OPERATING BEYOND national borders, the employees of international organizations negotiate diverse interests to promote unique agendas across the globe. Depending on governmental affiliation, they are commonly divided into two categories: intergovernmental organizations (IGO), where coalitions of states a range of policies, and international non-governmental organizations (INGO), where missions are conducted outside governmental interests. However, both of these agencies share the objective of fostering peace and aiding the lives of human beings. To discover more about their endeavors to better the international community, The Yonsei Annals sat down with two prestigious guests: Lim Hyoung-joon, Head of the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) Seoul Office, and Lee Kyung-eun, Director of Amnesty International Korea Office.
Amnesty International Korea Office
Annals: What sort of organization is Amnesty International? What role do you play in the operations of the organization?
Lee: Amnesty International is referred to by various press organizations as the world’s largest human rights group. However, Amnesty International is more of a global movement, with participation of over 7 million people. Regardless of where or when injustice occurs, we are comprised of people who treat worldly issues as if they are our own.
We are an organization that operates through various types of campaigns for different human rights issues, including street campaigns, lobbying with relevant agencies, and diverse media work. Through the media, we spread awareness about our various campaigns to the public, like our latest campaign for climate change. Recently, we have received the Ambassador of Conscience Award for our campaign of corporate accountability in workplaces, such as safety provision and child labor prevention in cobalt mines.
Our operations also include conducting independent research, as it is imperative to understand the said issue thoroughly before engaging in a campaign. We regularly publish journals and reports on human rights issues, such as our article “Still Waiting After 60 Years” about comfort women and “Serving in Silence” about gay Korean men in the military, published on July 2019.
Annals: What sort of characteristics does your organization have as an international non-governmental organization?
Lee: Amnesty International is a non-governmental organization, and all of our operations in 159 countries are non-profit without any support from governments and corporations. Unlike the UN, we work to change the world with monthly donations from our members. All important management decisions and budget for operation are thoroughly reviewed by members.
Annals: What occupation exactly is an international organization worker and what is it they do?
Lee: Being an international organization, Amnesty International revolves around international development and aid to provide basic welfare to the global community. With Amnesty, 7 million people in 150 nations have been engaging in human rights for over 58 years—a challenging process that includes diverse levels of communication and decision making. We gained trust from the public through our various reliable reports and campaigns, which makes communication vital. In Amnesty International, the majority of our staff are research professionals, who possess knowledge of international laws and norms to provide resolute foundations to our operations. We also aim to communicate with the public, by emphasizing activism, campaign, and ICT.
Annals: How did you become the Director of Amnesty International Korea Office?
Lee: I didn’t always have Amnesty International as a particular career goal, but my career path led me to join the organization after connecting the dots of my career experiences. I started working as a civil servant from 1995 and have worked in different government agencies for over 20 years including the president’s office. I also gained much experience in the field of international relations and law, having done my masters in America and doctorate in Korea. I was looking for a career where I can put my knowledge of international relations and law to good use, and Amnesty International was ideal for this. Much of my colleagues have similar career experiences, as even the Secretary General Kumi Naidoo of Amnesty International was the former head of Greenpeace. Much like him, I felt I had the right conditions to join Amnesty International at the right time.
Annals: What do you find as the strength of your job?
Lee: I feel most proud when I invest my time and efforts to help victims of human rights violations. Human rights are something provided solely for being human, and they are universal and indivisible. Amnesty International also engages in campaigns through the core standard of international solidarity and raises awareness for international issues such as climate strikes and carbon footprints that are happening outside of Korea, real time. Working in the international community provides a great opportunity to see the status quo of human rights with a new perspective.
Annals: What is the most difficult part about your job?
Lee: The most obvious challenge is working in different time zones, as we frequently have to make conference calls with our other branches in the middle of the night. In addition, it is always difficult to assess the urgency of human rights issues since they are felt differently depending on the region. So we constantly have to see through others’ perspectives while setting our priorities. I feel that empathizing with those who are physically far away is both a strength and a difficulty of our organization. Furthermore, Amnesty International can only operate in regions where it is legally provisioned; thus it becomes a challenge for us to work in unsanctioned nations such as China and Russia.
Annals: To you personally, what does it mean to work in an international organization?
Lee: After working fervently for 20 years in the Korean Government, I wish to live my life along within the frame of human rights. Amnesty International felt right for that decision, as I believe the organization fits well with my personal aspirations and values. I am proud to say that I now work to create a world where human rights are provided to all.
Annals: Any final comments to the readers of the Annals?
Lee: For several years, the key word of Amnesty International has been “youth.” We are currently aiming to suit the needs of the youth as well as creating a system where they can actively engage in our campaigns. Like George Bernard Shaw says, “Youth is wasted on the young,” youth itself is a great asset that you have. I too believe that it is a great value, and as much as you wish to invest in a future working in the international community, please make good use of your youth.
UN World Food Programme Seoul Office
Annals: What sort of organization is the UNWFP? What role do you play in the operations of the organization?
Lim: The UN World Food Programme (UNWFP) is an organization dedicated to eradicating hunger, comprised of 17,000 employees in branches from 92 countries. Today 1 out of 9 people in the world are still starving, and our utmost objective is “Zero Hunger,” a realistic goal in present day thanks to enough food and transportation infrastructures. Our main operation is emergency mercy missions, to provide the right people with the right food at the right time, especially to newborn babies and pregnant women. We also engage in development agendas such as providing education in developing countries and creating subsisting economies for villages. Korea itself was an aid recipient from the WFP in the old days, and an outstanding example for having graduated from assistance within just a single generation.
As the Head of the UNWFP Seoul Office, I am currently working to help starving people outside of Korea through Official Development Assistance (ODA) fund and local resources. Through cooperation with Korean government agencies like Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), the Seoul Office helped over 5 million people last year and will help even more in 2019. We also interact with private corporations and are reaching out to the public with campaigns such as Hunger TV.
Annals: What sort of characteristics does your organization have as an intergovernmental organization?
Lim: As a UN organization, our main characteristic is that we cooperate with fellow organizations within the UN. The WFP’s aim is to “get our hands dirty” and provide aid wherever food is needed, and there are clusters of organizations within the UN to make this feasible, including clusters for transportation, Information & Communication Technology (ICT), and food. They allow a single organization to coordinate various other UN organizations to achieve successful operation. For example, should there be a need to transport food, the UN Air Service is available as well as the UN Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD), where resources are stocked in every continent.
Annals: What occupation exactly is an international organization worker and what is it that they do?
Lim: Workers of national governments work only for their people and their countries, but workers of international organizations work for the entire world and all of humanity. It is a job I take pride in.
The field itself is a broad one, including workers who direct programs, manage human resources, transport goods, and so on. Collectively, they aspire to work for the benefit of the world, since every single life is precious. We, in South Korea, are not starving at the moment, but there are so many people outside Korea who go to sleep or wake up starving. An international organization worker is an occupation that takes compassion to resolve these problems and help the interconnected world.
Annals: What sparked your interest in the career and how did you come to join the UNWFP?
Lim: In my youth, I pondered a lot about what sort of person I would become, so I went traveling around the world. When traveling across 80 countries, I saw so many people in pain, which got me thinking about starvation and famine. The officials in Bangladesh were neglecting the starvation of so many of their own citizens, and the situations in India and Africa were even worse. During a boat ride in Malawi, I myself had to starve after running out of money, and I came to empathize with people suffering from famine. When a crewmate finally shared some of his food, I was so moved and thought that giving food was the kindest act in the world. When I passed by a small village filled with happy villagers, I found out that they were receiving aid from the WFP. That was the first time that I got to know the existence of the UN and the WFP, which ultimately motivated me to join these organizations.
I sent my resume to over 100 organizations across the globe, and aimed to gain a healthy track record despite getting rejected. I did volunteer work for the disabled, worked as a research assistant, became an intern for the MOFA, and wrote a book. After having received job offers from five organizations including the UN headquarters, I ultimately chose to work as an intern for the WFP. After working as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO*), I officially joined the WFP starting from 2002.
Annals: Are there any qualifications or skills that are necessary for the job? How did you become the Head of the WFP?
Lim: In terms of qualifications and language abilities, especially English, you should prioritize conducting translation, speeches, and paperwork. There are also three main qualities required to work in an international organization: relevant experiences, a strong work ethic, and an open attitude. Having relevant experiences in your track record is crucial, such as working in a food-related NGO in the WFP’s case. The UN is an organization that expects you to deliver performances as soon as you enter, and you have to obtain a significant amount of professionalism as well as show that you are willing to work hard. In terms of attitude, it is important to be bright, energetic, and assertive. As the UN is a place where people of different races and cultures come together and interact, it is important to be passionate and have a positive mindset.
Annals: What do you enjoy the most about your job? Are there difficult parts about your job as well?
Lim: Working for the WFP, I certainly feel honored to serve humanity and the world. I also love to travel, which corresponds well to the nature of my job. Since I am an international organization worker, the occupational benefits are great including a pension. Because we are diplomats, we usually receive prestigious treatment overseas during our operations.
However, I also face various difficulties mainly due to the many unforeseen situations when working with diverse agencies. When working with different cultures, disputes tend to happen regardless of your good intentions, with governments sometimes even refusing to receive our aids. Also, once we could not operate because government workers were not in office after not receiving salaries for seven months. Another time, I had to evacuate my wife and all of our employees during operations, as coup d’etats and civil wars were occurring on a regular basis in the African national borders.
Annals: To you personally, what does it mean to work in an international organization?
Lim: The world is where humans live together just like branches that share the trunk of a tree, and an international organization is a place where we can expand our aspirations. Much like how smallpox went from a deadly plague to a minor disease ever since Edward Jenner discovered the vaccine, I want to see a future where our descendants are free from hunger. As much as our parents’ generation in Korea received significant help from other nations in the past, I wish to bring goodness to the world.
* * *
No matter what your motive for joining an international organization is—be it seeing starvation with your own eyes or working for the government for 20 years—there is no set route to helping people. Small or big, every action and movement make a difference in someone else’s life. Service is a ripple effect, and it begins with us.
*JPO: Young professionals recruited by the UN who possess advanced university degrees