|NKHR Leadership Program goes to Washington D.C. and New York City|
Learning and understanding what difference means
Program Officer, Education Team
In July 2015, nine college students—six North Korean students resettling in South Korea, and three South Korean students—participated in NKHR’s Washington Leadership Program. The students spent three weeks in Washington D.C. and New York learning about democracy and sharing their experiences as North Korean youth resettling in South Korea. This year was the third year of the Washington Leadership Program.
In preparation for this year’s trip, the students spent three months taking classes about Korean history, democracy, market economies, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it relates to North Korea, and the leadership of South Korea and the United States.
We arrived in Washington D.C. on July 3, right on time to spend July 4, Independence Day of the United States, in the capitol. We prepared sandwiches and hurried to the Lincoln Memorial early in the morning to enjoy nationwide fireworks and commemorate the day. Throughout the day we toured the many memorials such as the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The fireworks finally started at 8:00 p.m. As the booming fireworks went on, the roar of Americans cheering “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.” grew louder and buzzed across the Memorial. The NKHR students later remarked that American patriotism caused them to reflect on their own patriotism.
We visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum the following day. The museum helped the students vividly feel and understand the Holocaust, which until then we had only read about in books. We shared our thoughts, comparing the Holocaust’s concentration camps to North Korea’s modern-day political prison camps.
The next day was Monday and the educational portion of the program began. Over the course of a week and a half, the students visited a number of institutions such as the U.S. Capitol, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the National Endowment for Democracy. They participated in lectures about leadership, the structure of the U.S. government, and American democracy and citizenship. These lectures raised important questions about democracy: What is democracy and why is it so important? What freedoms do I enjoy as a citizen, and what responsibilities come with it? What are the elements of sustainable democracy?
Many lectures also focused on foreign policy and international relations. The group learned about American foreign policy on North Korea and institutional changes in Eastern Europe. These lectures also helped the students develop analytical skills and critical thinking, as unlike many of the lectures the students had grown accustomed to, these lectures were discussion-based. The students also engaged in discussions about issues important to Korea and unification such as national security, education, domestic politics, foreign relations, and the economy.
This year, the students were also invited to a special event at the South Korean embassy. They met the Ambassador of South Korea to the United States, Mr. Ahn Ho-young. Despite his busy schedule, Ambassador Ahn showed special interest in each student. He asked questions about their lives in North Korea and encouraged each student to become leaders when North and South Korea are reunified. After meeting Ambassador Ahn, the students had a special discussion about foreign policy and economic relationships between South Korea and the U.S. with several officials from the embassy who work on reunification and economic issues.
The students complemented their academic lessons by giving back to the community and helping to serve breakfast to the homeless. It was important learning experience for them—at first, the students appeared to hold negative impressions about the homeless, but they soon realized that homeless people are not different from them.
In addition to the two weeks in Washington, D.C., the students also spent a few days in New York City visiting the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Open Society, and touring Manhattan.
The students developed important skills from their three-week leadership program. I witnessed them mature. They learned that people have many different opinions, and that engaging with different opinions can strengthen their own. They also developed a sense of tolerance and understanding for one another.
In its own way, the trip became a small reunification of North and South Korea on its own for the six students from North Korea and the three students from South Korea. One of the most significant moments came as we walked together after a long day in New York City. Together, we sang songs from the students’ youths in North Korea. In that moment, I felt that unification could not be too far away, as long we learn to recognize, tolerate, and accept differences among one another.