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2017 Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellows

Irene Kwon, BA Public Policy ‘18
Research Focus:
Sex Trafficking and Prostitution in South Korea

For my Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship, I went to Seoul, South Korea for three weeks to do research on the issues of Sex Trafficking and Prostitution. My research was intended to elaborate on a comparative legal research paper I had already written on the legal frameworks of sex trafficking and prostitution in the United States and South Korea. I was hoping to explore the political, cultural, and social factors that seemed to be confounding Korea’s enforcement of commitments to combat both prostitution and trafficking, and allowing this categorical violation of human rights to persist. My fellowship partner, Sion, and I conducted research by taking a class on human rights at Sungkyunkwan University, meeting with prominent professors and NGO leaders in the field of human rights, and attending a conference on the issue of the sexual abuse of minors.

A significant lesson I learned through this process is that the undertaking of research often leads to more questions than answers. I thought that maybe after three weeks, I would come away with answers or solutions to the issues that I specifically went to work on. Ironically, I left Seoul with even more questions about my subject area than I originally arrived with. Once I learned about one of the problems surrounding sex trafficking, I would subsequently discover a number of other problems that all seemed to be impossibly intertwined. I realized that with an issue like sex trafficking that is systemic, societal, and cultural, the depth and complexity of research is infinite. Three weeks was barely long enough to scratch the surface of the subject matter, but it sparked an even greater curiosity and desire to continue digging. If anything, this experience revealed that it may take a lifetime to pursue a thorough expertise of my research topic, but it would be a lifetime well worthwhile.

I also learned that deeply rooted social issues can cause disagreement or discomfort and it can often be difficult to convince people to change their values. I’ve learned that if you can’t change minds, then change their hearts first. Connect with people on a personal level. Learn to respect people and understand their views before trying to adjust them. Be genuine, well-intentioned, and kind. People will be much more receptive to who you are than what you have to say. When you can make arguments into conversations and your “enemies” into your partners, social justice work becomes full of meaningful relationships and continual growth. With this approach, fighting for what you believe in then turns out to involve very little fighting at all.

I’m thankful for this experience because more than confirming what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to fighting for, it taught me who I want to be on the journey. I’d like to give special thanks to the University of Michigan Donia Human Rights Center and the Social Science Korea Human Rights Forum at Sungkyunkwan University for the funding to make it possible, Professor Koo for his mentorship throughout, and Sion Lee for her support as a research partner and friend!

Sion Lee, BA Political Science; minor, Music; minor, Law, Justice, and Social Change ‘19
Research Focus:
North Korean Refugee Human Rights Abuses in North and South Korea

The Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship has allowed me to return to my mother country and examine human rights issues specific to South Korea. My research topic was on the human rights abuses North Korean refugees have faced in North and South Korea; specifically, I focused on female North Korean refugees who were victims of sexual violence. Given that seventy percent of North Korean defectors are women, I knew that there would be many stories that were relevant to their female identities. While I did not get the chance to speak to these defectors directly, I met with several professors, NGOs, and also gathered several secondhand sources like studies conducted by the government and large research institutions.

While conducting research on my topic was interesting, it was also interesting to sit in to Professor Koo’s human rights class. The class was pretty small—there were around fifteen students total—but there were people not only from America, but also from Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. In retrospect, I think this diversity made the class so interesting. I was so used to talking about human rights from an American perspective that even I was not aware of my American exceptionalism. We discussed human rights issues that were relevant in every single country (i.e., women’s rights) and issues that were specific to a single country (i.e., should South Korea’s draft be mandatory). To top it all off, I became very good friends with the people in my class since we were always discussing sensitive and personal topics.

I would like to extend a huge thanks to the University of Michigan Donia Human Rights Center, the Social Science Korea Human Rights Forum at Sungkyunkwan University, Professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui for introducing me to this opportunity, and Professor Koo for guiding me in Korea. This has truly been the best summer of my life and has opened so many more doors for me. Thank you all very much.