Promoting the voice of Korean Americans

Promoting the voice of Korean Americans
© Courtesy photo

Jessica Lee says the first U.S.-North Korea summit last year was a hectic experience.

Lee was serving as the Council of Korean Americans’ (CKA) interim executive director, responding to all manner of media requests to represent Korean Americans’ viewpoint on President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer Joint Chiefs chairman: 'The last thing in the world we need right now is a war with Iran' Pence: 'We're not convinced' downing of drone was 'authorized at the highest levels' Trump: Bolton would take on the whole world at one time MORE’s Singapore summit and hosting events and briefings throughout D.C. — all while her community itself was trying to fully grasp the import of the event.

“It was a crazy time," she said recently with a chuckle, "because there was a lot of interest in what the summit meant."

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“I was serving as spokesperson for my organization at a time when, frankly, we were also trying to figure out what this all meant," Lee added. "So it isn’t as though we had an answer in our pocket, but we had a specific perspective that I thought really enriched the debate about what we’re dealing with and why this is more than a security challenge.”

As Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s second summit arrives later this week in Vietnam, Lee is now a senior director at the CKA. She’s still monitoring developments closely and stands at the ready to help people understand the issues involved.

“We’re very interested to see how the summit will build upon the first summit in Singapore and what sort of specific deliverables and outcomes will come out of it,” Lee said during a recent phone interview with The Hill. “For me, personally speaking, I’m really happy that so much political capital and attention is being placed on this issue by the highest level of our government.”

Lee, who lives in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., has been with the council since 2016 after a professional journey that took her from Capitol Hill to Honolulu. The organization seeks to promote the voice and visibility of Korean Americans throughout the country by building a membership of industry leaders, hosting events nationwide and holding an annual summit in Washington, among other activities.

Lee was born in South Korea, moving to the United States when she was 8 years old.

It’s that perspective as an immigrant, and her subsequent studies of Korean history in graduate school, that she said led her into the public policy sphere.

“I had seen how important representation and democracy — these big concepts — really are, and how people have fought and bled to bring things like democracy to South Korea,” she said. “So I was always intrigued by the role of Congress and government in responding to people’s needs.”

Her first job after getting her master’s degree at Harvard University was on the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, originally as a staff associate in 2008 followed by a promotion to professional staff member.

On the committee, Lee worked on issues related Southeast Asia at the same time the Obama administration was pushing its so-called “pivot to Asia," and the committee held a number of hearings and briefings on the matter.

“There could be more attention given to Asia on the Hill in general,” she said. “It’s hard to demand that lawmakers have sustained interest in Asia-Pacific because I think for the most part people assume that things are a little bit less tumultuous there with respect to the United States and our relations compared to … the Middle East, perhaps. So I think that is always going to be a challenge when you’re working on foreign policy and Asia in particular on the Hill.”

After Foreign Affairs, Lee went to work for then-Rep. Jim McDermottJames (Jim) Adelbert McDermottBottom Line Promoting the voice of Korean Americans Lobbying World MORE (D-Wash.) in 2011. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee who hailed from a Pacific state, McDermott was highly interested in trade and the Asia-Pacific, the focus of Lee’s work for him. Particularly, there were intense debates in Congress about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

“I remember a lot of briefings with administration officials and conversations with fellow Hill staffers about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S. economic power and what leverage we have in the region and how important it is to remain competitive,” she said.

Trump later withdrew the U.S. from TPP, though other countries have forged ahead with a new version of the pact.

Describing herself as “ready to understand other parts of Washington,” Lee left Capitol Hill in 2014 for a consulting group known as The Asia Group.

In 2015, she jumped at the chance to be a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum in Honolulu.

“It’s really easy to get lost in your work and not really have a life,” she said of life in D.C. “That’s sort of how I felt. I was extremely burnt out and tired after such high intensity jobs, and so I ended up doing a fellowship in Hawaii.”

Her four months there researching and making connections also allowed her to “recharge,” she said, before she joined CKA as its first director of policy and advocacy.

Moving into the world of community organizing felt like a good fit, she said, because of an issue she noticed as a congressional staffer.

“What I noticed during my time on Capitol Hill was that there was an absence of Korean-American activism and representation and advocacy,” she said. “And so I think seeing that really stayed with me.”

At CKA, Lee has found the most rewarding experience has been working to make connections with other minority communities that she said “traditionally my community has had a hard time building relations with.”

For example, she said, in 2017, CKA worked “very closely” with the NCAAP of Charlotte, N.C., to build bridges in the community after a Korean-American beauty supply storeowner tackled and choked a suspected shoplifter, who was African American.

“Being able to proactively address these racial tensions that have long been simmering in urban communities and being able to be a translator or an interpreter for mostly first-generation Korean Americans who don’t speak English as well with other communities and making sure there are understandings and also more dialogue, that’s something that I’m really proud of because I don’t see that work being done enough,” she said.

With the Korean peninsula coming to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump administration, Lee said CKA has been active briefing lawmakers and hosting events.

CKA's philosophy when it comes to North Korean diplomacy is what Lee described as a "human-centered" approach — reminding policy makers that North Korea is more than Kim, filled with people with humanitarian concerns, including many with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Humanitarian issues are not expected to be high on Trump's agenda when he sits down with Kim in Hanoi this week. Trump is seeking to make progress on Kim's pledge at the first summit to work toward denuclearization, though Trump's own intelligence chiefs have cast doubt on Kim's willingness to relinquish his nuclear weapons.

On top of concerns about nuclear weapons, Lee and her organization have sought to remind policy makers and the public about the issue of family reunifications for Korean Americans and their North Korean relatives, divided by the Korean War. It's an issue, she said, that becomes more pressing with each passing year as families who haven't seen each other for decades age.

“I have been struck by the level of interest from the administration to hear from the Korean American community,” she said. “This is something that we have welcomed, and we’ve had opportunity to talk directly with administration officials about our concerns. Regarding how high up our concerns make it in the overall agenda that this administration pursues, I think that is something that we’re still working on because there are many priorities, I think, the administration is juggling with respect to the upcoming summit.”