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July 29, 2022

Seeking Accountability for North Korean Atrocities: An Interview with Erika Suh Holmberg, Monica Jung Hyun Lee, Jasmine Shin, and Ethan Shin

Editor’s note: This article was first published on Harvard Law School Advocates for Human Rights Spotlight Series page.

HLS Advocates for Human Rights is proud to present the Spotlight Series, a forum for essays and opinion pieces written by Harvard Law School students and alumni calling attention to pressing domestic and international human rights issues. If you are a Harvard Law student or alumnus/a and would like to contribute a piece to Spotlights, please contact Ariella Katz ([email protected]) or Dane Underwood ([email protected]).

Please note that the views and opinions expressed in Spotlight essays are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HLS Advocates for Human Rights.

Spotlight Series logo, Advocates for Human Rights

The past and ongoing atrocities committed by the Kim regime in North Korea represents one of the most dire human rights crises in recent decades. Three recent HLS graduates— Erika Suh Holmberg (J.D. ’22), Monica Jung Hyun Lee (J.D. ’22), and Jasmine Shin (J.D. ’21), channeled their existing passion for and experience with advocating for change in North Korea by leading the “North Korea Accountability Project” with HLS Advocates for Human Rights project, in partnership with the Seoul-based human rights NGO Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) and under the continuous supervision of TJWG legal counsel Ethan Hee-Seok Shin (LL.M. ’13). Since Jasmine created the Accountability Project in Spring 2021 and led its first semester-long project team, Erika and Monica co-led two subsequent project teams in Fall 2021 and Spring 2022; a total of eight other HLS students participated as team members over the course of the three semester-long project teams.

In Spring 2021, under Jasmine’s leadership, the team prepared a memo for TJWG concerning the possible avenues for civil litigation under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act against the North Korean government and its officials in U.S. courts by North Korean defectors. In Fall 2021, the team prepared a memo concerning recommendations on how to strengthen the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 as Congress considers its reauthorization. Most recently, in Spring 2022, the team researched numerous recent UN-mandated investigative mechanisms targeting grave human rights violations in other countries as a reference for potential North Korea-related mandates in the future.

Erika, Jasmine, Monica, and Ethan recently shared their reflections on the project with Sondra Anton (J.D. ’22), Advocates’ 2021-22 Co-President. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why did you decide to create and lead a new Advocates project specifically about North Korea, and how did the project initially get started?

Jasmine Shin [JS]: “My grandfather was originally from North Korea, but he was forced to escape to South Korea shortly before the Korean War because military forces accused his family of being anti-communist and burned his home down. Because of this family history, I came to HLS with a specific vision of using my legal career towards bringing justice to victims of human rights violations in North Korea. Unfortunately, during my first two years at HLS, there were no North Korea-specific projects in SPOs or clinics. I knew I wanted to change that before I graduated, and I finally got around to launching a new Advocates project on North Korea during my last semester at HLS. The timing was serendipitous – our project partner, the Transitional Justice Working Group (whose work I’d been following for years), had recently reached out to the HLS International Human Rights Clinic looking for students to support their work. As soon as I heard about this, I floated the idea of starting a new Advocates project on North Korea with TJWG to the Advocates Executive Board.”

Erika Suh Holmberg [EH]: “Adding to the serendipitous nature of the project’s inception, I found out about the project because Jasmine attended a Zoom event in which I had mentioned in passing the fact that the North Korean human rights crisis is my longtime passion issue that I hope to continue to work on in my future legal career. After that Zoom event, Jasmine reached out to me to let me know about her forthcoming Advocates project. We were both so excited to finally find fellow HLS students who share our dedication to this specific cause, and I knew that I had to become a part of the new team no matter what, since I had also been hoping to pursue North Korea-specific human rights advocacy work during my time at HLS.

Similar to Jasmine, my interest in North Korea issues began due to my personal familial connection– my maternal grandfather’s side of the family was unable to make it out of what is now North Korea when the Korean War started, and I started to fully understand the severity of the ongoing human rights crisis when I started volunteering with the NGO Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) in high school. I continued volunteering for LiNK in college, where I was able to actually meet several North Korean defectors who also attended Columbia at the time (including the incredible Seongmin Lee), and where I wrote my thesis on the plight of North Korean defectors living in China. North Korea is what sparked my interest in human rights in the first place over a decade ago, so I jumped on the opportunity to join this incredible and unprecedented Advocates team as soon as I heard about it.”

Monica Jung Hyun Lee [ML]: “Like Erika, I first heard about this project through Jasmine, who was my mentor in KAHLS (Koreans at Harvard Law School). I gained an interest in advancing human rights in North Korea in college, based on my work at People for Successful COrean Reunification (PSCORE) and my paper, “The Psychology Behind Discrimination Against North Koreans in South Korea.” When I heard about this project, I was incredibly excited to join a team effort that aligns with my interest as a 2L, and to co-lead it as a 3L.”

MONICA LEE (LEFT) AND ERIKA HOLMBERG (RIGHT)
MONICA LEE (LEFT) AND ERIKA HOLMBERG (RIGHT)

Q: Did most of your project team members have background knowledge, experience, and specific interest in North Korea-related issues? Were you surprised at all at the level of interest among HLS students in the project?

EH: “It was actually a mixed bag in terms of levels of prior experience or interest in North Korea issues specifically, which actually worked out really well because Ethan was able to help us onboard everyone and make sure we were all on the same page. Some members came into the project with similarly extensive past experience on North Korea issues, such as Andrew Hong (J.D. ’23), a member of all three semester-long project teams who previously founded a non-profit org that assists North Korean defectors. Other members came into the project with particular interests and skill sets that were not North Korea-specific, but were related to the types of research and advocacy that our project involved. For example, Justin Walker (J.D. ’24), a member of our Fall ’21 and Spring ’22 project teams, had prior experience as a Congressional intern, and his understanding of how Congress operates was invaluable as he tackled researching the legislative history of the NKHRA. Leading this team has been such an honor because I met such dedicated and hardworking fellow students who shared my existing passion for North Korea-related human rights issues, and I also experienced firsthand how many students developed a deeper appreciation of the urgency of this crisis and the impact of human rights advocacy over the course of their involvement on the team.”

JS: “At first, I was nervous that there would be little interest in this rather niche human rights issue. Thankfully, a core group of five students signed up, and as cliché as it sounds, I could not have asked for a better team. … [E]ach and every member of the team was committed, engaged, and excited about this project as much as I was…. And the best part of the whole experience was that two team members, Erika and Monica, were willing to step up and continue this project the following year. My goal all along was to create an avenue through which HLS students can learn and contribute towards bringing justice in North Korea, and it gives me so much joy that this project has been and continues to be that platform.”

ML: “Being a part of this project has been one of the highlights of my HLS career. It was such a rewarding experience to virtually and physically meet other HLS students with a wide variety of backgrounds, all interested in this issue. It was a true privilege to share our passions, discuss the best ways to research with Ethan, and overall just learn so much from each other. I am so thankful that Jasmine began this project with Ethan and that I was able to co-lead it with Erika.”

Ethan Shin [ES]: “I was pleasantly surprised that each of the three projects had a good mix of Korean and non-Korean Advocates, which highlighted the fact there was a broad interest in North Korean human rights. I prefer to approach the issue from the perspective of the promotion and protection of universal human rights while recognizing the emotional attachment that the South Koreans and the Korean diaspora at large have. … Working on North Korean human rights can be rather depressing and the field is a graveyard for optimists so such level of interest gives me hope. After all, evil prevails when good people do nothing!”

Q: Ethan, what were some highlights of your experience working with Advocates on the project?

ES: “It was exciting to “e-meet” new members online at the start of each semester and to receive the final legal memo at the end of each semester. It is rather strange that I have never met any [team members] in person, other than Monica who visited our office [in Seoul] last summer. I am all the more thankful that everyone nonetheless has invested so much time and effort and has placed trust in me. That is why I am making every effort to see to it that [the North Korea Accountability Team’s] work is put to good use, be it litigations in U.S. courts, legislative efforts in Congress or strengthening the accountability mechanism at the UN.”


ERIKA SUH HOLMBERG (J.D. ’22)

Erika Suh Holmberg graduated from HLS in 2022. At HLS, in addition to her involvement in HLS Advocates, she also worked on two International Human Rights Clinic projects, served on the executive board of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA), and was an Article Editor for the International Law Journal. She spent her 1L summer as a Chayes Fellow, interning at Greater Boston Legal Services’ Immigration Unit. She majored in Political Science and East Asian Studies at Columbia University. She currently resides in Washington, D.C.

MONICA JUNG HYUN LEE (J.D. ’22)

Monica Jung Hyun Lee is a recent HLS graduate and former Project Leader of HLS Advocates for Human Rights. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2019. At HLS, she worked on various projects with the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic. She spent her 1L summer as a Chayes Fellow with Advocates for Public Interest Law in Seoul, advocating on behalf of refugees.

JASMINE SHIN (J.D. 21)

Jasmine Shin is a recent HLS graduate and former Vice President/Treasurer and project leader of HLS Advocates for Human Rights. At HLS, she worked on a variety of human rights projects with the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic and Advocates, focusing on accountability for human rights violations by state and corporate actors in Myanmar, North Korea, Bolivia, Haiti, and the US. Prior to law school, she worked as a human rights researcher for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. 

ETHAN HEE-SEOK SHIN (LL.M. 13) 

Ethan Hee-Seok Shin is a South Korean human rights advocate. He has worked on the documentation of grave human rights violations in North Korea with a view to promoting justice and accountability. He has also been taking part in the redress campaign for the victims of Japan’s World War II-era military sexual slavery in the Asia-Pacific, in particular urging the South Korean government to institute inter-state proceedings against Japan on their behalf under the UN Torture Convention.

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