It was in late middle school when John Jun-Sung Park ’19 traveled to North Korea for a weeklong tour sponsored by automaker Hyundai. There, Park was particularly struck by sights of kids—many younger than himself— living in impoverished conditions and working extremely hard in the field.
“Although they [North Korea] kept a nice facade of development and prosperity, we had to drive through the countryside and saw what state the country was in,” says Park.
The grandson of a North Korean citizen who escaped from the country during wartime, Park moved to Michigan at the age of six from South Korea. Park’s personal connection to North Korea, the impactful visit to the country, as well as his later academic interest in international politics and policy inspired him to start a non-profit organization, Bluebird NK, during the summer before he started high school. He is founder and president.
Bluebird NK aims to empower defectors, working through mentorship initiatives and with sponsoring schools in South Korea. Its name derives from a Belgian play by the same name—a story about how a group of children try to find the bluebird of happiness, and eventually find it in their own backyard.
One event that the group has been especially excited about is the group’s kickoff event at Pomona College, “Defector Dialogues,” which will be held on Saturday, October 21. Park believes it to be a great way of introducing people to the key issues on North Korea through the voices of defectors Kim Hak-Min and Shin Dong-Hyuk.
Having registered Bluebird as an official club with the Associated Students of Pomona College, Park and Bluebird Vice President Akira Nagao ‘19, among other students, hope to host more campus events that will further highlight the importance of North Korean issues. They also aim to include more students from the other Claremont Colleges.
Park is a politics major at Pomona College and plans to minor in philosophy and cognitive science. His goal is to acquire all the tools to understand North Korea more comprehensively. So far, he has found three courses particularly helpful. The first is an independent course that his friend Mudit Murarka ’19 and himself designed, under the guidance of Media Studies Professor Jonathan Hall. The two met with Hall on a regular basis at Frary Dining Hall, attempting to approach the questions of reunification and receiving critiques from Hall on critical summaries they did on articles that they read in order to approach their topic.
“The independent study class really kick-started my interest in defector viewpoints and inspired the ‘Defector Dialogues’ event,” says Park, who has interviewed a number of defectors and continues working on the film project with Murarka. Part of the film, titled A Flight of Goshawks, will be screened at the Oct. 21 event.
Other particularly meaningful classes that Park has taken in Claremont include Politics Professor Tom Le’s Introduction to International Relations class and a Scripps College course called Koreans and Korean Americans, which, through historical viewpoints that offered tools to understand why North Korea acts in certain ways, has complicated Park’s thinking with more nuanced considerations.
“It is unfortunate but also fascinating how little attention North Korean human rights issues have received,” says Park. “Reunification for me is the most interesting thing, period.”
Park aspires to attend law school after Pomona to acquire the skills and knowledge to further work related to North Korean human rights issues.