Cluster IV: Korean Politics

My calling and vocation in international affairs began with a desire to better understand North Korea – a country with formidable military capabilities, but which never seemed to have enough food. This observation was from the late 1990s, but is still true today! An interest in Korean history, society, and politics and issues such as the US-South Korea alliance, as well as race and identity in foreign affairs stem from my own identity as a second generation Korean-American.

North Korea

My research to date covers the internal dynamics of North Korea. I have a forthcoming book, State, Markets, and Society in North Korea that examines whether/how markets have altered state-society relations in North Korea. In a report geared more towards NGOs and the policy community, my colleagues Justin Hastings, Dan Wertz, and I also examine how markets facilitate the building blocks of civil society in North Korea. We plan to spin-off one or two academic papers from our research.

I support both human rights and humanitarian engagement in North Korea, but I acknowledge that these goals sometimes conflict. I have taken a personal interest in exploring the synergies and tensions between human rights and humanitarian engagement issues in North Korea. Both groups ultimately care about the well-being of the North Korean people. However, they adopt different principles and approaches to address human suffering. I wrote a short piece in 38 North and then a longer academic article on the politics of North Korean human rights. I later joined forces with Danielle Chubb and a team of researchers around the world to put together a major project exploring the politics (and the actors, strategies, and tactics) of North Korean human rights. I wrote about this terrific collaborative experience in The Duck of Minerva. I also wrote a separate, mostly descriptive piece looking at the scope of people-to-people engagement in North Korea. Beyond academic research, I’ve also commented and written extensively on North Korea in the media.

South Korea

My work on South Korea covers both foreign policy and domestic politics. In addition to my current research on South Korea’s New Southern Policy and the US-South Korea alliance, I have written reports on the role of civil society in the alliance relationship, China-Japan-Korea trilateral relations, and also Japan-Korea relations. I also drafted a chapter exploring the role of ideology in South Korean foreign policy for an edited volume contracted with Routledge Press.  Looking at the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy, my research on anti-base protests in Korea have led me to investigate the clash between conservative and progressive actors in South Korea on issues pertaining to security, foreign policy, and Korean reunification. Drawing on the idea of a “security consensus”, I explain how the political orthodoxy promoted by conservatives often prevails in the halls of government on security and foreign policy issues. However, I also demonstrate how progressive actors challenge the orthodoxy through formal and informal politics and evaluate how and to what extent they have brought change to Korean politics and society.

Since the 2016 candlelight protests, I have been conducting more formal and critical research on South Korean democracy. South Korea is often (and rightly) applauded as a democratic success story. Yet underneath this veneer, illiberal practices have persisted under both conservative and progressive governments. An article in Asian Politics & Policy examines how institutional-cultural factors create a “glass-ceiling” that limits South Korea from reaching the upper echelon of liberal democracies. I also teamed up with Aram Hur to explore the concept of “nationalist polarization” and democratic ceilings in Taiwan and South Korea.

I am excited to share my research and insights on Korean affairs with students who have little prior knowledge about Korea. To this end, I developed the course,  Korea in World Politics.

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