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Katie Gonser travels to Washington DC, meeting with experts on human rights and humanitarianism in North Korea

Katie Gonser in WA DC

December 12, 2022

I used the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown Fund to finance a research trip to Washington DC this autumn.  My doctoral research looks at human rights and humanitarianism in North Korea, with a focus on US and South Korean nonprofit organizations (NGOs) working in both fields. While I had gone to Seoul this spring to interview NGO staff and connect with experts there, my contact with their American counterparts had been limited to zoom meetings before this trip.

During my time in DC, I met with with a range of experts in the field, including policy advisors, professors, and a journalist. I also met with an interviewee whom I had already talked to on zoom, and I interviewed the director of an NGO and staff members at another NGO. I asked each of them about their perspective on issues that I had been struggling to situate within my research, such as competing conceptions of peace on the Korean peninsula, or how ideological divides among human rights groups differ in the US compared to in South Korea. Their combined input was invaluable in helping me to better understand the overall North Korea policy environment in DC. As an outsider to my field of research, their responses have been critical in helping me to better understand the cultural, historical and political nuances inherent to my topic.

These in-person meetings also pointed me towards further contacts and resources I was previously unaware of. For example, one of my interviewees told me about a little-known visit Amnesty International paid to a North Korean political prison camp in the 1990s. Today, the North Korean government denies the very existence of these camps, and this visit was the first and only time an international human rights NGO was granted access to them. After this trip, Amnesty publicly condemned the North Korean government’s use of the prison camps, which is likely why no other international NGO has been granted access to them since. Amnesty’s visit, and the resulting outcry, illustrate a key finding of my research: conventional strategies of pressuring nonconforming governments to abide by human rights norms through shaming tactics are more likely to alienate the North Korean government than to enable any dialogue or cooperation.

During my trip I was also able to attend several talks and conferences related to North Korea, including a talk with Ambassador Lee Shin-wha, Ambassador for International Cooperation on North Korean Human Rights for the Republic of Korea; a talk about foreign media in North Korea at the Korea Society; a conference on North Korean human rights in the context of COVID at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and the Korea Peace Forum with the South Korean Delegation at Catholic University. It was exciting to be in the city during the South Korean delegation’s visit, and to see researchers, diplomats and policy makers come together to discuss North Korean human rights. These talks were a reminder that from the American perspective, nuclear power tends to be central to any discussion about North Korea.

I am very grateful to have been fully funded by the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown Fund for this trip – the additional information I was able to glean from my meetings during this visit has enriched my understanding of the North Korean human rights landscape and helped me to make connections that had previously felt out of reach. After a year and half of feeling frustratingly delayed in my research by the pandemic, I now feel fully equipped to complete my analysis and publish my findings.