My friends sometimes ask why I chose to work in the United Nations rather than in academia. The answer is simple. Universities may be a good vantage point to watch social change, but the UN is a better place to make a global impact. The leap from academia to the UN was an adventurous change, but it was one that provided endless lessons about the world’s cultures and how the UN affects the everyday lives of the poor and forgotten. As a former social development officer for UNICEF in Southeast Asia and Africa, my work often involved listening to people’s experiences with the UN, evaluating project impacts, and making recommendations to improve them.
Rural women taught me important lessons about how development projects often get things wrong. For example, information campaigns about women’s sexual and reproductive health sometimes missed the mark. In one village, women told me they didn’t need any more information about family planning. The truth was they couldn’t use it anyways, because their husbands would beat them if they even mentioned using contraceptives.
At other times, the UN was in the right place, doing exactly what was needed. Women shared good news of how UNICEF helped them develop income-generation projects and how more money in their pockets empowered them to end harmful practices like female genital mutilation. I visited orphanages for the deaf where UNICEF worked hand-in-hand with NGOs to train children how to speak. There were water and sanitation projects saving lives, because children could wash their hands in clean water. This wasn’t the highest form of diplomacy – no polished speeches here. This was the United Nations in action.
Several years later, I worked as a social scientist at the World Health Organization’s Office (SEARO). When I learned that I was being considered for the job, I jumped at the chance because of its intensive, hands-on course in public health. At the time, I was the only social scientist in a WHO Regional Office working with WHO’s Geneva headquarters. Numerous social science programs were being added to health programs such as child immunization, AIDS, tropical diseases, reproductive health and environmental health. I had a crash course in all of these subjects. Through field visits, I saw the plight of the disenfranchised who suffered, waiting for the UN and governments to take action.
What do I think are the most important qualities of someone who applies for a job at the UN?
I would put courage and compassion at the top of the list. You have to be willing to go to dangerous places. Compassion for human suffering is equally important. There is nothing more discrediting to the UN than an officer who doesn’t show kindness to the people they serve.
I admit that some parts of the UN are handicapped by a culture of bureaucracy around following rules. Call me a romantic, but I believe that the UN survives because it is a bureaucracy. The best UN bureaucrats do the job they were assigned, whether advising governments on the best way to eradicate malaria or arranging microphones for a meeting. I also think that the organization is what we make of it. Take the same “worthless” job and fill it with a motivated, qualified activist, and you have a completely different result. The UN is only as strong and effective as the governments that we put in place to govern it.
Even with these vestiges of a bureaucratic morass, the UN remains the most universal and fair-handed champion of the underdogs, the forgotten, and the underserved. Rich and powerful nations are forced to listen to the smallest country, and enemies find neutral territory on which to face off – and head off – deadly conflicts. It’s the most democratic institution I know. Every country, regardless of its size and power, has one vote.
Today, the UN is facing a great challenge as governments try to dismantle multilateralism and discredit notions of global citizenship. Yet, I am confident that the UN can survive if it looks for and nurtures innovation. Some creative ideas can come from within, but most will come from the social movements surrounding the UN. The connection between social movements and the UN was at the founding of the UN and must stay strong.
In the late 1970s, South Korea’s economic “miracle” was in full swing under President Chung-Hee Park. His leadership style was reminiscent of Japanese colonial rule. Many of my friends were arrested and tortured by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). Labor union leaders and protestors disappeared without a trace. The Christian-inspired urban labor movement was in turmoil, its human rights principles entirely at odds with the dictatorship. Throughout this period, student protests and proclamations for the freedom of imprisoned poets, scholars and journalists led to clashes with the police.
The women’s studies program at Ewha Womans University, which had set up a leadership training center for women rural leaders, quickly attracted the attention of Korean intelligence agents. Faculty members involved were routinely harassed. What bothered the KCIA officers the most was not the idea of women’s liberation; it was the notion that women wanted to be the ones to decide Korea’s future – what that involved, who would lead, and where it might take Korea’s future.
The international press also played an important role in reporting on Korea’s progress. I met Rick Smith, an editor from Newsweek magazine who wanted to learn more about the labor movement. He was a tall – very tall – and lanky young man who intimidated most Koreans in an elevator. I sometimes described him as “my biological opposite” with his Irish blond hair and fair eyes. When we walked down a busy street, both facing forward, he often complained he couldn’t hear what I was saying and vice versa. I think I grew several inches just stretching my neck to send my voice upwards.
My research projects had put me in touch with Tae-Il Chun’s mother, a revered figure in the textile labor movement who made international headlines when he immolated himself in protest against the dictatorship. Rick Smith wanted to interview her and hear the other side of the story about Korea’s economic miracle, so I made sure he got his story. These were days when the government hired people to cut-out censored passages of international magazines in an attempt to allow “freedom of the press.” The moment we saw the missing parts, everyone immediately sought out clandestine copies. Impressed by the power of reporting the truth to the outside world, I began to take greater interest in journalists – and in him.
Rick and I were soon traveling around the country together, which made both of us even more suspect to the KCIA. Intelligence agents hovered around the school residence hall, asking whether I was breaking the National Security Act by giving anti-government information to the foreign press. Agents were also obsessed with another question: Were Rick and I married or not? That may seem to be an odd query by American standards, but in Korean culture, this is considered basic data on par with one’s age and sex. I imagined that our files were being misplaced as one agent concluded “yes” and put us in the “married couples” file, while another would say “no” and our papers would be separated. There were other aspects of their inquiries that were less amusing.
When Rick Smith’s cover story on the “Koreans Are Coming” issue finally reached the stands, it added fuel to the controversy about the contract between the growing Korean economy and a hardline dictatorship. Needless to say, it was the first of many stories he would write about Korea. He continued to ask me for interviews, and I was pleased to be quoted occasionally in Newsweek. Although we were born in different worlds, this meeting in Korea was to set us on a life journey together. In 2021, we celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary.
My maternal grandfather, SangChum Song, was an unusually tall man, standing over six feet high. He had short hair almost in the style of school boys. Often dressed in white Korean traditional clothing, he was known as one of the most innovative modern leaders in Pyongyang. An ardent advocate of social equality, he wanted to dedicate his family to Korea’s modernization in an effort to protect it from foreign powers. At the turn of the 20th century and under Japanese occupation, Pyongyang was the industrial center of the country. However, compared to the “West”, it was lacking modernized agriculture or a strong manufacturing sector. My grandfather’s problem was that he had only one son and many daughters, so his “development corps” would have to include girls. That is probably why he raised his daughters to be independent and assertive. My mother said that he used to tell his friends that his girls could beat any boy at almost anything. He was determined to educate them abroad, so they could bring back the best of foreign ideas. He wanted each child to learn different skills in Western medicine, the arts, agriculture, and education. He also believed that Japanese military rule could be overthrown if Korea could have a strong economy.
The first child to study abroad was my mother’s sister, PokSyn Song, a slight person with a fragile physique but nerves of steel. She went to a missionary high school for girls in Pyongyang and was excited about opportunities abroad. My grandfather wanted her to study modern medicine, so even before she went to medical school in Japan, he built a Western-style hospital. His plans went astray when my aunt, a rebellious teenager, was determined to join the anti-Japanese underground. She worked as a secret courier, carrying messages for the provisional government in Manchuria. My aunt was eventually arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for her anti-colonial activities. She fled to the United States and was told to never return. Through sheer determination, she applied for a Barbour Scholarship at University of Michigan and was accepted. She received her PhD in public health in 1929, the first Korean woman to reach that goal. For the rest of her life in the United States, she continued to open doors for women’s equality.
My aunt was a great help to my mother, KyungShyn Song, who was a soft-spoken, artistic spirit who charmed everyone with her playful wit. When my mother was a little girl, she dreamed of studying piano in the United States. She had already toured China with the Pyongyang Symphony Orchestra at the age of ten. What still amazes me is that my grandfather let her travel without him and that he even accompanied her to late night rehearsals on the outskirts of the city. He bought her a German piano and agreed that she could go abroad to study. At age 16, she entered the American Conservatory of Music. When she finished school, she returned to Pyongyang and married DooSun Yoon, my father and a musician. They achieved their dream of establishing the first Western-style music conservatory in North Korea.
However, times were troubled, and our family’s future was threatened. The Russian army seized our house, and turned it into its headquarters. It was time to leave. Eventually, the entire family made its way hundreds of miles from Pyongyang to Seoul. Within a few months, we were heading to a new home and a peaceful life. Through my aunt’s diplomatic ties in Washington, D.C., she arranged for a U.S. military ship to give us safe passage from Busan to San Francisco. John A. Hannah, the former head of USAID and then-president of Michigan State University, invited my parents to teach music. Thus, they re-established their lives in Michigan. My parents could rebuild their lives from nothing, because they had carried with them a treasure that no one could take away from them: their education.
In 1947, Pyongyang was under military authority, and Russian troops were in command of the city. Life for my family had not been easy, and it was about to get worse. During the Japanese occupation, my good-natured mother, Kyung-Shyn Song, surrendered her brass housewares and even her wedding ring, because the Japanese army officers said that they needed metal for more arms. When the Russians and Chinese arrived, they shut down my parents’ music school, and the rest of the family properties had to be handed over to military control. My rebellious father refused to join the communist army, so soldiers were coming to arrest him. My parents decided it was time to escape to the south.
I was awakened in the middle of the night and told that we were going on a long journey. I could not take any of my toys, and I would have to be very quiet. I had no idea that my family planned to escape from Communist rule. Between us and Seoul, there was a desolate, heavily armed frontier. In that no-man’s land, Russians were known to shoot anything that moved. Nevertheless, there were secret networks of paid workers, who helped refugees to cross over by land and by sea. My parents planned to use that clandestine network to get the family to safety in Seoul. We were left with my grandmother in a remote settlement outside Pyongyang. I did not know where my parents had gone for three months.
As a child, I hardly understood the meaning of the 38th parallel. Yet, it seemed so important to my parents that I thought it traversed the entire world and that everyone lived on one side or the other. I wondered, ‘Why the number 38? Were there 38 soldiers guarding it? Was it made of 38 walls? And how did I ever get from one side to the other?’ I understood crossing a river or a room, but not a national border.
My father, Doo-Sun Yoon, had good business sense. Milled wood was like currency and considered more valuable than gold in the south, where the housing shortage was acute. Taking the lumber, my father left on a motorboat, traveling south by night along the coast. When he arrived in Seoul, he presented a letter of introduction to a friend who worked with the border authorities, thinking that it would serve as legitimate identification. Instead of giving him refuge, his friend confiscated his lumber, accused him of being a spy, and threw him into Seoul’s Namsan Prison.
My mother stayed behind, because she was about to give birth. She learned of my father’s imprisonment through a network of women traders who crossed the 38th parallel selling gold. The child was stillborn, so she was determined to go to Seoul alone to free my father. Her cousin, Keung-Shi Park, was an influential businessman in Seoul and would be able to help. I can hardly imagine the courage it took for her to leave home. Because she was too weak to walk, she hired a rowboat owned by a family who lived near the border. They hid her under the boat’s planks, where she lay all night. Just before dawn, she walked onto the shore south of the border. She carried one small bag of possessions from her past life into the new.
My mother’s loyal sister, Do-Shyn Song, traveled back across the 38th parallel from South Korea to fetch my brothers, my sister, and me. For the first part of the journey, my family was able to hire a truck. Then the older children had to walk, and my aunt carried me on her back. My four-year-old sister, Kyungcha and older brothers, Duke and DukYong walked almost two days and nights. When we got to the 38th parallel, men were hired to carry the children across the border. There was no choice. This part of the journey had to be completed in the dark. Russian soldiers spotted us on our first try and chased us back to the other side. We set out again by a different route. When we finally made it to Seoul, we had lost a lot of weight.
During our travels, I became very ill and ran a high fever. Uncertain that I would ever see my parents again, I would wake up from nightmares. The recurrent one that I had for many years was about refugees crossing an icy river at night. The currents were strong, and chunks of broken ice bobbed in the black waters. The bridges had been blown up, so everyone had to cross by foot. In my dreams, I saw a woman who had fallen through the ice. Pulled down by the weight of the baby, she carried on her back, she drowned. I doubt that I ever saw such events in real life. The dreams were much more frightening because in them, I became the baby.
Growing up, I always felt that global events can affect your daily life. Wars, climate change, terrorism, and financial crises can turn your world upside down and take away everything you love. I have also always assumed that politics could go in the wrong direction at any time. The sense of insecurity can have positive effects, because it inspires you to act instead of assuming someone else will work it out for you. It also prepares you to accept sudden disasters, act quickly, and overcome fears.