Podcast by InnovatorsBox®

Curious Monica: Season 3

Do What You Love Despite Lack of Representation with Jean H. Lee

Curious Monica – a Podcast by InnovatorsBox®. Hosted by Monica H. Kang.

The Curious Monica podcast features candid conversations with innovators in thriving organizations across various industries. In each episode, host & founder of InnovatorsBox, Monica Kang interviews her friends in diverse fields about what they do and why they love what they do. If you’re curious too, you’ll gain incredible insight into the workplace patterns that can change the way you think about work, no matter what industry you’re in or who you are.

Tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your preferred platform of choice!

From the outset, Jean H. Lee harbored a clear passion for journalism. Yet, breaking into a field devoid of faces resembling her own posed challenges. Undeterred by the lack of representation, Jean persevered, eventually emerging as one of the foremost journalists of her time. Over her 20-year tenure with the Associated Press, she not only achieved remarkable success but also secured unparalleled access to North Korea—a feat few could boast. Spearheading the opening of the Seoul and Pyongyang Bureaus, Jean made history as one of the first Korean Americans to oversee both South and North Korea’s coverage, solidifying her status as a leading authority on the region.

Jean H. Lee’s journey exemplifies resilience and determination in the face of adversity. As a seasoned journalist, she has garnered acclaim for her incisive reporting and unparalleled insights into North Korea. From navigating safety concerns to establishing a bureau in an enigmatic nation, Jean’s story is one of unwavering commitment to her craft and an unyielding pursuit of truth.

This May, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate Jean’s remarkable achievements and her invaluable contributions to journalism. 

Guest: Jean H. Lee

Journalist and Expert on North Korea

Jean H. Lee is a writer, commentator and expert on North Korea. She is co-host of the Peabody-nominated Lazarus Heist podcast on the BBC World Service. Lee led the Associated Press news agency’s coverage of the Korean Peninsula as bureau chief from 2008 to 2013. In 2011, she became the first American reporter granted extensive access on the ground in North Korea, and in January 2012, she opened AP’s Pyongyang bureau. In 2015, she joined the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a fellow, served as director of the Korea project from 2018 to 2021, and served as a senior fellow until June 2023. She is a nonresident fellow with the European Centre for North Korean Studies at the University of Vienna, and a member of the Council of Korean Americans, the National Committee on North Korea, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Pacific Council. Lee is a native of Minneapolis. She holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University. She worked as a reporter for the Korea Herald in Seoul, South Korea, before being posted with AP to the news agency's bureaus in Baltimore; Fresno, Calif.; San Francisco; New York; London; Seoul, South Korea, and Pyongyang, North Korea. Lee contributes guest essays to the New York Times and appears frequently as a guest on BBC, CNN, NPR and other outlets. She is featured in the National Geographic documentary series "Inside North Korea," PBS' "Dictator's Playbook" and Netflix's "How to Become a Tyrant," among others.

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Episode Shownotes

1. Title of the Episode:
Do What You Love Despite Lack of Representation with Jean H. Lee

2. Host:
Monica H. Kang, Founder & CEO of InnovatorsBox

3. Guest:
Jean H. Lee, Journalist and Expert on North Korea

4. Key Topics Covered:

  • Overcoming barriers in journalism as a Korean American
  • Jean H. Lee’s early influences and motivations to pursue journalism
  • Insights into the unique challenges of reporting from North Korea
  • The role of journalists in shaping perceptions and narratives
  • Leadership and the creation of AP’s bureau in Pyongyang

5. Highlights:

  • Jean H. Lee’s experience as the AP bureau chief in North Korea
  • Her personal history and initial motivations to become a journalist
  • The development and impact of her podcast, “The Lazarus Heist”

6. Quotes from the guest:

  • “It’s been so interesting being here in Hawaii… It has highlighted for me the challenges that I faced as someone unusual in my field and really in the minority.”
  • “I think being a foreign correspondent in covering conflict like this is a public service, but it’s a public service that is designed to make sure that there’s a clearer picture of what’s happening.”

7. Some people suggested that we should learn from:

8. Contact Information for the guest:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeanhlee 

9. Closing Thoughts by Monica Kang:

Monica emphasized the importance of perseverance and representation in media, praising Jean H. Lee for her dedication and impact.

10. Episode Length and Release Date:
Episode Length: Approximately 44 minutes
Release Date: May 14, 2024


Monica H. Kang
How do you pave a path to a career where you dont see people who look like you or think like you, but you do know thats the career you want to step into? Well, thats exactly what todays guest Jean H. Lee has felt throughout her entire career. She knew very early on that journalism was a career that she wanted to step into. But she did notice also growing up in Minnesota, that there isnt really a lot of people who looked like her or people who looked like her on the news. Good thing she wasnt discouraged and had family members who were encouraging her to see in different ways, which youll hear about in a little bit. Jean H. 


Monica H. Kang
Lee is an american journalist, previously serving as the Associated Press Pyongyang, North Korea, bureau chief and was the director of the Hyundai Motor Korea Foundation center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson center. She is also the co host of the Peabody nominated Lazarus Tastes podcast on the BBC World Service. One of the things that you’ll quickly know is her passion for journalism, of being on the ground. And as you can imagine, there is really not a lot of people who has had first ground access to North Korea or speak the language Korean to do the work. And Jin had that access for many years. 


Monica H. Kang
This is what makes her continue to be one of the few North Korean experts who continue to call upon to get industry insights and understand how we decipher this country and peninsula with everything thats going on. As a Korean American, it was inspiring and humbling to have a chance to get to know her in person through communities like the Council of Korean American Shoutout CKA for having communities where you could connect with leaders like Jane Lee. And so today, I had her over at curious Monica here with us to dive into her journey, how she got into journalism, what her journey has been, what was it like doing North Korea work, and what is she hoping to see in the future of journalism? So let’s dive in. Meet Jean. 


Monica H. Kang
So very excited to have my friend Jean here. Thank you so much for joining all the way from Hawaii today. I know you’ve been out there working on some special projects and reflecting. And thank you for stepping away to have this conversation with me as we celebrate AAPI heritage Month in May. So many questions to dive into. I mean, I was so inspired by your journey even before I met you, so I was even more excited when I got the chance to meet you through CKA. I guess, given everything that you’ve done, if you revisit your childhood and had the chance to speak with young Jean, like what would she wanted to do what was her interest in the future? 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah. First of all, thanks for having me on. It’s so good to see you. Even though we’re not in the same city right now. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I would say that I grew up at a time where it was in the shadow of the Vietnam war. So it was very unusual to be a korean family in Minnesota. And I would say it was extremely hard. I mean, were often the only Koreans in our neighborhood, and my parents had to really find their own community. And I think for me, it was always a constant struggle to figure out. I mean, I had to go through that identity crisis of wondering who I was because I didn’t look like anyone around me, and yet I still had pretty big dreams. I knew that I wanted to. 


Jean H. Lee
From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. And even though there was nobody who looked like me doing journalism at the time, I think if I were to go back, and it would be very different, of course, to speak to young Korean Americans today, because the communities in my hometown, in my home state, are a lot more diverse today than they were when my father was one of the first Koreans to arrive in Minnesota. 


Jean H. Lee
But I would probably tell younger Korean Americans to seek out the kinds of mentors and networks that I didn’t have and to seek out mentors and networks who look like them and have followed the path that they aspire to, because they can really guide them and teach them what that path is going to look like and really be their entree into a world that might seem intimidating or challenging and full of them, full of obstacles. I would also probably tell myself to have studied a little bit better at korean school. I went to korean school on Saturdays, but I was not a great student, and my mother said I would regret it. And I do regret it. So you would probably tell young aspiring journalists, especially those who want to work abroad, not only. 


Jean H. Lee
Not so much listen to your parents, but that foreign languages are really important. And were so lucky to have had that resource in. In our household. I didn’t take great advantage of it. 


Monica H. Kang
Well, I love that you shared it, and I didn’t know that for you early on, you knew journalism was a career. You were interested, even though there was a lack of representation. I’m curious, was there a specific moment of how you learned about that career or why you found that clarity of, like, this is a career I want to get into? 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah. You know, my father is a doctor, and he really wanted me to be a doctor. I was one of those kids who had one of those fisheries price medical toy sets when I was a kid. And I honestly thought I would become a doctor, specifically a surgeon, because I like to cut things. But then on the other side of the family, my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, was a journalist in South Korea. So I always had him taking me when I went to visit him. And when I went to visit them in South Korea, he would take me to Kyobo bookstore, which still, I think, probably the biggest bookstore in Seoul. And I still remember he would take me to the stationery section and just tell me, buy whatever you want. And I would just fill my arms with notebooks and pens. 


Jean H. Lee
And I think what he was teaching me was a love for those materials. And then he would make me, after I came home for the day, sit down and write what I saw. So he was really my first editor. He was the one who taught me how to look at the world around me as a Korean American coming to Korea, South Korea. So I think that was my first assignment, was to jot down everything that I saw around me in South Korea. So those notebooks are actually, I cherish them because I could see the makings of my journalistic curiosity. So I would say that’s how it started from the time I was a very little girl. 


Monica H. Kang
That’s so incredible. And a kudos to him to recognize and finding a creative way to educate you, because I think it’s not often the way how they would encourage your next generation to learn. They might be more of, like, you should just look into journalism. But instead, he actually made you learn by doing, which is actually one of the most powerful ways of learning in my learning training experience that I’ve gained, which is so cool. Still, you could have chosen to go into different fields, and you still dove into it. Tell me a little bit more. I guess you decided to study and work. Like, how was your first early assignment? I assume you were still one of the very few. There weren’t people who looked like you or were maybe perhaps interested in the type of topics you might have been. 


Monica H. Kang
Tell me a little bit more how it was like that. 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah, I mean, I was writing from the time I was a kid, writing essays, writing stories. And then I, as a high school student, I worked. I went, worked for the local newspaper. So I started working probably when I was 16, covering high school sports. And so I do sometimes tell young aspiring journalists that sports is a great way to get into the industry. And then when I went to college in New York and went to Columbia. They don’t have an undergraduate, at least when I was there, they didn’t have an undergraduate journalism program. But I made sure to get the education that I needed to become a foreign correspondent, and that meant really focusing on east asian studies. And then I worked at the school paper pretty much full time. 


Jean H. Lee
So I was probably at the school paper, the Columbia Spectator, 40 hours a week. And so I wasn’t the best student, to be totally honest. But I learned the craft at the school newspaper and in summer internships, in winter internships, it was, you know, it’s interesting. When I look back at my education at Columbia, it turns out I was in one of the first early co ed classes. Columbia was a school that went co ed very late for one of the Ivy leagues. And also, I would say that there weren’t that many asian Americans. It’s very different today. And even going into the industry as a young journalist. Yeah, I didn’t see a whole lot of people who looked like me. 


Jean H. Lee
And I’m only thinking about this now because people sometimes ask me who my mentors were, and I realize now that there really wasn’t anyone who looked like me when I went into the industry. But I will say that I knew that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in South Korea at some point in my career. So my early internships were at the Korea Herald, which is an english language paper, as you know, in Seoul. And I believe I was the first american journalist that they brought on board. And now I think it’s probably more common. And so. And then I went to work for the Korea Herald for a couple years after I graduated from college. You know, I went to journalism school after that for graduate school. 


Jean H. Lee
And then it was while I was in graduate school that then bureau chief of the AP reached out to me to try to hire me. So I think that she had seen my articles in the Korea Herald and thought she’d be a really good fit for the AP. And actually, that was being a foreign correspondent was my dream. And so that was where I started. I started at the AP and with AP, went around the world. Now, to your question about. Yeah, it was tough. I will admit that there were moments where I would look at the leadership of the AP at the time. This was many years ago, and they didn’t look anything like me. 


Jean H. Lee
And I will say that for most of my career at the AP, I felt like the odd person out because there just weren’t very many asian american foreign correspondents, certainly no other korean american foreign correspondents and our editors were not asian american. And the reason I think that’s, if you’re in the majority, you may not understand the significance that has. But throughout my career, one of the things that I faced is a question of whether I could speak and write in English, which I found absolutely astounding because I was born and raised in Minnesota. It’s my first language. It’s the only language that I’m comfortable in. And yet when people would look at me, what they saw was an asian face. 


Jean H. Lee
And so there was, it was going into this field, and sometimes in certain assignments, with the first question of, can she write in English? And so you’re not starting with the same level of comfort that an editor might have with somebody that they are familiar with, somebody whose background they’re familiar with. So it does sometimes feel like you have to jump through some hoops to prove yourself and to secure your spot. So, you know, that, I think, is changing, hopefully, as we have more and more diversity in mainstream journalism. But I do think that in my early years, it was very hard for me when I was working with editors who were perhaps skeptical of my ability because they hadn’t had anybody who looked like me and had my background and didn’t know if they could trust me. 


Jean H. Lee
And that relationship between a reporter and editor is very important. So, and that said, I had some incredible editors and opportunities with the AP as well, working with editors who did have that faith and trust in me. Through that experience, I’ve recognized how hard it is when you go into a newsroom where no one looks like you, no one has your perspective, and you feel like your point of view, that you need to really stake your ground in order to put your point of view across. 


Monica H. Kang
And you ended up staying with AP for 16 plus years, from what I recall. I know we’re talking about your last specific role of the chief of bureau in a little bit, but that’s quite a bit of time to have stayed in one organization. 


Jean H. Lee
I think it was almost 20 years, actually. 


Monica H. Kang
Oh, oh, thank you for correcting me. 20 plus years. So you’ve seen a lot of cycles of changes. And part of what I feel curious about is that is also a time of period where I think media, the definition of inclusion, how we think, how we probably document, how we engage the relationship with press and the public, has evolved quite a bit historically around that period, too. I’m curious how you were feeling as somebody who was in the station going through and seeing these changes real time, how it felt for you as an expert in the field? 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah. You know, when I was younger, I didn’t really think about how my ethnicity would play a role when I was first going into the field. But as I became a journalist and in my assignments, particularly in San Francisco, where I covered a lot of race and immigration stories, I started to recognize that I could bring story ideas and news sources to my coverage that would benefit my audience. All of that came to play when I went to South Korea. And I will say that one of the turning points for me as a journalist was when I went into the AP archive and looked at the work of the correspondents, the AP correspondents who came before me. So these are, AP correspondents were there as far back as the Korean War and even earlier. And absolutely amazing, courageous, brave men. They were all men. 


Jean H. Lee
But also, I remember they had these amazing relics of their coverage. Back in the day, correspondents used to send their dispatches through telex. So this is. This is an old technology. And so it’s kind of like fax machines from a previous era. So you would feed the paper in, and so they still had the paper. This is the problem with our electronic world, was we no longer have those paper artifacts, but we still have some of those paper artifacts in the archive. But what struck me was that the word that one of the correspondents used to describe the South Koreans, the Koreans, I should say, was peasants. The South Koreans were described as peasants, and the North Koreans were often described as with the Reds. 


Jean H. Lee
And it struck me because I was thinking, this is my family, these are my relatives, that this correspondent is sort of treating these people, calling them peasants, and looking at them, very patronizing. Right? So in some ways, that was a moment where I recognized, I both respect and honor the correspondents who came before me, but it gave me and crystallized the importance of the role that I could play in shaping the view that people have of Koreans, both north and south and also of history. 


Jean H. Lee
So one of the things I’ve tried to do is make sure that I’m telling the story of the South Koreans as they went through the korean war, so that we’re not looking at the conflict just from the perspective of the US military or just the perspective of white Americans who looked at these people as our people, as peasants or commies or reds. I think I recognized suddenly, in that as the first korean american bureau chief for the Associated Press, as one of the only senior foreign correspondents in the press corps, bringing a sense of humanity, making sure, bringing that familiarity, that understanding to these issues was going to be my contribution. It just means that I’m able to prioritize, making sure that we’re looking at these issues and treating the coverage, treating the story as a human story and not just one. 


Jean H. Lee
And this is particularly important when it comes to North Korea, because too much of the coverage focuses on how strange or bizarre or weird the North Koreans are. And I will admit that it’s a very unusual society, but I think it’s also important for us to try to understand who they are, why they are the way they are, and what they want, who they are as people. And so that was something I think I could finally bring all of the experience, understanding, and expertise, and cultural awareness that I had built up in my years, not only as a Korean American, but as a reporter covering race and immigration issues. 


Jean H. Lee
As somebody who studied east asian studies and had a broader understanding of the region and its history, that I could bring all of that into my reporting and make sure that our understanding of North Korea was a little bit broader than what we had in the past. 


Monica H. Kang
I love that. Thank you very much for sharing that insight. The role that journalism is just beyond the reporting and how to humanize the story and the mission behind it’s so inspiring and empowering. I’m sure for those who’s tuning in as well, I want to dive a little bit more into that role, because one of the other things that is extra special and meaningful is that you literally had to build this whole office and a whole process, because as the chief of bureau, you’re overseeing the whole country. And if not too, in the case of korean peninsula, that’s also on top of being a journalist, but also being a manager, a leader, and a decision maker. Tell me a little bit more how that journey has been. 


Monica H. Kang
What skills were important for you to excel and what experiences helped you to continue to be a good leader in doing that role? 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah. So I opened the AP bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea, and at the time, there was no us media presence in North Korea. So we really had to build that operation from the ground up. So, of course, when I was named AP Seoul bureau chief, I was told that North Korea would be a part of my area of coverage. And you’re thinking, how do you even get into North Korea? It’s a country that is very difficult for american journalists to even get into. So the idea of opening an operation there was incredibly daunting. It took years of strategic planning. And then once I got there, one thing that I realized. 


Jean H. Lee
So as a foreign correspondent and this is, back in the day, before social media, what you really wanted to do was to be a fly on the wall, to get into someplace and be as unobtrusive but observant as possible. You did not want to be part of the story. You were really sort of trying to behind the scenes and recording what was happening. Things have changed in journalism, I think, because of social media. Journalists are now very public, which is very different than it was back when I started. But that North Korea operation was very different as well, because there were almost no Americans, really no Americans in North Korea. Because of the tension between North Korea and the United States, we don’t have an embassy there. It’s very hard for Americans to live and work there. 


Jean H. Lee
So there were really none, maybe one or two there as dual citizens. So what I realized was that almost everywhere I went, I was the first American that many North Koreans would meet, the first journalist as well, but the first American. And so I realized that I also had this diplomatic role to play that I had to carry myself, not as this. I had to make a transition from being a foreign correspondent who was just trying to get the story and playing more of a diplomatic role as somebody who would create an impression and perhaps shape how the people that I met would think about Americans going forward. And so that was an interesting role. It was not one I was prepared for, not one as a journalist that we’re trained for. 


Jean H. Lee
And I would say that being raised in an immigrant family in America also made it difficult in that I think that I didn’t grow up with that kind of training for how to operate in those circles. It’s something that I had to learn much later in life. And then on top of that, of course, running a bureau in North Korea also meant managing north korean stuff. And so as a journalist, your primary concern, of course, is to protect your team and to protect your sources. And that certainly added a whole other layer of challenge to my role. So my job being a reporter, being a writer, was just one element of it. 


Jean H. Lee
I would say that 90% of my time was spent in a leadership role, which was not only making sure to build an operation and protect my staff, but also negotiating for access. Everything in North Korea requires a negotiation. I sometimes say that you had to negotiate to go to the bathroom, which is actually true. You have to negotiate to go for a walk. You have to pick up those kinds of diplomatic skills. That I say, again, were not part of my training. It was a very different kind of assignment and certainly required me to play a different kind of a role and one that im not sure that I was equipped for, to be totally honest. And so I think thats certainly if were looking at building a pipeline of future journalists. 


Jean H. Lee
There’s so many more things that I think that journalists today need who are looking to play a role in leadership, need to think about in adding to their skillset than I had as a journalist going into this very unusual assignment. 


Monica H. Kang
So one of the things that I want to piggyback is kind of, you’ve hinted this already in your reflection, which is the importance of safety for your team, you know, for your sources. But I would also assume for yourself, too. I mean, we want to make sure you’re safe. And I think especially with, unfortunately, the war that is continuing on elsewhere in multiple places right now, in the Middle east and in other places right now, I think we’re having more empathy and realization for our journalists in how much of a sacrifice that they are going out there reporting important news to make it accessible for the people around the world, that we kind of almost take it for granted that we forget about their individual stories. I’m curious, did you feel safe? 


Monica H. Kang
Like, were there moments that you felt worried, and how did you make sure that you looked out for your safety, and how do you feel about that bigger picture, too? Okay. That was a lot of questions. 


Jean H. Lee


Monica H. Kang
No, no. 


Jean H. Lee
When it comes to North Korea, it is always very dangerous to be an American in a country that still considers your country to be its chief archenemy. So that’s always dangerous. And then there’s an extra layer of danger when you’re a foreign court correspondent because they do think journalists are potentially spies. And so it is extremely dangerous. I was always conscious, it was very stressful. I was always conscious of not only my safety, but the safety of everyone who interacted with us. Because in North Korea, just interacting with an American can be extremely dangerous. So whether it’s people we’re speaking to or the North Koreans were working with us, I had to recognize and I learned how difficult and dangerous it was for them. 


Jean H. Lee
And I would say that many of them wouldn’t want to take on that danger, wouldn’t want to take on that risk. So that’s something that I learned in the course of my reporting. Now, I want to say that there was a lot of controversy around my effort to get on the ground in North Korea, and there’s certainly a lot of debate in the world of media about the value of that. But when it comes to a country, whether it’s North Korea or Russia or China, there is such a strong propaganda machinery. And for us to get a really clear view of what’s happening and not just take, for us to be able to sort fact from fiction, when it comes to a country with a strong propaganda machinery, we need to be on the ground. 


Jean H. Lee
And so that is certainly a mission for journalists, for any journalist in any news organization, I would hope so that we’re able to better put what we’re hearing from the official state media from their sources into proper context. Unfortunately, that’s not happening with North Korea right now. We haven’t had foreign correspondence in, I believe, since 2019. And I think it’s getting harder and harder when it comes to coverage of other countries as well, that when it becomes dangerous and when news organizations aren’t able to provide the safety and security for their reporters on the ground, it means that we’re missing that layer of understanding that helps us sort fact from fiction. 


Jean H. Lee
So just to explain why it’s so important for news organizations to get on the ground at huge risk and at huge cost, it is not only, you know, to tell the story, but to make sure that we have a clear view of what’s happening in countries where there’s a strong desire to shape the narrative and control the narrative to their advantage. So North Korea is the most challenging, but obviously, there’s a Wall Street Journal reporting reporter in custody in Russia that we should always be mindful of. And there are many other journalists who’ve been taken captive in conflict or in countries around the world. And anyone who’s interested in brushing up on that can consult the committee to protect Journalists, CPJ to get an update. But this is a constant challenge for journalists. 


Jean H. Lee
It’s a constant challenge for media organizations to try to gauge whether they can guarantee the reporters safety and security. And yet again, in many of these countries, just being an american correspondent is inherently dangerous. So, yes, you’re right. I think it is, in a sense. I think being a foreign correspondent in covering conflict like this is a public service, but it’s a public service that is designed to make sure that there’s a clearer picture of what’s happening, a desire to make sure that those stories are being told, and that to play a role in making sure that the reporting and the historical understanding is accurate for some of these major global events. And I would say that, yeah, I mean, it’s always a debate that I have. We have. 


Jean H. Lee
When it comes to North Korea, there are some news organizations that have decided that they can cover it perfectly well from the outside. Every news organization. And every journalist has to be super creative and clever with a lack of access. But I would say that my understanding of North Korea is infinitely deeper because I spent so much time, so many years on the ground, and everything looks different from Pyongyang. So now I’m no longer with AP, I’m no longer doing that kind of reporting, but I try to make sure that I share that perspective as much as possible because there are so few people like me who’ve been able to get inside into North Korea. 


Jean H. Lee
So really what I try to do now is to share those stories and share that perspective and make sure we have all that context that will help us understand the really inflammatory and news that we. The inflammatory statements we see from North Korea and the news that we see from North Korea so that we can understand it better and try to understand what we should be paying attention to. And at the end of the day, remember that there are human lives at risk, under threat, at stake. 


Monica H. Kang
No. Thank you very much for sharing that. And I know this is one of the many reasons why you’re continuing, as you have hinted, as an adjunct fellow, non resident fellow in many of the organizations, senior fellow, such as the Wilson center, the University of Vienna, East Wind center. You also have the award winning podcast. She is a host as well. You definitely have to check out her with the BBC World Service. I’m curious how you guys thought of the show title, the North Korean. 


Jean H. Lee
So the podcast is called the Lazarus Heist, and it’s about north korean hackers, but I would say it’s about North Korea much more broadly. I wanted to make sure that the podcast provided all that background and context so that we could understand who these hackers were and who they were hacking for and why the cybersecurity firms all have different names for these hackers. And the US government at the time was using the name hidden Cobra, and I just cannot stand snakes. So I just said, I don’t want to use. I don’t want to call them hidden Cobra. But I was really intrigued by Lazarus group because that’s one of the names from one of the cyber security firms, and it’s based on the biblical story of Lazarus, who comes back from the dead. 


Jean H. Lee
And that’s because every time the US government thought they had stamped out the hackers or a hacking threat, they came back. And so there’s something very intriguing about the name Lazarus group. We defined a name and a title that hadn’t been used with Lazarus in it, and it was very difficult, I have to say, I wanted to do chasing Lazarus, but it was trademarked. We came up with the Lazarus heist because we wanted to show how these are modern day bank robbers and theft that they were carrying out. The main theft that were focusing on, season one, was a bank heist. And so that’s how it became the Lazarus heist. But I have to say that it was. This project has been such an incredible way for me to pull together everything that I experienced on the ground in North Korea. 


Jean H. Lee
So I share a lot of my times, a lot of my experiences as a reporter, but also everything that I’ve learned since then, because, of course, after leaving the AP and leaving the sort of daily news grind, what I wanted to do was try to understand everything that I saw in North Korea. And I would say that fully understanding what you see on the ground takes outside research. So that’s why I transitioned into the research field. It was really to try to understand what I saw on the ground. But one of the things that I saw on the ground was the building of a new strategy under this young millennial leader, Kim Jong un. 


Jean H. Lee
And so the podcast became a way for me to explore that, because I always had this question when I was there, which was, I see all this investment in science and technology, and surely it’s for the modernization of the economy, but is there also a more nefarious purpose for all of this investment in science and technology? And so this was my chance to really investigate and explore that thread. But it was also a chance for me to speak to a global audience about North Korea at a time. So it came out in 2021, when no one was talking about North Korea. And so it was a time when I said, just because they’ve gone quiet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying attention. 


Jean H. Lee
So it was a chance to use storytelling as a way to share really big, hard to grasp issues, North Korea and cyber, in a way that I hope grabbed people’s attentions through a true crime format. So this is the challenge we face as writers and journalists, as communicators today, which is that people are just inundated with information, so how can we package it in a way that appeals? So finding the intersection, I think, as you figured out, telling human stories is a way for people to connect, and so we try to tell very human stories to tell the story of North Korea and Kim Jong un’s cyber strategy. So it’s been really fun. I have to say, it’s not as glamorous as people think. I was the first season we recorded and investigated. 


Jean H. Lee
I was mostly in South Korea and New York, and it was during the pandemic. So I have some pictures and I may have posted some of them, but I was literally doing the interviews from my closet. From a closet? From different closets. So this is the secret of podcast. 


Monica H. Kang
Thanks to all the closets out there. 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah, the closets are actually the best place to record for anyone out there who’s now, I say that I’m in a patio, so it’s not great acoustics, but closets are the best place to record because the clothes provide all that dampening. So that is the dirty secret, is that we recorded the Lazarus heist in many amazing closets around the world. 


Monica H. Kang
Love it. Love it. No. Thank you very much for your leadership and continuing and reminding us the creative ways that we should continue to. 


Jean H. Lee


Monica H. Kang
Dedicated to those roles. Amplifying other leaders voices and stories of human stories around the world. I think it’s so important and so grateful for you to share your world, the industry and your journey. It has been, you’ve already also shared a lot of different wisdom. But if you had to share final wisdom to our innovators out here, what would it, what would a single piece of wisdom that would be no matter where they are in their journey? 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah, I would say it’s been so interesting being here in Hawaii, aside from the amazing weather, and you can’t see the view that I have of the ocean right now. As an Asian American, it’s been interesting to be in a place where as an Asian American, I’m part of the majority. So I mention that because, and it’s different as a tourist, as somebody who’s living and working here, it’s interesting because it has highlighted for me the challenges that I faced as somebody who was really unusual in my field and really in the minority, especially, I think, on the east coast. 


Jean H. Lee
And I just want to mention it because I think that many people, whether whatever it is they feel are obstacles, whether it’s their gender as a woman going through the world or their sexual orientation or whatever it is, may feel a sense that people are looking at them or regarding them a certain way. One of the things I’ve realized here is that, yes, we have to deal with a lot of bias, a lot of microaggressions in many parts of the mainland. It’s not your imagination. I don’t think that I, as a younger person, realize the importance of reaching out to mentors, to people you can trust, and who can give you good, solid advice on how to deal with these challenges. 


Jean H. Lee
I would say that having so many mentors and seeing so many Asian Americans in positions of leadership here in Hawaii has been completely mind blowing. And so it does make the case for how much you can thrive and grow when you are in the majority and when you have a support network and when you see people like you in the path before you. But for those of us who are in places where we don’t, I think it’s really important to seek out those mentors and don’t be shy about it. But also for people in those positions, in those leadership positions, to take on the responsibility of mentorship and to help to provide that network for the next generation. That’s why, you know, Council of Korean Americans is so important in so many ways to really provide that network. 


Jean H. Lee
But I would say that’s one of the, my takeaways from my time in Hawaii. Seeing the president of the East West center is an Aapi woman. And it’s hard for me to imagine a time and a place in Washington, DC where you’d have a person in that position who is an AAPI woman. So I hope that things change on the east coast, but it definitely has highlighted for me that there’s a very narrow definition of leadership in Washington, DC. And I hope that changes. But we all have to be aware and mindful of that limitation and do what we can to try to effect change, make space for more diversity, and do what we can to try to encourage diversity. 


Monica H. Kang
Love it. Love it. So important. Shout out to CKA. As you said, that is how we met. So really appreciate having those networks of communities to connect. Two final questions as we wrap up in rapid fire, which is, one, we want to continue our learning of, learning about other innovators around the world, who are three innovators that you want to shout out who happen to be asian American. So we continue also our learning of asian american leaders around the world. 


Jean H. Lee
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m going to mention Minjin Lee, the writer and the novelist, who I think such a champion, such a star, but also such a champion for many of the issues around asian american awareness, but also really serves as an example of, for Korean Americans. You know, many of us, our parents really push us to become doctors or lawyers. You have to really go out on a limb to do creative work, whether it’s art, whether it’s writing. And so anyone, I think, who goes out on a limb like that, away from the traditional path, deserves a shout out. Hugely inspirational. And in that vein, also, Alexander Chi, who’s also one of my favorite novelists and is korean american and is gay, so also really serves as such an example for so many communities. And it’s just a brilliant writer. 


Jean H. Lee
I highly suggest his first novel, Edinburgh and also Queen of the Night, which was just magical. I read it during the pandemic and can’t wait to see what he comes out with next. And I do want to mention, I did mention that the president of the East west center is an AAPI woman, Suzanne Varyslum. To me, seeing somebody like her in a position of leadership is so inspirational and I’m not sure that she recognizes how many people she’s going to impact and influence simply by being in that position. And not just in Hawaii, but across the mainland, but around the world as well. 


Jean H. Lee
And I think about the impact that she’s going to have when she interacts with South Koreans where there are very few women in positions of leadership and the importance that she plays in showing that America can be a place where we have AAPI women in positions of leadership. So those are three innovators that I would like to shout out. They’ve all been huge inspirations for me and I think huge inspirations for our community. 


Monica H. Kang
Love it. Thank you so much for sharing. That final question is, how can we stay in touch with you? 


Jean H. Lee
Yes, please stay in touch. I am on Instagram as newsgene and I’m on LinkedIn. Please reach out. I’m pretty easy to find. My website is jhleemedia.com. Mochi has his own Instagram as well. You can hopefully find that his is much more interesting than mine, to be honest. But stay in touch. I’m always interested to hear what kinds of stories people want to hear about, especially when it comes to North Korea. I try on my instagram to share images from my time in North Korea and of course little tidbits from the podcast. 


Monica H. Kang
Love it. Thank you so much for your time and graciously sharing these wisdom and insights with us. Folks, you know the drill. I’ll be sharing some of these highlights in our blog, but find us in our stories at any channel and we’ll be back again with another story. But thank you so much for joining us soon. Bye bye Mochi. We will see you all soon. 


Monica H. Kang
Thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom with us. She’s tuning in from Hawaii while she is there working on a secret project which you’re going to learn more in a few years, but very appreciated of her humble reflection and learning. I think it’s so important for us to not let the lack of representation stop you from pursuing what you love and keep showing up because your voices matter. So thank you again for what you do. And thank you, innovators, for tuning in to another conversation. We’re going to continue our learning of asian american leaders next week with another story. And in an industry that you might also love, media, but not from the journalist’s angle, a different angle. 


Monica H. Kang
So come back again next week at Curious Monica and share this conversation that I had with Jean Lee today with somebody else who would appreciate Tao me bayo. See you next week. Thanks so much for tuning into todays episode. It was so great having you. I hope this has inspired you and empowered you to know that your voice and stories matter. This is your host, Monica Kang, founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox, and a little shout out to the wonderful team who made this possible today. Audio Engineering and producing by Sam Lehmart, Audio Engineering Support by Ravi Lad, website and marketing support by Kree Pandey, Graphic Support by Lea Orsini, Christine Eribal, Original music by InnovatorsBox Studios, which you can also check out in any music platform, and executive producing, writing, hosting and interviewing by me, Monica Kang, founder and CEO of InnovatorsBox. 


Monica H. Kang
Please give us feedback, questions, thoughts? We want to hear from you. Send a [email protected]! Have a wonderful day and we’ll see you soon. Thank you. 

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