MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today talking about two disturbing situations from two different parts of the world that have been very much in the news this week. There are the violent protests in Ukraine that have been going on all week. More than 70 people have died there. And while the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders have reached an agreement to end the violence, tensions are still very high there.
And this comes in the same week that the United Nations released a report detailing what it calls crimes against humanity in North Korea. The report says the country's leader Kim Jong-un regularly uses torture, enslavement, execution and starvation to punish and control the country's citizens. Now watching and reading about all this as it enfolds is disturbing, but imagine if you had loved ones there in the middle of the crisis. That is the reality for many expatriates. But this week, we thought it would be a good time to check in with Taras Lychuk. He's a PhD student at the University of Maryland. He is from Ukraine, and much of his family is still there. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
TARAS LYCHUK: Yeah. Thank you.
MARTIN: Also joining us is Jieun Baek. She is a graduate student at Harvard University and a producer for the documentary "Divided Families." That's a film that follows the reunion of a family separated by the division of North and South Korea. Her family immigrated from what is now known as North Korea. Jieun Baek, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us, also.
JIEUN BAEK: Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: And we understand that these are very different situations, but we feel that there are some commonalities. I mean, people who were living in this country and who are far away from things that are happening there has to be on your mind. So, Taras, let me start with you. I noticed that you brought a paper with you where that's the front page story is the carnage there. And what it's like for you these past couple of days watching all this?
LYCHUK: This is definitely a hard, bleeding experience. And I see these people killed on the streets of my capital country Ukraine. And, well, what can I say? It's very hard to see this happening. And it's very hard, especially because this is all - could have been prevented, should Viktor Yanukovych been more receptive to the demands that protesters have for him.
MARTIN: Can you get through to your family?
LYCHUK: Yeah. Yeah, I can - yeah, I can call my family. My - actually - my two uncles, they have small businesses in Kiev in construction. And I have at least one cousin who is a student there. She's 20 years old. They strongly support protests. They participate, except for the past two days when snipers were killing people from the roofs.
MARTIN: Can they get groceries and, you know, basic things like that? Can they go out? Can they go to - are they going to work, buying food, any of those things?
LYCHUK: It was like this before the past two days. But much of the country now people don't get to work. At least a week before today, I wanted to say that when you watch the news coverage, you may see the entire - you may get an impression that the entire city of Kiev is on fire. In fact, everything is happening in the very downtown heart of Kiev, which is maybe an area one or one hectare, you know. But until - for about - until about a week ago, if you go - if you travel, like, a few kilometers or miles from the downtown Kiev, you could see people, like, celebrating birthdays, getting married, you know. So - but at this point, now that's stop, you know. And it's - 'cause it's - now it's very unsafe.
MARTIN: I want you to standby and talk a little bit more about how you're doing through all this and kind of what this brings up for you. But I want to turn to Jieun now. You visited North Korea last year, although, you didn't get to meet your relatives. You did form some personal connections. I was thinking that, you know, this situation must be difficult because North Korea is so sealed off that maybe the frustration for you is that more people didn't know what was going on there. Does that sound about right?
BAEK: Yes. Yes, so my grandfathers are from what is now North Korea. My parents were born in South Korea. So we have distant relatives who we just know have been living in North Korea since the assumption of the state. And it is - it's heartbreaking to know that just by circumstance and just by the arbitrariness of where we were all born, there are people that I'm related to, people my friends are related to who are living through this - through this regime. And it's absolutely heartbreaking.
MARTIN: Can anyone in your family talk to - I guess what I'm asking is has anybody on your side of the family who lives on the South Korea side, have they ever been able to talk to or connect with any of the relatives...
BAEK: Oh, I see.
MARTIN: ...Who they know are still there?
BAEK: Oh, absolutely not. They were - both of my grandfathers were from fairly well-to-do and Christian families. And so when they fled south right before the start of the war, they left their relatives. My mother's father left his siblings, both parents. I mean, he's fled by himself. And he ended up passing away after a lifetime of failed attempts to connect with his immediate family members. So no one has been able to connect either through phone calls or postcards, none of that.
MARTIN: And now that you've heard or the U.N. has made clear that the conditions are as bad as anything that one could imagine, how are you processing this for yourself?
BAEK: It's very chilling. Just as you were verbalizing those words, I just got chills. I have been personally studying the human rights violations - the systematic human rights violations by the North Korean state for the past 10 years or so. And of course, there's a lot more to learn, but through my studies I've been speaking to - close to a hundred or more North Korean people who've escaped the country. Some of whom have experienced - lived many years in political prison camps in North Korea. And every conversation is just newly tragic and haunting. And so when I saw this report come out, I read it and it's just - it's horrific. It's unbelievable that the state continues to do what it does in the 21st century.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with two people who have family members who are at the center of places - where the conflicts are very much in the news. I'm speaking with Jieun Baek who is a Korean-American. Her family originally comes from what is now North Korea. And she's done reporting there. Taras Lychuk is a Ukrainian student - graduate student in the United States. Most of his family is still in Ukraine.
So, Taras, what do you feel - is there something you feel you should be doing right now? I'm imagining that it must be difficult for you to concentrate on your own studies, which you still have to do while all this is going on there. How do you see yourself in this?
LYCHUK: Yeah, studying has been postponed for the time being. And I find myself watching news nonstop, you know. But in terms of my part - we do what we can. We protested in front of the Ukrainian Embassy here in D.C. once. I also participated in one panel where they were looking for feedback from people from the regions on this where it was organized by Cannon Research Institute here in Washington, D.C. On Sunday, there will be another protest in front of the White House where they will - where people will lie down and cover themselves with Ukrainian flags.
MARTIN: Why is that? What's the point of that?
LYCHUK: The point of that is that more than hundred people were killed just yesterday by snipers. And there will be a sign to ask for - that will be a protest to show President Obama that U.S. really should act quickly to - not only to ban visas of the top officials involved in mass shootings in Ukraine, but also freeze their assets because for many of these people, they have their money here in the West. OK.
MARTIN: Are your fellow students interested in this? Is there anyone else you can talk to about this?
LYCHUK: Yeah. Yeah, I got questions from my American graduate students. Yeah, I actually - when I came here by Metro, I actually talked to one lady 'cause I just felt I have to talk to somebody. And I showed her this front page of the newspaper I was carrying.
And she said she was - today she actually watched closely what was going on in Ukraine. So - and I watched people flipping through the newspapers and when they get to page 11, it catches their attention. You know, so people are looking at this and watching this closely.
MARTIN: So, in part, you feel like part of your job is to keep this in people's minds, not to let them forget about it.
MARTIN: So, Jieun, what about you? I mean, again, what do you see your role in this now? I mean, in a way is it - in a way relieving that other people now know what you and others have long suspected or believed to be true? Does that help?
LYCHUK: Yeah. Yeah, I feel that the more we talk about this better - because the more people talk about this, the more of an issue it becomes throughout the world.
MARTIN: Jieun, what about you?
BAEK: I agree. I think it's partly relieving in the sense that because this report has very wide reach, there will be many more people who read and are aware of the issues. But these - the violations have been going on for a very, very long time. And with that awareness I wish that every - you know, the world could just all point - just spotlight this regime and - in whatever way they can, whether it's through grassroots advocacy, pressuring governments, supporting defectors, supporting human rights organizations, whatever they can to really pressure this regime to open up. And I know that this - we can talk for days on how that could happen. But going back to your previous question of what my role is...
MARTIN: Yeah, that was going to be my last question to you actually - where do you take this now?
BAEK: Yes, I think continuing to learn about it is important. But I think more than that, it's figuring out ways where I can support, tangibly support organizations run by North Korean defectors and other supporters who are doing direct - like very direct engaging projects to send information into the country. And to support those who are able to escape, as well as support those who are making that escape out of the regime.
MARTIN: And, Jieun, final though from you - very briefly if you would - I was asking Taras if he found it hard to study in a time like this. What about you? Do you find it hard to focus on your own work? Or are you so used to this that you can kind of manage to do both right now?
BAEK: Sure. I think it's a double-edged sword. I think it goes both ways. One is that - you know, what am I doing studying, and kind of sitting in a library, when all of these things are happening? At the same time, I think it- these violations create even more urgency to motivate what to study and to create a very strong purpose behind my studies. So I think it goes both way.
MARTIN: Jieun Baek is a graduate student at Harvard University with us from member station WGBH in Boston. Taras Lychuk is a Ph.D student at the University of Maryland. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. My very best wishes to you both and to your families.
LYCHUK: Thank you for having me.
BAEK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.