|Alice Min Soo Chun, right, poses with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton when she was invited to New York last year by the Clinton Global Initiative for an award thanking her for providing 100,000 lights to Puerto Rico. Courtesy of Milo Agency|
This is the third in a series of interviews with senior politicians in Korea and executives at leading think tanks in Washington over the issue of the country's provision of direct military support to Kyiv as the Ukraine war passes the one-year mark since Russia launched its attack, ending decades of relative stability in Europe. ― ED.
'The risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of being wrong'
By Kim Yoo-chul
A year after Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, the critical energy and civilian infrastructure of Kyiv was destroyed. This is simply a violation of international humanitarian laws and a threat to the lives of Ukrainians.
Alice Min Soo Chun is well aware that Russia's continued attacks on Ukraine's energy grid have left many without power. She visited refugee camps in Ukraine during Christmas last year. Her goal was to provide solar light lanterns she created for children in a Ukraine hospital to provide therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"The risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of being wrong," Chun, the co-founder of Solight Design, told The Korea Times in a recent interview.
"The children are the innocent victims who have seen the unimaginable. Thousands of refugees were in refugee camps set up in different municipalities. All of them women and children who lost their father or husbands to the war. I visited two refugee camps where we gave out solar lights just as the sun was setting, many homes and areas have constant blackouts and at night the children are terrified. Our color lights were used for PTSD therapy after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. When I heard of the trauma occurring in the children in Ukraine, I decided I must go," she continued.
Chun traveled alone in Ukraine with four giant suitcases packed with 1,000 solar lanterns. After checking the health of children in a hospital in one of the major Ukrainian cities, she got the idea to hand out more origami-style lanterns called SolarPuff, since most of the villages on the front lines in Ukraine have no electricity with many power stations being targeted by Russian troops.
That means nurses at hospitals, infants in intensive care units and even households need light and power for medical purposes. Plus, surgical procedures are being performed in life-threatening conditions as power outages are clearly exacerbating the crisis.
"Our lights fold like and origami balloon ― designed for this purpose ― flat packing makes them easier for shipping and distributing in disaster zones. They pop open into a perfect cube of light. Powered by the sun, they are better than flashlights and the Russians can't take the sun away," Chun responded.
Chun is the inventor of the SolarPuff, the world's only self-inflatable portable solar light. She was named on "Know Your Value and Forbes 50 Over 50" recognizable women of 2022 ― an award to honor women who have achieved significant success after the age of 50 ― and won many accolades, including the U.S. Patent Award for Humanity. A former professor of architecture and material technology at Columbia University, Chun has also exhibited her products at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), in midtown New York.
|Local residents walk with humanitarian aid donations in Tsirkuny village, Kharkiv region, on March 20, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. AFP-Yonhap|
She invented SolarPuff 2006 when her son was diagnosed with asthma. At that time, she was living in New York City and found out that air pollution caused her son to suffer from the disease. This turned her focus to solar technology while teaching at Columbia.
The social entrepreneur added that solar lanterns and mobile chargers are something that she believes are crucial as a utility.
"Having light will prevent assaults and kidnappings of children in tent camps and in the villages at night. I left a few with a family I stayed with in Lviv (western Ukraine's largest city) and they send me pictures of how they use our lights each day. In some cities, there are blackouts eight hours a day. In the villages on the front lines, they really have nothing," Chun said.
The solar lanterns, she said, have been paid for by Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company. The Disney chief executive contacted Chun after his team was touched by her work on "Gutsy," an Apple TV+ show by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, which features some of the world's boldest women.
"I was so moved and honored that Bob Iger donated lights to Ukraine. I love his book, 'Ride of a Lifetime.' I referred to it oftentimes when I think of my difficult journey as a Korean minority and female entrepreneur and find inspiration from his challenges and how he overcame them," said Chun, who grew up in South Korea and later in upstate New York. She is planning to visit Ukraine to provide additional lanterns.
|Alice Min Soo Chun, second from left, poses with her colleagues holding solar lanterns. Courtesy of Milo Agency|
Seeking help from Korean firms
Despite the continued risk of staying in Ukraine, Chun said, "Someone asked me, 'How do you stay sane, going to places within unimaginable or horrific circumstances?' But it's the only thing that keeps me sane." She will soon visit the Kharkiv, the second-largest city in northeast Ukraine, hit hard by Russian attacks.
Chun said she was hoping for a partnership with South Korea's top conglomerates, including Samsung, LG, Hyundai and SK, to provide more solar lanterns to Ukraine.
"I'm not certain if any of the companies in South Korea will help. However, we could even partner with Samsung, LG, Hyundai and SK's corporate social responsibility activities by being their ambassador of light and social responsibility. In Ukraine, with many villages decimated by bombings, having light at night is safety and surveillance, many kids get kidnapped and girls get assaulted when there's no light at night. This is already happening in Ukraine," she stressed, adding that Ukraine has over two million refugee children suffering from trauma.
An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) has shown that there is a direct connection between loss of light and a rise in assaults on women and children. The findings by the WHO also showed that having light in refugee camps creates a 20 percent decrease in assault cases. Chun said this assessment led her to focus on developing sustainable solar lighting.
Samsung Electronics headquarters in Seoul said it already donated $6 million worth of humanitarian aid to Ukraine ― $5 million for medical equipment and necessities as well as $1 million for the provision of consumer electronics, such as washing machines. Representatives at LG, Hyundai and SK said they are in the process of ramping humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
"If the South Korean government and companies would donate lights to Ukraine, it would be a game changer and would save lives and improve daily lives. It's better than a flashlight and better for the environment because no batteries are needed. There is already much food and medical help over there now since the beginning," Chun said.
"Within the web of life where humanity thrives or survives, we are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. We are all interconnected by our humanity. Every time I go into a war zone or a disaster zone, I'm reminded of a time from our Korean history. During the war in Korea in the 1950s, we relied on allies. Now, other nations need South Korea's help like Ukraine."