News Archives

Dr. Soon-Young Yoon

November 16, 2018

During assembly on Friday, November 16, Dr. Soon-Young Yoon spoke as part of the Exploratory Lecture Series, encouraging students to channel their talents to help serve the global community. She also spoke about her North Korean roots and her work at the UN. Below, see Mr. Abbott's introduction and Dr. Yoon's prepared remarks, which were accompanied by a slideshow of photos of her family, her travels, and even a shot of a young Burroughs alum who is using her talents in medicine to help people living in poverty in India. During her visit to campus, Dr. Yoon visited with faculty and students, including members of THIMUN, the Current Events Club and the staff of The World (see photos below).

You've likely heard it said that one person can make a profound difference in our world, and today's speaker, Dr. Soon-Young Yoon, is the embodiment of that phrase. I hope that many of you would like to make a difference in your lifetimes, and I think Dr. Yoon will agree that one of the best places that you can do that is at the United Nations. That's just one of the places where Dr. Yoon has had an incredible impact, especially for women around the world. In fact, she has had an incredible constructive impact on millions of people, and she has done it only for those people, and done it very quietly without any need for fanfare or recognition. I'm going to give you just a smattering from Dr. Yoon's resume. She is the chair of the board of the Womens' Environment and Development Organization. She is a UN representative for the International Alliance for Women, and the immediate past chair for the Committee on the Status of Women in New York. In 1995, she served as the UN Liaison for the Non-Governmental Organization Forum held in parallel with the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, which hosted 30,000 participants. She was a Social Development officer for UNICEF in the Southeast Asia office as well as the Social Scientist at the World Health Organization office in New Delhi. She serves as a board member of the International Foundation for Ewha Womans University in Seoul and on the Global Advisory Board of the Harvard AIDS Initiative. She is also a founding member of the Women Mayor’s Network (National Democratic Institute) and the Cities for CEDAW campaign, and she is co-editor with Dr. Jonathan Samet of the World Health Organization’s monograph, “Gender, Women, and the Tobacco Epidemic.” But if you looked on her LinkedIn profile, it simply says, "I work for the UN...and sometimes I get paid." We are very happy to have Dr. Soon-Young Yoon with us this morning.

I was born in Pyongyang, North Korea, when Korea was under Japanese occupation and in the midst of a war. That’s probably why my grandfather gave me an unusual name for a girl. Instead of “pretty flower” or “beauty,” he gave me a name that is normally given to boys: “peace forever,” or “Soon-Young.” 

My grandfather believed that peace was only possible if Korea modernized and became economically strong. He introduced modern irrigation to his villages. He built Pyongyang's first western-style hospital, played recordings of Chopin’s music, and sent his children to schools to learn foreign languages, particularly English.
He put all of his hopes in his children to help turn Korea into an industrial 20th-century nation. The problem was — he only had one son and four daughters. In those days, daughters were supposed to study at home, get married, and raise children — preferably boys. Girls were not even supposed to go to school. But he was a maverick. He very courageously decided to give them all a higher education. He sent my mother to the Chicago Conservatory of Music to study piano. My aunt went to medical school in Japan, then to the United States. In 1929, she graduated from University of Michigan School of Public Health — the first Korean woman to get a Ph.D. in science. My grandfather’s friends thought he was crazy to let his girls study abroad.  He would always reply that he would trade one of his daughters for ten of their boys any time.
So you see, my grandfather gave me more than my name.  I inherited the precious gift of his values and belief in social equality, development and peace. I was raised to believe that the purpose of my education was to improve the lives of others.

Those family values stayed with me when I graduated from school. One of my professors asked me if I wanted to teach anthropology at Stanford. I was tempted to take the offer, but I was determined to work, instead, for the United Nations.  And so, that became my life. 

When I told my nephew that I was going to speak at Burroughs, he asked me “What is the purpose of the UN?" For me, it is very simple: world peace. A friend once said, “The security council is a place where they talk, but nothing ever happens.” I answered that in a strange way, that was the point — and that I was relieved that nothing has happened. Since the UN was founded more than 70 years ago, we have not had a repeat of the two world wars that scarred the early part of the last century and cost millions of lives.

With the firepower in our arsenals today, a nuclear war would destroy all of us. We should be thankful that we have the UN, because the UN Security Council is our most important arena to air grievances. It is a safe bullring, a place to defuse anger and bring countries together to reach a peaceful solution to their problems. Even when there is no solution, it is worth remembering that talking — even noisy, angry talking — is better than fighting.
One of the UN’s great successes is that none of the 193-member states has ever left it permanently. And no country has ever been kicked out. Granted the founding five nations, including the US, can throw their weight around, but the Security Council’s job is to make sure all voices are heard and differing opinions respected. Why does the UN work? I think its greatest strengths is that it is one of the most democratic institutions in the world. In the General Assembly, every country — large and small — has one vote. Tuvalu with a population of about 11,000 people has the same voting power as China, with over 1 billion people.
During the negotiations over climate change last year, I heard the prime minister from Fiji talk about how his country is being destroyed by violent storms and rising sea levels.  He said, “Big industrialized countries are causing climate change — not us. But we are paying the price, and that is not fair.” I could see him nearly bursting with anger as he got red around the collar. Instead of lashing out, he told other governments that global cooperation was needed to combat climate change.  Without the UN, there would be no place, no forum for leaders of small nations to make their case and their claim on the conscience of the world.

It might not seem like it sometimes, but the UN is about more than meetings. The 50 founding nations knew that we could not hope for world peace unless we also lifted millions of people out of poverty, improved their health, and granted them basic human rights. That is why it established UN development agencies like UNICEF, the World Health Organization, UN Women, and UN High Commission for Refugees.

Through financial support from the world’s governments and donations from ordinary citizens, the UN invests millions of dollars in economic and social development in poor countries. These development agencies ease the plight of refugees, help protect us from deadly epidemics, and speak out on behalf of indigenous peoples, women and girl, and the disabled.  

The UN anti-terrorism unit is facing a terrible threat as terrorist groups recruit youth using social media. Think about it — if we had more economic opportunity for youth in the Arab world, ISIS would have a much tougher time recruiting them. When countries like Ethiopia or Colombia try to rebuild their economies after years of internal wars, the UN — with support of the United States and other countries need to help them. Why? Because economic progress means strong democracies. And that helps build global peace.
The UN is also dedicated to the idea that as we prosper, we should leave no one behind. I saw with my own eyes the difference that the UN can make. I remember an Indian boy with leprosy who had been abandoned by his parents to beg in the streets. His only hope was a World Health Organization program to replace his amputated arm with a mechanical one. And I have visited orphanages in Sir Lanka where the UN had provided food and clothing for babies who had been abandoned because parents were too poor to raise them. I met Minata, a mother in Burkina Faso.  Her garden was saved from drought because UNICEF helped build a dam to catch rainwater near her village. Some of you may think these problems are a long way off, but our daughter who saw smoke coming from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, thinks that the world is at our doorstep. 
Young people often ask me, “How can I help change the world?” Here is my advice:  

Believe in yourself: Everyone is born with a special talent. You may be a great musician or excellent in math. Then again, you may fail miserably in those, but excel in sports or have a special way with animals. The goal of education is to discover those talents and help you build your confidence. But you also have to do your part. Face your fears. Muster up the courage to do and say the right thing. An independent thinker — like my grandfather — becomes a very valuable global citizen.   

Be a cultural explorer. The five official languages at the UN are Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. Learning languages opens doors to different ways of thinking, so take advantage of Burroughs' language classes. You have wonderful travel opportunities to places like Nicaragua through your special programs. I encourage you to join your clubs that are about global justice. Remember that sometimes, the opportunities to learn about other cultures can be close to home in your own city — through helping in a St. Louis anti-poverty program or campaign to end hunger in communities that are not like your own. The UN values can be brought to life in those situations. Respect political, ethnic and racial differences. Leave no one behind.

My final advice is to stay in school as long as you can. It takes more than goodwill to help others — you also have to offer them something they need. If you take advantage of your education and become the best at whatever talent you have, you will find exactly what the world needs. School is great, but there are other ways to learn about world affairs. After you get your last diploma, I recommend getting involved with groups like United Nations Association/USA that sponsors your mock UN program, the UN High Commission for Refugees-USA, and UNICEF.
I gave this advice to one Burroughs student a few years ago who followed her instincts and stayed in school until she got her Ph.D. in a medical-related field. She traveled recently to India to help on a medical mission for poor people suffering from facial deformities.
If you think you have to wait until you leave school to make a difference, you are wrong. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow — they are the leaders of today. They can help prevent conflict, work on climate change and make our world safer, now.”  I’ll leave you with a question: Do you think he is right?