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2018 Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellows

Piofan Cai, BA International Studies; minor, Asian Studies ‘19
Research Topic: 
Educational Issues of North Korean Refugee Young Adults in Seoul

I spent four weeks in Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in Seoul, South Korea, for the Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship. During my stay, I tried to narrow down my scope and specifically focus on the educational issues of North Korean refugee young adults in Seoul. I have studied and interned abroad by myself in the past, but this opportunity was my first time to do research independently in a foreign city.

I took the summer class taught by Professor Koo at SKKU. The class was about the international human rights issues, which were closely relevant to my research and also strengthened my understanding about some basic knowledge of transnational human rights problems. While working on my research proposal, I talked with Professor Koo during his office hours, and I spoke with the professors in SKKU who specialize in the transnational issues of human rights. I also reached out to different NGOs and organizations in Seoul that aim to support North Korean refugees, such as the Database Center For North Korean Human Rights. By having interviews with the workers and volunteers in some NGOs and organizations, I gained helpful resources and information, which further helped me to complete my research paper and review policy implications.

However, the whole process was not smooth: I was rejected by some organizations or misunderstood; I was too nervous to remember the questions I planned to ask during my first interview; and I lost myself on the way to a local NGO. But it was just these experiences that kept broadening my understanding and enriching my critical thinking on human rights issues. I am so grateful of all these experience in Seoul.

Sometimes, I wish I could jump out of the frames of the systematical theories in class. However, when I am overwhelmed by the information in reality, I realize that I need to continue solidifying the base of my knowledge. Therefore, it is essential to apply my International Studies education to hands-on experiences and practice. Thanks to the programs and support from the Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship, I will keep staying curious, keep learning, and keep taking the roads to the “unknown.”

Chloe Roddy, JD Law ‘20
Research Topic: 
Post-reunification Justice for Human Rights Abuses Committed in North Korea

The Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship allowed me to develop a nuanced understanding of how human rights discourse varies among societies. Learning about these critical differences was foundational for my research concerning post-reunification justice for human rights abuses committed in North Korea under two potential models of reunification: the German model in which East Germany was completely absorbed into West Germany; and a confederation in which the two Koreas would be equal partners.

Professor Koo’s class at Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in Seoul, South Korea, provided a framework for understanding the global human rights regime and especially the differences between South Korean and American media coverage of human rights. I found particularly relevant and fascinating his study of the development of human rights coverage in South Korea media, showing that issues tended to be framed in terms of economic, social, and cultural rights. This is an important distinction when comparing the Korean situation to divided Germany, since citizens of the GDR also tended to focus on economic rights, especially the right to employment. This framing of rights, and consequently the people’s perception of them, influenced and continue to influence many East Germans’ attitudes post-reunification.

One of the most contentious issues under either reunification scenario will be deciding how to reconcile the demands of justice and political instability through prosecution and punishment of North Korean perpetrators of human rights abuses. Prosecution of the most responsible offenders and those who participated in torture, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances is clearly required under international law. But for more specific violations that do not appear on lists of international crimes, how to proceed becomes much less certain.

Relatedly, I became aware of the importance of truth commissions in resolving this tension between justice and instability. In addition to being rooted in a long history of official, comprehensive recording of political events and transitions, truth commissions have played an important role in satisfying the need for some degree of restorative justice because of Korean society’s traditional reticence to litigate. Moreover, truth commissions are especially meaningful in a country that still values certain elements of Confucianism, meaning that their influence on individuals’ reputations is taken seriously. Although Korean truth commissions tend to be relatively objective and avoid recommending punishment, it is worthwhile to consider whether this might hold true when evaluating the actions of a different, ideologically distinct, often-criticized regime.

Lastly, through discussions with experts and practitioners, I learned that there might be less consensus in favor of Korean reunification than existed in divided Germany. Thus, even though the rapid reunification process seen in Germany was in no small part a result of historical chance, it appears less likely that the Koreas will resolve their differences with the same swiftness.

I’m incredibly grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to travel to South Korea for this fellowship. The experience was invaluable both personally and in informing my understanding of human rights issues on the Korean Peninsula and internationally.