Fulbright Forum – March 20, 2015

Kristine Lee

BALLOON DIPLOMACY: The Changing Landscape of North Korean Human Rights Activism

Background & Purpose
Over the course of the past decade, the South Korean public’s engagement with the issue of unification and North Korean human rights issues has become increasingly polarized. NGOs and civic groups—populated largely by committed human rights
activists and North Korean defectors—have begun to use aesthetically unconventional means of cultivating public interest in North Korea. Their arsenal includes, but is not limited to, transmitting shortwave radio broadcasts about the outside world into the North and sending giant balloons filled with incendiary political leaflets and Choco Pies across the DMZ. In spite of their meticulously choreographed efforts to draw the public’s gaze, the South Korean news media still bristles with images of military hardware, marching soldiers, and flaming missiles, all underscoring one important point: North Korea is a threat to global security.
Northeast Asian regional security in the 21st century will be shaped in no small part by the bilateral relationship between North and South Korea. While the jawdropping speed of change and the internationalization of South Korean society has built a culture of opportunity and progress, it has also brought many changes to patterns of civic engagement in public spheres. The rift between activists’ efforts to humanize North Korea and the international community’s perception of North Korea as a relentless producer of nuclear warheads is jarring. My project has been an exciting opportunity to capture evolving views at a critical juncture in modern Korean history, in the wake of the North Korean ascendancy.
My Project
During my past several months in South Korea, I have had the opportunity to investigate the activities of North Korean human rights groups based in Seoul. My research has been informed, structurally, by interviews with program officers and researchers—who have revealed that they primarily direct their activities toward captivating the attentions of Seoul’s expatriate communities. I mapped the locations of NGOs and activist groups that emerged in Seoul since the 1990s and conducted background research on their recent activities. After consulting with my advisor, I selected one well-established group, namely the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, to analyze the literary output (pamphlets, video clips, and newsletters) as a window into understanding the values, goals, and day-to-day operations of this group and North Korean human rights organizations more broadly.

Kristine J. Lee, Fulbright Junior Researcher
Kristine Lee graduated from Harvard University in May of 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Literature and a language citation in Mandarin Chinese. She wrote her senior thesis on the 20th century American Civil Rights Movement.
During her Fulbright fellowship, Kristine is affiliated with the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University and is examining how North Korean human rights organizations based in Seoul are shaping the South Korean public’s engagement with North Korean Human rights issues. Originally from Southern California, during her free time, Kristine enjoys taking language and cooking classes, teaching English to North Korean defectors, and exploring art museums.