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Hyun Lee and the Movement for Peace in Korea

By Christine Hong | July 27, 2022


On March 7, 2022, Hyun-jung Lee, a beloved and deeply respected comrade in the Korea peace movement, a talented acupuncturist, and a cherished daughter, sister, and emo, passed away after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer. Just 51 years old, she was a brilliant beacon of light within a transnational struggle for peace on the Korean peninsula. As Ramsay Liem, curator of the multimedia Korean War exhibit Still Present Pasts, stated, “Each era of the seemingly endless struggle for Korean independence, democracy, and unification has its pillars. Hyun [was] one of ours.” Goal-oriented to the very end, Hyun offered video-recorded parting words in late February to the people alongside whom she had organized over the past three decades. “I don’t know how far I will make it,” she stated while in hospice, “But I feel so confident because we now have an army of people fighting for peace in Korea.” Although ravaged by the cancer that had metastasized to her brain yet refusing pain medication in order to keep her mind as clear as possible, Hyun assumed her well-worn position within the trenches of the anti-imperialist wing of the Korea peace movement. Urging all of us to keep our eyes on the prize of genuine peace, she rallied us “to push together, nobody leading and somebody following—everybody together.”


Not one to clamor for the limelight or driven by ego, Hyun was a people’s organizer, unseduced by the capitalist aura around celebrity activists. If she could be described as a leader of any kind, it was from below and to the left. Without fuss, drama, or complaint, Hyun time and again rolled up her sleeves to do whatever work was required, often behind the scenes. Maximally impactful yet unassuming, she was a force to be reckoned with, not only as an astute strategist and a workhorse of an organizer unwavering in her dedication to various interrelated causes but also as a fearless queer woman fighter against racism, sexism, and imperialism whose example inspired generations of activists in the diasporic Korean, pan-Asian, and multiracial organizing spaces in which she moved. Having worked closely with Hyun in multiple overlapping arenas in the 1990s, including Iban/QKNY, a multi-gender queer Korean community group, John Won noted she was “at the heart of so many movements, as many Queer Korean women/femmes have been.” In the broader progressive landscape in New York, Hyun belonged to a formidable cohort of radical Asian women organizers who moved and shook the world with an eye to its transformation. Theirs was and continues to be a feminism grounded in praxis.


Albeit a classically trained cellist with an Ivy League education, Hyun embraced the work of urban community organizing. After earning an undergraduate degree in English literature from Columbia University, Hyun in 1994 joined CAAAV, an Asian community organization in New York City where she cut her teeth as a “non-Chinese person training young Chinese immigrants to do street vendor and tenant organizing,” in former executive director Helena Wong’s words. To no small degree, Hyun came of age in a grassroots organization that she would help grow, staying with CAAAV until 2004. Indeed, CAAAV credits her as vital to its three-plus-decade legacy of “remarkable women who built the base, developed leadership of community members, developed strategic campaigns, coordinated direct actions, showed up in solidarity for others, and built the infrastructure of the organization.”[1] Gifted at staging street performances and community art projects, Hyun approached such endeavors as the cultural front of political struggle and a form of popular education. “I think Hyun…secretly wanted to be an artist,” Wong stated. With CAAAV youth, she was “always concocting up ideas. …One summer, they decided to do this exhibit where they would take plywood and trace the bodies of the young people on them, and then cut them out and put stories about gentrification in Chinatown.”

In CAAAV, Hyun accrued extensive experience initiating grassroots campaigns—a skill set that would transfer to organizing work she undertook in other arenas. She created the Chinatown Justice Project (formerly Racial Justice Project). She was central to a multiracial coalitional effort to have the policeman who in March 1995 shot 16-year-old Yong Xin Huang in the back of the head indicted for murder. Five years into this campaign, when the system failed to deliver justice, Hyun, in her own recollection, “cried all night in the empty CAAAV office,” resolving never again to harbor “illusions about this system in the United States.” Born out of hard firsthand experience, this clarity would inform the ferocity of her analysis and methodical preparation for long struggle in other organizing arenas. As Wong recalled, by developing political education in CAAAV, Hyun was critical, moreover, to helping members “connect struggles in different parts of the world to our own work in the United States.”


Hyun (center), holding the megaphone, at an action in front of City Hall that was part of the five-year campaign for justice for Yong Xin Huang.

Indeed, from the 1990s onward, Hyun kept the militancy of Third World internationalism alive in her solidarity work. From 2001 to 2007, she was a member of Third World Within, a New York City-based, multiracial mobilization whose campaigns and direct actions sought to link “the struggle between those in the Third World and those who subsist in the Third World within the United States” by exposing the structural ties between exploitative racist labor conditions in the United States, on the one hand, and imperial policies and practices, including war violence, on the other.[2] In an era when neoliberal multiculturalism served ideologically to disable an anti-imperialist critique of racism, Hyun’s participation in numerous delegations—to Cuba in 1996, the World Social Forum in India in 2004, the Philippines on three occasions through BAYAN USA from 2005 to 2015, and Palestine in 2012—testified to her unswerving solidarity with the revolutionary struggles of peoples of color around the world against imperialism. In Cuba, the Philippines, and Palestine, all sites shaped by militarized U.S. foreign policy, Hyun further perceived lines of continuity with Korea. She memorably spoke, on her return from Palestine, about the strange familiarity of being among another partitioned people.

A commitment to Korea’s reunification intensified over the course of Hyun’s three decades of organizing, including in her insistence on doing Korea solidarity work as part of CAAAV’s Chinatown Justice Project. Over time, her investment in Korea peace work deepened into a priority. Having emigrated in 1981 to the United States from Seoul where she was born on September 20, 1970, Hyun was too young to claim membership in the generation that fought for democracy in South Korea during the era of U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Yet she, too, keenly felt what she described as “the deep scars” of the U.S.-authored division of Korea and the continued harm of U.S. war politics on the peninsula. Within a U.S. context, especially in the post-9/11 era after George W. Bush targeted North Korea, now part of the “axis of evil,” for renewed intervention, Hyun and other diasporic Koreans were vital to materializing past and present U.S. imperial violence in Korea as an urgent organizing focus. Disclosing her family’s tragic Cold War secret, namely, that her paternal great-uncles had been killed for daring to oppose Korea’s partition, Hyun reflected on how the Korean “people’s desire for reunification” began to take deep root in her, becoming her own desire and shaping her organizing.


Hyun (fourth from left) taking part with Nodutdol members in the May Day protests of 2017.

Nodutdol, the New York-based, multigenerational, progressive Korean community organization that most Koreans in the diaspora came to associate Hyun with, served as a stepping stone—in keeping with its name—for her full-blown entry into Korea movement work. From 2006 to 2017, as a strategist behind the organization’s campaigns—those against the neoliberal Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the unilateral expansion of the U.S. basing system to Pyeongtaek, and the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system to Seongju, as well as those in support of South Korean labor—Hyun continued developing her capabilities as an international solidarity worker. In Nodutdol, however, she did so specifically as a diasporic Korean, alongside other militantly anti-imperialist diasporic Koreans, with regard to a divided and occupied Korea. As Nodutdol’s campaigns demonstrated, diasporic Koreans were uniquely positioned within a struggle for a genuine people’s democracy in South Korea that was necessarily transnational in scope, given South Korea’s subimperial subordination to the United States. Gonji Lee recalls Hyun as being part of a formidable “squad of Nodutdol eonnis,” women who collectively shaped the organization’s focus and directions in durable ways—and by extension the broader Korean left within the United States. As Minju Bae has remarked, Hyun, through the political foundation she helped to build in Nodutdol, “lives on in the organization.”


Juyeon Rhee, Hyun (second to left), Hye-jung Park, and Father Mun Jeong-hyun in the Nodutdol office.

Even prior to Nodutdol’s formation, Hyun was one of several Korean organizers in New York who, in 1995, collaborated in the development of the Korea Education and Exposure Program (KEEP), a grassroots political educational initiative that would subsequently be incorporated into Nodutdol and emerge as one of its signature programs. Profound in impact, KEEP has enabled successive generations of diasporic Koreans to engage directly with both progressive and left organizations in South Korea and to visit North Korea on peace missions. Hyun herself took part in the program three times. In 1995, she participated in the inaugural trip to South Korea and she returned there in 2005 as part of KEEP’s tenth-anniversary delegation.


Fatefully, in terms of her evolving political consciousness, Hyun also traveled as part of the 2011 KEEP (then called “DPRK Education and Exposure Program,” or DEEP) delegation to North Korea. The latter experience, which Julayne Lee, also a delegation member, has described as part of a larger “journey for peace and healing,” transformed Hyun’s relationship to Korea. No longer a space “split in two,” Korea emerged during this revelatory visit as a homeland Hyun felt, in her words, “with my whole heart.” While in North Korea, Hyun, who had been taunted in her youth by white American children who cruelly told her to “Go back to your country,” mused about moving to Pyongyang after reunification. Contemplating the possibility of living together in Pyongyang, Lee recalled, “made reunification seem like more of a possibility.”


Hyun Lee (second to right) and two members of the DEEP delegation alongside North Korean comrades in North Korea, July 2011.

In retrospect, Hyun’s visit to North Korea coincided with a clarification of her organizing focus, signaling a redirection of her talents. Although always disciplined as a thinker and strategist, she emerged in the last chapter of her life as a powerful “propagandist,” in her blunt self-description, committed to “promoting Korea issues to international audiences, supporting Korean progressive parties, and organizing for the signing of the peace treaty.” In multiple fora—radio broadcasts, mainstream and progressive news outlets, policy journals and academic publications, activist presentations, academic talks, as well as a blog she created—Hyun, through meticulously well-researched analysis, sought to shift received wisdom about and thereby to transform U.S. policy toward Korea. One of her earliest policy pieces, a co-authored analysis of Obama’s “strategic patience” policy toward Korea, was the third most influential article in Foreign Policy in Focus for the 2013 year. As a Korea analyst for the past decade, Hyun also demonstrated herself to be an extraordinarily gifted speaker, offering informed, lucid analysis of complex issues in live-commentary format. From 2010 to 2015, she produced and hosted shows at Asia Pacific Forum, a WBAI radio program. In 2015, along with Juyeon Rhee, she launched the highly influential Zoom in Korea, an English-language blog and news aggregator that she edited until 2019. From 2016 until her passing, she was an associate with the Korea Policy Institute, a U.S.-based public educational and policy organization with roots in the Korean diasporic peace movement. She was especially effective in using these and other platforms to deliver hard-hitting bulletins from the frontlines of struggles in South Korea, illustrating the harm of U.S. foreign policy to audiences for whom such policy’s effects might otherwise have been out of sight and out of mind.


Hyun’s writings from the past decade constitute a significant body of research in their own right. With something akin to gusto, she pored over Korean- and English-language sources including U.S. government reports, diplomatic statements, studies produced by South Korean progressive organizations, and North Korean materials. Reflective of her engagement with a range of South Korean progressive party formations—the United Progressive Party, the Minjung Party, and the Progressive Party—Hyun’s writings on Korea issues paired in-depth analysis of political developments in the southern half of the peninsula with a hard-hitting critique of the deleterious impact of U.S. militarism on the Korean people. Contributing to the possibility of a progressive U.S. policy toward Korea, her writings emerged as a go-to resource for U.S.-based and international readers, including foreign policy specialists, Asian Americanist and critical Asianist researchers and teachers, community organizers, and antiwar activists. In stark contrast to the alienated prescriptions of American think-tank analysis, her writings were attuned to the lived experiences and concerns of ordinary Korean people. In this way grounded in the movement for peace and distinguished by firsthand knowledge of and alignment with people’s struggles in Korea, her analysis reflected an ethical commitment to collective life possibility.


As a driver behind the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, which she and others formed at the tail-end of Lee Myung-bak’s 2008-13 presidency, Hyun wielded her pen as a sword in an unflinching battle against the ruthless and corrupt government of Park Geun-hye (2013-17), the daughter of U.S.-backed military dictator Park Chung-hee and a neoconservative ally of Barack Obama. Seeking to alert the U.S. public to the top-down danger to democracy in South Korea—with the Park administration seizing the undemocratic National Security Law to dissolve the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) and to jail National Assembly representative and UPP member Lee Seok-ki—Hyun delivered English-language analysis that, in depth of damning detail and clarity of critique, was unparalleled in the western media sphere. The danger, she made plain, was no less than “a return to the politics of fear that ruled South Korea only a few decades ago when government surveillance and unwarranted arrests of citizens were routine.”[3]


By speaking out against the authoritarianism of Park whose subimperial collaboration was key to Obama’s militarized Pacific pivot policy, Hyun faced the consequences. In late July 2016, on the cusp of the millions-strong candlelight demonstrations that eventually led to Park’s ouster, Hyun and Juyeon Rhee, a fellow Nodutdol and Solidarity Committee member, were unceremoniously blocked from entering South Korea. Deported from Incheon Airport, they were unable to join the Veterans for Peace delegation they had organized to protest Obama’s imposition of the THAAD system on the people of Seongju in South Korea. Stopping by Hawai‘i en route to New York, Hyun and Juyeon, while trying their hand at surfing, took part in local political education about Native Hawaiian resistance to settler colonialism and U.S. militarism. On their return, Nodutdol mounted a grassroots social media campaign against South Korea’s and U.S. travel bans, seeking to expose the latter as a coordinated inter-country means of repressing international solidarity. Four years later, in late 2020, Hyun took to Twitter to recognize the role that the transpacific agitation of U.S. and South Korean organizations and individuals had in catalyzing the lifting of Juyeon’s travel ban. Hyun exulted: “She’s now free to return to her homeland.”


Juyeon Rhee and Hyun (right) at Incheon Airport after being banned from entering South Korea, July 25, 2016.

Ultimately, few people were more impactful than Hyun in fostering international solidarity over the past decade with progressive political struggles in South Korea and furnishing informed and enlightening views on North Korea. As early as 2005, while traveling through East Asia with CAAAV’s Chinatown Justice Project, Hyun used her perfect bilingualism to enable the participation of 1,000 Koreans in a grassroots international effort to halt the World Trade Organization meetings in Hong Kong. As her focus on Korea issues deepened, Hyun emerged as one of a handful of diasporic Koreans—in particular, the 1.5-generation of Koreans who came to the United States in their youth—who played outsized roles in facilitating communication in anti-imperialist organizing spaces, serving as nodes within the transnational Korea peace movement. As Wol-san Liem, international affairs director for the Korean Federation of Public and Social Services and Transportation Workers Union, noted, Hyun facilitated “a deeper perspective on the Korean movement to non-Korean-speaking Korean American activists.”


Indeed, Hyun possessed not only flawless command of English and Korean but also a seemingly effortless ability to perform simultaneous interpretation. In 2007, she flew to Omaha, Nebraska, to interpret for Ko Youngdae of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK) who had been invited to speak at a Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space conference. Oh Hyeran, a SPARK member who accompanied Ko, recalls, “Afterwards we heard from so many attendees how beautifully touching his speech was. Such feedback was unusual. We all agreed that it was thanks to Hyun’s translation.” From this point onward, Hyun frequently interpreted for SPARK in consequential settings, including the 2010 and 2015 United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conferences in New York. Hyun also accompanied scholar Gregory Elich, The Nation journalist Tim Shorrock, and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Sr., on solidarity tours to South Korea, facilitating their interactions with progressive Korean leaders and organizers. Others who worked alongside Hyun recall how she, on numerous occasions, stepped forward to bridge structurally interrelated yet linguistically siloized worlds, connecting people in common cause. During their North Korea trip, Julayne Lee recalled that “Hyun would often casually step in to interpret for me in a way that was helpful and never overbearing or condescending. For some of the North Koreans, I was the first overseas adopted Korean they had met and it was an emotional interaction for them. Hyun was there to bridge the communication.”


Hyun’s pathway to transnational Korea peace organizing organically converged with her pursuit of healing practices grounded in traditional Asian medicine. From 2005 to 2008, after leaving CAAAV, she studied acupuncture at Tri-State College. Her immersion in acupuncture and herbs could be seen as part of a more general pattern of community and labor organizers taking up the healing arts in ways, often unrecognized, that have in turn enabled and fortified movement work. In both arenas, health care and social justice organizing, Hyun sought to foster survival in the face of trauma and pain. Indeed, as she conveyed to her herb clinic partner Joo-hyun Kang, she was propelled to go into acupuncture not just because “it was something that she could…make a living at as an Asian in a racist country” but also because she could help fellow organizers and activists “utilize their own individual body resources toward healing.” Committed to furnishing “accessible and effective acupuncture to people of all class backgrounds,” Hyun elaborated on the website of her practice, Woodside Acupuncture, that “[a]cupuncture, like social justice, is fundamentally based on the belief that people have an innate capacity to heal themselves. The needles simply stimulate the body to remember its way back to its natural state, just as a good organizer inspires people to arrive at their own solutions through struggle.” Recalling Hyun’s support of her family, Nodutdol member Minju Bae described “the comfort you offered when my 할아버지 [harabeogi] got covid at the beginning of the pandemic. It was such a scary time, and my family found so much solace and hope through your herbal medication package and recommendations.” One of her patients, Tiisetso Dladla, described the healing comfort of Hyun’s care: “I came to your practice after months and months of chronic pain. You not only took that pain away but healed me enough to allow me to conceive. …I came to you, and you let me rest.”


Having initially been diagnosed with estrogen-positive receptor breast cancer in 2010, Hyun had a mastectomy and her cancer went into remission. By mid-2015, plagued by a worrying chronic cough but unable to get her primary doctor to authorize a scan to ascertain if her cancer had returned, Hyun animated a strategy she had picked up from her days as an urban community organizer: namely, she checked herself into the emergency room to trigger the treatment she knew she needed. This time around, she learned she had advanced inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and exceedingly aggressive form of cancer. Her oncologist at Columbia Hospital advised her to prepare to die. Never one to give up without a fight, Hyun researched cutting-edge treatments and remained buoyant in conversations about her health with friends. Through a combination of allopathic measures and traditional Asian medicine, including ginseng from North Korea, she prolonged her own life far past her oncologist’s predictions. Those around Hyun cheered her on, knowing every extra moment was a victory. Quietly, however, beginning in 2015, she began Buddhist meditative practices, envisioning her own death and the decomposition of her body.


Following Hyun’s diagnosis, knowing she seldom traveled for leisure, Juyeon and I organized a road trip to Joshua Tree for early summer of 2016. Wanting to go for mid-day hikes, even though the sun was baking the earth around us, Hyun somehow remained cool as a cucumber, never breaking a sweat. “I could live here in a trailer,” she mused aloud, “This is heaven.” During this trip, the three of us spoke about organizing, shared stories, cobbled meals together, marveled at the stars in the desert sky, and alternately laughed and cried. We also butted heads. No nonsense in all things, Hyun prided herself, much to the admiration and frustration of those around her, on possessing no nunchi, viewing the latter, as she revealed to us, as a socially ingrained, gendered sensibility essential to the reproduction of Korean heteropatriarchy. “Oh my god, that’s your philosophy? That explains so much!” Juyeon exclaimed when Hyun shared her views.


Unfussy and modest in her demeanor, Hyun had a penchant for simple pleasures at the same time she voraciously consumed the worst possible TV and had notoriously cheap taste in food. Yul-san Liem, operations director for the Justice Committee in New York and a former Nodutdol member, recalled Hyun’s inexplicable devotion to the show, America’s Next Top Model. Eunhy Kim, a fellow founder of KEEP, also recalled that during dwipuri, “unlike many of us who always sang the same old sappy songs at noraebang, Hyun somehow always knew the upbeat recent Korean songs.” Both surprisingly current in her cultural tastes and oblivious, Hyun once purchased, as Joo-hyun recalled, “a Subaru with Kisuk and didn’t realize it was a lesbo-mobile.” Her ex-girlfriend Kisuk Yom remembered how “she used to eat cheap street food with a special photogenic smile on her happy face.” Nodutdol members recall Hyun’s dismay during the 2013 Los Angeles moim when a bold seagull swooped down, plucking an uneaten veggie burger out of her hands at Venice Beach. It was a story she would retell with palpable pathos. Hyun also insisted on using the entirety of a budget-sized bag of garish henna that she had purchased in Chinatown to dye her hair, despite friends pleading with her to throw the remainder away.


In the last few years of her life, Hyun worked with Women Cross DMZ, putting her organizing skills and policy acumen into powerful motion. She launched twelve regional chapters of Korea Peace Now! and advocated inside the Beltway for a peace treaty to end the Korean War. From 2019 to 2020, she labored tirelessly on HR 152, legislation supported by 52 representatives that called for a formal end to the Korean War. In mid-January of this year, speaking over Zoom about the urgent need to end over seven decades of war on the Korean peninsula, Hyun, though visibly and audibly unwell, sought to reassure her audience: “You might notice that I cough a lot tonight. Don’t be alarmed. It’s just a little condition I have. …Hopefully it won’t be too distracting.” Politically active until nearly the very end, Hyun continued doing public education around the unresolved Korean War. As Sally Jones of the New Jersey and New York chapter of Korea Peace Now! recalled of one of Hyun’s final presentations: “Most of the people…had no idea Hyun was ill. Before she began, she told people she might cough a little…but that everything was perfectly okay. …And then she proceeded to give a brilliant presentation and answered every question with such grace, patience, and deep, deep understanding.”


Near the end of her life, Hyun’s friends, D. Chou and Mijeonga Chang, lovingly served as her primary caregivers. Hyun is survived by her parents, Jae-on and Young-ja Lee, her sister Tina Lee Hadari, and her beloved nieces Tali and Emma. Before passing, she requested that any commemorative donations be directed to the Tongil Peace Foundation, which she and other Korean diasporic activists created over two years ago with their own money. The purpose of the foundation is to foster Korea peace and reunification work for future generations of organizers.


Roughly two months before her passing, Hyun posted a heartfelt online tribute to her comrade Yang Jeong-yong, Secretary General of Korean Americans for the Progressive Party of Korea. Like her, Yang had battled cancer for many years. “Dongji,” she wrote in a luminous message that we might now fittingly direct to her, “thank you for your radiance and humility while here on earth. We who remain have much to do to fulfill your dream of peace, democracy and reunification. Go freely now. Hope you soar as high as you desire and watch over us as we redouble our efforts.”


[1] CAAAV, “CAAAV’s 30th Anniversary: The People Build the Place, the People Build the Power,” May 25, 2016, https://www.caaav.org/30th_anniversary/caaav_30th.html.


[2] “April 16 Demonstrations Against the IMF and World Bank,” CAAAV Voce, special issue on “Women, Race, and Work” 10:4 (2000):17.


[3] Hyun Lee, “Erosion of Democracy in South Korea: The Dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party and the Incarceration of Lee Seok-ki,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 12:52 (2015), https://apjjf.org/2014/12/52/Hyun-Lee/4245.html.