About the Author: Melissa Carter is a Foreign Service Officer who recently served in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
By the end of a recent work day, I found myself exhausted yet exhilarated. Despite some initial trepidation that my first tour in Washington with the Department of State would keep me behind a desk and glued to my inbox, I spent my day instead doing everything but warming my seat -- and I was thrilled to have no one to blame for it but myself!
I'm a first-tour Foreign Service Officer posted in Washington in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) in the Office of Assistance for Asia and the Near East. Whittle this all down, and it means that I'm an assistance officer covering North Korean refugees. On my first day in the Bureau, almost one year ago, I wondered, “What does that even mean?” I've since learned it means that I (1) seek to fund programs to provide assistance to North Korean refugees; (2) monitor and evaluate those programs; (3) develop strategies to improve the protection of North Korean refugees and solutions for those in need; (4) draft policy recommendations for PRM's Assistant Secretary; (5) coordinate with other State Department bureaus and U.S. government agencies to advocate for humanitarian principles; and (6) when opportunity knocks to elevate these issues -- I take it!
Opportunity knocked for me back in August, when Barbara Demick, Beijing Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times won the prestigious Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction for her work on North Korean refugee issues and human rights. Ms. Demick's award-winning book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, provided a rare look into one of the world's most isolated society. I remember thinking that it would be wonderful to have a chance to meet with her and discuss the book and her insights in depth. But, then it occurred to me that if I would find this beneficial, wouldn't others?
With the encouragement from an indispensible colleague in another bureau and the green light from my very supportive director and Bureau leadership, I began the daunting task of coordinating schedules and making logistical arrangements to bring Ms. Demick to Washington. And like many serendipitous ideas, the opportunities to build on the initial concept just kept snowballing and picking up speed until I suddenly found myself attending briefings on Capitol Hill, meetings with high-level State Department officials, and discussions with Washington's best North Korea watchers, analyzers, assistance providers, and policy makers.
It was gratifying to stand in the back of the reception room as PRM's Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz delivered remarks confirming the U.S. government's commitment to continued assistance and support of North Korean refugees and encouraging others to consider new ways forward in this pursuit. But it was also satisfying to realize that I was working in a place where officers are empowered and supported by their leadership, colleagues are collaborative and engaged on their issues, and humanitarian principles are promoted and upheld.
More information about careers with the Foreign Service is available here.