Meet Philip Yun

Our new Executive Director Philip Yun has worked in government, business, policy and academia. He’s been on the board of Ploughshares for several years and is a well-known Asia expert. He lives in San Francisco’s Richmond District, not far from the Ploughshares office. To get to know him better, we asked Philip a few quick questions about himself, his career and what he's excited to do at Ploughshares Fund.

When and how did you first get involved in nuclear issues? 

I first became involved in nuclear issues when I was at the State Department in the 1990s. I was in the East Asia-Pacific Bureau when the first North Korean nuclear crisis happened in 1993-94, and because of my interest and expertise, I always kept tabs on what was going on, talking to people involved with the negotiations. In 1998, when the Four Party peace process was instituted, I was asked if I would be interested in taking part on behalf of the United States. As part of these talks, I became the lead U.S. delegate to a subcommittee tasked with examining suitable peace regime (the other parties were China, North Korea and South Korea). When William Perry was selected by President Clinton to be first U.S. Coordinator for North Korea Policy in 1998 and tasked with conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, I was fortunate enough to be appointed to Dr. Perry’s review team. It was during the Four Party Peace Talks and the Perry Review that I became more deeply involved in nuclear nonproliferation issues and gained a greater understanding of the threats that existed in the world. 

When I left government in 2001, I continued to follow the issue. It was during this time in Palo Alto, California, that Lew Butler and Naila Bolus contacted me to introduce me to the Ploughshares Fund. The more I learned about the organization, the more interested I became. I immediately connected to Ploughshares' venture philanthropy approach -- it was unique in the nonprofit world at the time, but similar to the venture capital work of Silicon Valley firms, including the private equity firm where I was working. I happily became a member of the board and now am excited to take the role of Executive Director.

What’s one thing about you that might not be obvious?

For me, family is most important. I have two small kids who are four and seven. In addition to my work, they’re my passion. As most parents do, I worry about their future and the kind of world they’re going to inherit. That’s why I do the work I do, and why I’m going to Ploughshares.

The other thing that people might not know about me is that my father was born in what is now South Korea and my mother was born in what is now North Korea. So, in many ways, my professional work has been closely tied to my personal life and the things that matter most to me: family, public service and philanthropy. I have been very lucky.

As a North Korea expert, what do you think of the situation there now? What should we look for in the coming months in terms of progress? 

For the United States, North Korea is the land of no good options. It’s more a case of choosing the least bad of several unappealing options – and it’s getting worse. In short, we need to become more proactive towards North Korea and its on again/off-again belligerence, and we need to do so quickly. Part of the problem is that there is so much else going on in the world, and the North Korea issue isn’t getting as much high-level attention as it deserves. 

There is one shorter-term issue I am particularly worried about – the safety of the light-water reactor that is being built at Yongbyon in North Korea. If there are serious concerns about the construction and layout of the Fukushima plant and other plants in Japan and elsewhere, which were likely built at the time with what were considered state of the art technology and safety measures, we should have no illusions about what the construction of the nuclear facility in Yongbyon is going to be like. North Korea has constant shortages and uses substitute materials, and this is a problem. What makes matters worse is that the Yongbyon plant is very close to a river that floods regularly.

This is a moment of great opportunity for gains in nuclear policy. What are you most excited about working on in Washington right now?

I’m particularly excited about Ploughshares Fund's involvement and focus on the defense budget process. Reductions in the defense budget have already been mandated, with additional cuts possible. But no one knows exactly what those cuts will be. In terms of nuclear policy, this is a real opportunity. First and foremost, we have to ensure that national security interests are protected. There are no compromises that can be made on that. That being said, there should be a number of cuts to the nuclear arsenal and US nuclear weapons capacity that can be made. I am the convinced that there is a win-win here – we can enhance national security, save money and reduce nuclear weapons at the same time. 

You’ll be leading the San Francisco office. What do you think are the benefits of a bicoastal office? 

Washington is the policy center of the U.S. We have to be there, and we have a strong presence there with a high-profile president, Joe Cirincione. However, I know first-hand that Washington can be a world into itself. Because people are so busy trying to accomplish the things that they were sent to Washington for, it is easy to lose touch with the rest of the country. That’s one of the reasons that I moved to California after my time in DC – to get a sense of what people elsewhere are concerned about. And there's no more diverse place than California. 

Being in San Francisco helps Ploughshares Fund. We’re a player in the Beltway, but at the same time, we maintain our home base in San Francisco which gives us a more perspective on what’s going on in the world, which in turn allows us to be more effective. 

You’ve worked at the State Department with Former Secretary of Defense William Perry – one of the so-called Four Horsemen. Like Dr. Perry, Ploughshares Fund has been instrumental in creating a new bipartisan security consensus that engages people on both sides of the aisle to move policies forward. How will that be useful as we move forward?

Bill Perry is a mentor of mine. He has also been a role model for me -- in terms of recognizing the importance of public service as part of one's professional life and how one should conduct oneself in that endeavor. He is intellectually honest, thorough and willing to listen. He has reached across the aisle to Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn to work on one of the most critical issues of the day – nuclear weapons and their threat. That’s an approach we need to embrace and pursue vigorously.

Because there is a consensus about many security issues, especially as we get beyond election politics into 2013, there’s a real opportunity for people, Democrats and Republicans alike, to work on areas where we agree. So if there’s deficit reduction, then there can be a discussion about where you can make cuts and enhance U.S. national security. I think Ploughshares Fund will be a key player in this discussion. 

Anything else? 

I’m really excited to be here at Ploughshares Fund. I’ve done a lot of different things in my career, but the common thread has been public service. Indeed I view non-profit work as just another form of public service. As a board member, I saw the tremendous job that Naila has done getting Ploughshares Fund to the next level and to make a difference. I am excited to have the chance to continue her work, and to do it in close partnership with President Joe Cirincione, who is an expert and leader in the nonproliferation field – the fact that I get to do all this from San Francisco makes it that much better.