North Korean soldier. Baek blurred the photo to protect his identity.