Peace Corps Story: Kathleen Stephens

July 19th, 2019

The U.S. Peace Corps was active in South Korea between 1961 and 1981. One of the many volunteers who served in South Korea was KEI president and CEO Kathleen Stephens. Her time in Korea was the beginning of a long journey that would eventually lead her to become U.S. ambassador to the country in 2008. In this episode, we look back on her first visit to South Korea.

This interview was conducted by Tyler Lloyd who runs the wonderful podcast series “My Peace Corp Story,” which you can find on iTunes and here:

The episode is a little longer than the usual Korean Kontext episode, but it is highly informative and worth every minute.

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Korea, Japan, and the Missing Advocate: Kristin Vekasi and Jiwon Nam

July 12th, 2019

This month, the world was reminded once again that the relationship between the Republic of Korea and Japan is deeply fractious. Japan has imposed restrictions on the export of chemical components for semiconductor chips – accusing South Korea of failing to provide sufficient guarantees that these materials are not being smuggled into North Korea. However, the accusation comes amid a rift between the two countries over the South Korean court’s ruling that select Japanese companies that had forced Koreans into slave labor during the Second World War had to compensate surviving victims.

This crisis builds on top of existing tensions around other historical legacy issues stemming from Japan’s 35-year colonial occupation of Korea – including a disputed islet, ongoing controversy around compensation for sexual slavery by the Japanese military, and how Japan writes about these historical events in its textbooks.

The U.S. government has encouraged the two countries to make amends for decades with limited success. In this environment, who can be the advocate of reconciliation?

Dr. Kristin Vekasi (@ProfVekasi) and Jiwon Nam believe that the private sector has a critical role to play. The discussion builds on their recent research for the Korea Economic Institute, which you can find here:

Also, keep your eye open for the upcoming publication of Vekasi and Nam's "Boycotting Japan Boycotting Japan: Explaining Divergence in Chinese and South Korean Economic Backlash" in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs.

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The Great Successor: Anna Fifield

July 5th, 2019

When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, the world held its breath as North Korea entered uncharted waters. No other communist dictatorship in the last century – for that matter no other autocratic state that is not a monarchy – has been able to successfully transfer power to a third generation. Some analysts in Washington and elsewhere raised the possibility of the country collapsing in mere months.

But when that didn’t happen, a new theory arose – would he be the great reformer to lead North Korea to the community of nations? 8 years on, that has not yet happened either.

We still know so little about the North Korean leader – and so much of how we think of Kim Jong-un comes from media portrayals, the parodies, and assumptions amalgamated from our knowledge of other autocrats.

But a new book provides the first comprehensive and readable study of the incumbent North Korean leader. Written by the veteran Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield, the exhaustively researched new book, titled “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un” provides a more rounded picture of the first North Korean leader to meet the U.S. president.

Anna Fifield (@annafifield) came to KEI and sat down with KEI President Ambassador Kathleen Stephens – in fact, just before the Trump-Kim meeting on June 30, 2019 - for a brief chat.

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Defending Korea, from the Nakdong to the Chosin: Colonel John Stevens

June 28th, 2019

On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched a surprise invasion of South Korea and started a war that is still technically ongoing. But it was – as North Korea’s Kim Il-sung presumed when he launched the all-out assault – almost a short war.

The North Korean invasion force was comprised of more than a hundred Soviet tanks and an air force – all armaments that had devastated the German army on the Russian front during WWII. By contrast, the South Korean army had no tanks and an airforce comprised solely of reconnaissance planes.

Predictably, South Korea’s capital Seoul fell in three days. And by August, the North Korean forces had nearly reached the southern port city of Busan – the last pocket of territory held by the Republic of Korea. And had it not been for the intervention of the United Nations forces, South Korea as we know it would not exist.

Our guest today, Colonel John Stevens is a veteran of the Korean War – he was at the Busan Perimeter, also called the Nakdong Line. He joins us today by phone to tell us about his experience in the war.

If you would like more information about the Korean War Memorial Foundation, please visit

Please also read about Colonel Stevens' service in the Pacific theater of the Second World War in this article:

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How China Sees the Korean Peninsula: Lee Seong-hyon

June 21st, 2019

In light of the meeting between China’s leader Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un this week, we are rebroadcasting an episode from February on Beijing’s foreign policy objectives on the Korean Peninsula.

The visit by Xi Jinping comes on the 70th year of official diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea – a date that the Chinese leader made sure to emphasize through an op-ed in North Korea’s official state newspaper (see here:

Our guest, Dr. Lee Seong-hyon, is the Director of the Center for Chinese Studies and Department of Unification Strategy at the Sejong Institute. He sat down with KEI’s Juni Kim to provide us with his views on how China approaches the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and its broader ambitions in the region vis-a-vis the United States.

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At Best Unique, At Worst Delusional - North Korea’s Special Economic Zones: Theo Clement

June 14th, 2019

The North Korean economy is changing – we know this because of widely reported growth of private markets since the famine of 1990s. But black markets and illicit activities are not the only drivers of this development. The North Korean state is also actively promoting reform through the development of Special Economic Zones.

Dr. Theo Clement sits down with KEI to explain the deep roots of North Korea’s reform efforts and how it influences and is influenced by geopolitics. And most importantly, a police recommendation for how China, South Korea, and the United States should work together to push North Korea towards real reforms.

You can find Dr. Clement’s paper titled “From Failed Economic Interfaces to Political Levers: Assessing China-South Korea Competition and Cooperation Scenarios on North Korean Special Economic Zones” here:

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Explainer: The Political Origins of Korean Baseball

June 7th, 2019

In May, The Korean-born Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin was named The National League Pitcher of the Month.

When you think of Asians and baseball, you might think first of Japan – with famous players like Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish in Major League Baseball. But South Korea also has an illustrious domestic league with competitive players who are breaking ground in the United States. How did baseball get its start in South Korea and where is it going? KEI Senior Director Troy Stangarone and intern Haram Chung explain the political origins of the Korean Baseball Organization and the where it is headed on the international stage.

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Explainer: The State of Korea’s Childcare Industry

May 31st, 2019

In March, a curious protest took place in Seoul. Private kindergartens were going on strike. Protests by industry groups or workers are not uncommon in South Korea, but something about the protest in the childcare sector struck a raw nerve. What was the industry protesting against? And where are the public kindergartens?

KEI Senior Director Troy Stangarone and intern Steven Lim answer these questions and address how childcare affects demographic trends. Steven Lim's recent Peninsula Blog article is a good accompaniment for this episode, and we highly recommend you check it out:


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North Korea’s Illicit Trade Winds: Hugh Griffith

May 24th, 2019

North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song demanded that the United States release a North Korean vessel that is currently held by authorities in American Samoa, warning that the detention of the vessel would imperil any future disarmament negotiations.

But wait, why is there a North Korean vessel in American custody in the first place?

To answer that, our guest today is Hugh Griffith, the author of the UN panel of experts report on international sanctions against North Korea.

(You can also find the full report here:

In this interview, he tells Korean Kontext about how North Korea has been using ship-to-ship transfers to evade sanctions and how illicit cybercrime activities now bring in as much revenue for Pyongyang as its weapons sales.

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Why North Korea Won’t Budge: Ken Gause

May 17th, 2019

It’s been nearly one year since the Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un and the two countries are at an impasse. North Korea signals no intention of giving up its existing nuclear arsenal before sanctions relief and the United States has repeatedly underscored that no sanctions would be lifted until Pyongyang makes an irreversible step towards disarmament. But why is this happening? Didn’t North Korea come to the table because international sanctions had become too unbearable? In the face of what the North Korean state media has called the worst drought in 40 years, shouldn’t Kim Jong-un want a compromise?

Or perhaps, we need to reexamine our assumptions and look at the world from behind Kim Jong-un’s desk. How would an autocrat change what had been his country’s single-minded objective for decades?

Our guest, Ken Gause is the foremost expert on North Korea’s leadership. In this episode, he scrutinizes what we think we know about Kim Jong-un.

Ken Gause is CNA's senior foreign leadership analyst and directs the organization's Adversary Analytics Program. He spent the last 20 years developing methodologies for examining leadership dynamics of hard-target, authoritarian regimes. In particular, he is an internationally respected expert on North Korea who has written three books on North Korean leadership, including "North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un."

Please also find the video of KEI's public event with Ken Gause here:


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Going Back to The Source: Jeffrey Robertson

May 10th, 2019

What if our understanding of North Korea is inadvertently colored by the very resources that we rely on to deepen our knowledge of the country? What does this say about our policies towards North Korea, our coordination with South Korea on North Korea, and the discipline of international relations as a whole? 

Professor Jeffrey Robertson tackled these very questions in his latest paper for the Korea Economic Institute, titled "Is Pyongyang Different in Washington and Seoul? English and Korean Language Policy Discourse on North Korea."

In this interview, he addresses the most fundamental question in diplomacy: how do we go about engaging with a country that comes to the table with a different history, perceives events in a different context, and speaks a different language. 

You can find his article in this link below:

His book “Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea” is available from Routledge.

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[Rebroadcast] Valuing Age and Experience: Yongmin Cho and Quan Nguyen

May 3rd, 2019

Although it is happening more rapidly in South Korea, an aging society is a common feature in post-industrial societies around the world. With the number of retirees growing and the number of children dwindling, countries are faced with numerous public policy challenges: how to pay for public schools with smaller and smaller enrolments, how to provide a comfortable and fulfilling life for people after retirement, how to best pass on the knowledge accrued by older workers, etc. Carefully measured planning and public policy are required to address these challenges.

We are rebroadcasting an episode from 2017. Jenna Gibson interviewed executives at a company in South Korea called SAY that pairs senior citizen tutors with young students - a market-based solution to some of the challenges that aging societies face. 

Please also find in the link below, the article from the New York Times on how a rural town in southwestern South Korea is responding to low school enrollment due to demographic decline:

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Explainer: Ultrafine Dust Crisis

April 26th, 2019

In March, Seoul suffered from the worst air pollution on record. Enough that the South Korean government has officially designated the problem as a social disaster. But what is causing this high level of air pollution – and what exactly is ultrafine dust? And what does the Korean government plan on doing about it? KEI Senior Director Troy Stangarone and Yea Ji Nam are here to answer all these questions.

Yea Ji Nam's recent Peninsula Blog article is a good accompaniment for this episode, and we highly recommend you check it out:

Please enjoy our very first episode of Korean Kontext Explainer.

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[Rebroadcast] We Built This Bureau: Elise Hu

April 19th, 2019

Over the past few years, Korea and Koreans have experienced incredible political, social, and diplomatic shifts.

It is hard keeping up with all these new developments as a Korea Watcher, so the task of reporting the daily news has been doubly challenging.

We are replaying an episode that we broadcasted in May 2018 with then-NPR Seoul correspondent Elise Hu who was present to cover the attack on then-U.S. ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert, the collapse of the Park Geun-hye administration, the transition to President Moon Jae-in, the Winter Olympics, and other key events.

In addition, Elise talks about the challenges that came with opening a news bureau in Korea and generally getting by in Seoul as an American. Our senior director Troy Stangarone led the interview.

Elise Hu is a still with NPR and is based out of Culver City, CA. You can find the Youtube series "Elise Tries" here:

You can also follow her on twitter @elisewho 


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From Maximum Pressure to Maximum Leverage: Daniel Wertz

April 12th, 2019

Even before the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, foreign policy practitioners and observers were talking about the difficulties of sequencing international sanctions relief for North Korea denuclearization and disarmament. Sure enough, North Korea demands more sanctions relief while Washington wants more disarmament. Following the disappointing conclusion to the summit in Hanoi, it feels like we are at an impasse despite the many summit meetings between President Trump, Kim Jong-un, and President Moon Jae-in over the past several months.

What is the right way forward?

Our guest, Daniel Wertz from the National Committee on North Korea, believes that the U.S. approach to negotiations with North Korea has been too inflexible – pointedly, he calls out the fact that the maximum pressure campaign launched against Pyongyang is meaningless if it does not translate to outcomes at the negotiating table.

The discussion builds on his recent Academic Paper Series report for the Korea Economic Institute, which you can find here:

Also, if you would like to sign up for KEI's newsletter - Korea View - please sign up in the link here:

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[Rebroadcast] In Defense of KORUS: Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, and Kyle Ferrier

April 5th, 2019

Recently released data from the Department of Commerce confirmed that the United States achieved record-level export of services to South Korea in 2018 - $24.5 billion. Combined with the trade in physical goods, the total bilateral trade deficit between the United States and South Korea is at an 8-year low. Now, there are eight more countries with a higher bilateral trade deficit with the United States than Korea, including France, Italy, and Taiwan.

Trade deficit with South Korea was something that President Trump highlighted during his presidential campaign – he blamed this on the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and in 2017 called for the agreement to be renegotiated. A new agreement was negotiated in 2018 but the newest data suggests that the old agreement may not have been the key driver or a widening trade deficit after all. 

At this point in time, we look back and replay an episode from September 2017 where KEI's panel of Phil Eskeland, Troy Stangarone, and Kyle Ferrier analyzed President Trump’s approach to the Korea-US free trade agreement and recommended against abruptly revising the treaty.

You can also read KEI's summary of the 2018 trade data here:

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When North Korea Embraces Mobile Technology: Yonho Kim

March 29th, 2019

We imagine North Korea as a country that is carrying on not only a conflict left over from the Cold War, but also a decrepit legacy economy from the past. So when recent travelers reported seeing digital billboards at shopping malls in Pyongyang, it caught many international observers by surprise. Moreover, we see everyday people in Pyongyang using cellphones on the street.

We’ve known for a while that USB sticks are used to smuggle South Korean pop culture content into North Korea - so we knew that some North Koreans have computer devices. But what has become more evident in recent years is the extent to which mobile technology has been embraced not just illicitly by the North Korean people, but also formally by the state as part of its economic plan.

KEI's non-resident fellow Yonho Kim sits down with Korean Kontext to discuss the evolution of cell phone adoption in North Korea and how it has changed society, particularly in the economic space where mobile technology has revolutionized the nascent private sector. His recent paper on this topic for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is available in the link below:

KEI also recommends an accompanying paper titled "Information Technology and Social Controls in North Korea" by Scott Thomas Bruce from 2014, which you can find in the link below:


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[Rebroadcast] The Revolution will be Thumb Drived: North Korean Access to Outside Media: Nat Kretchen

March 22nd, 2019

While North Korea under the Kim regime has tried to maintain tight control of information sources within its borders, the North Korean populace in recent years has found creative ways to access outside media, which includes everything from foreign news broadcasts to the latest South Korean dramas.

Nat Kretchen, Deputy Director at the Open Technology Fund, participated in a panel here at KEI this week and discussed his research on North Korea’s developing information environment. Nat sat down with us afterwards to talk more about how everyday North Koreans access information and how the regime is fighting back against the increase of foreign media in the country.

Note: This episode was originally published on October 20, 2017

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When Cold Warriors Met to Talk About Peace: Mark Tokola

March 15th, 2019

We are still digesting the series of summitry that took place in the past few months between North Korea, the United States, and South Korea.

We rightly recognize the historic nature of the president of the United States meeting with the North Korean leader. But more than 50 years ago, there was another meeting between big personalities over the issue of Korea that was just as historic but is all but forgotten today. And while the international environment has changed drastically since, the lessons that the meeting offers to summit goers today is critical.

Our guest today, KEI Vice President Mark Tokola, has just written an essay on this event using declassified state department documents.

You can find Mark Tokola's essay here:

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[Rebroadcast] Achieving Peace through Sanctions: Stephan Haggard

March 8th, 2019

The second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on February 27 and 28 ended without an agreement. The key difference in the two leaders’ negotiating positions appears to have been over sanctions relief. If negotiations continue, further discussions on the sequence of sanctions relief are sure to arise.

At this moment, we wanted to rebroadcast an episode from December 2016, just as the United Nations was escalating sanctions against North Korea in response to their fourth nuclear test in January of that year. KEI’s Troy Stangarone sat down with one of the foremost experts on North Korean sanctions, Dr. Stephan Haggard, distinguished professor of political science and director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the school of global policy and strategy at the University of California San Diego. Their discussion explores the strengths and limitations of the sanctions regime, alongside what the international body hopes to achieve as a result.

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We Go Together: Ambassador Kathleen Stephens and General Skip Sharp

March 1st, 2019

As the complex negotiations between North Korea, United States, and South Korea continue, it is worthwhile to review what the current U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula looks like. For this, we are airing a special episode of the wonderful podcast the General and the Ambassador from the American Academy of Diplomacy. The episode features KEI President and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens (2008-2011) and General Skip Sharp who served as the commander of the ROK-US combined forces during the same time.

They will discuss the evolution and trajectory of the U.S.-Korea relationship and specifically, reflect on the twin crises of 2010 – when the North Korean military scuttled a South Korea naval vessel in March and then shelled an island later that year.

You can find more episodes from the General and the Ambassador series at the American Academy of Diplomacy website:

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When the Party Writes About Itself, It Writes With Purpose: Dr. Meredith Shaw

February 22nd, 2019

Despite all the attention around the upcoming second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, we in the United States still know very little about North Korea, its people, and their aspirations. There is, of course, no public opinion polling. Single-party rule means that there is no platform where the Korean Workers’ Party carries out an in-depth discussion on the direction of the country.

There is one exception: literature. As a result, state-sanctioned short stories and novels are the windows through which the outside world can begin to understand what North Korea’s leaders envision as an ideal society.

Of particular interest, what of North Korea’s promise to deliver a strong and prosperous country by 2012? How are they messaging the party’s accomplishments?  Has it arrived - if it has, how does North Korea explain the economic challenges that people face? if it has not yet arrived - why should the people continue to have confidence in the Party?

Our guest today, Dr. Meredith Shaw, a researcher of North Korean literature from the University of Tokyo, will address these questions and more.

You can find her presentation at KEI here:

You can also find her blog on North Korean literature here:

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China’s Dream and The Korean Peninsula: Dr. Lee Seong-hyon

February 15th, 2019

As we approach the second US-DPRK Summit, the media in the United States is so focused on the dynamics between President Trump and Kim Jong-un that the interests and motivations of another key player has gone under-discussed: China.

It was Kim’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing earlier this year that alerted the world to Pyongyang’s intentions to advance the second Summit meeting with the United States. China is also North Korea’s most prominent economic partner.

And yet we do not give enough thought to how China may be approaching the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Our guest today, Dr. Lee Seong-hyon, is the Director of the Center for Chinese Studies and Department of Unification Strategy at the Sejong Institute. He sat down with KEI’s Juni Kim to provide us with his views on how China approaches the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and its broader ambitions in the region vis-a-vis the United States.

He also led a seminar discussion on this very topic at the Korea Economic Institute in October 2018 - which you can see in full here:

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Neighbors not by Geography, but by a Shared Vision: Park Jae-kyung

February 8th, 2019

When people talk about South Korea’s foreign policy, they are more often than not focused on how Seoul engages with its immediate neighbors on denuclearization. However, as a global trading power, South Korea’s foreign policy interests extends beyond the Peninsula.

In particular, President Moon Jae-in has been focused on building a more robust relationship with nations in Southeast Asia. Dubbed “The New Southern Policy,” South Korea is committed to working with ASEAN nations to build a more prosperous future. But will it be able to compete against China and Japan with their massive investments through One Belt One Road and the Asian Development Bank? And how will Korea navigate the geographically, politically, and economically fragmented community? What does South Korea bring to the table, and what does the region offer to South Korea?

Our guest today, Senior Coordinator of the Presidential Committee on New Southern Policy Park Jae-kyung shares with Korean Kontext his outlook on the region and where he sees Korea's advantages.

Also watch the panel discussion between Mr. Park and figures from U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, U.S. Department of State, Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and others discuss U.S.-ROK cooperation in Southeast Asia and India here:

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Trade Wars Strike Back: Dr. June Park

February 1st, 2019

Amid the maelstrom of the drama around diplomacy with North Korean, it’s easy to forget that South Korea and the United States are engaged in a fairly serious trade dispute over tariffs that Washington imposed on imported solar panels and washing machines. 

This has caused significant tensions at a time when these long-time security allies need to be in lock step to advance the denuclearization of North Korea.

Our guest today, Dr. June Park, is a political economist who has been carefully monitoring trade dispute for years. She is currently an adjunct professor of Global Affairs at the George Mason University Korea and a Non-resident James A. Kelly Korea Fellow at the Pacific Forum.

She is the author of a KEI report on the effects of the ongoing trade war on Korea’s solar panel industry, which you can find in the link below:

Dr. Park speaks with KEI's Junil Kim on what factors are driving the current trade frictions and what could be done to alleviate these tensions. 

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What the Korean Wave Brought to the American Table: Michael Hong

January 25th, 2019

Long before BTS and Psy made their debut, a handful of entrepreneurs were laying the foundations for what would become the Korean Wave in the United States. With Korean pop culture now a global sensation, Korean Kontext sits down with one of these pioneers - Michael Hong, CEO and Co-founder of the global content distributor Digital Media Rights.

In our discussion, Michael touches on the cultural and technological changes that accelerated the spread of Korean entertainment content. And also what the Korean Wave meant to him personally as a Korean-American from Queens, NY.

Michael Hong is this year's honoree at KEI's Korean-American Day. If you have not yet checked out Korean Kontext's interviews with our other honorees - Susan Kang of Soompi and Charlotte and Dave Cho of Sokoglam - we highly recommend you go back and listen. 

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Danish Furniture, Korean Skincare: Charlotte and Dave Cho

January 18th, 2019

Korea today leads the world in autos and electronics, but newly emerging manufacturers and protectionism threaten the country's position as a leading exporter. In search of innovative industries that will allow Korea to punch above its weight in the global market, cosmetics are seen as a possible contender. Enter Sokoglam: an online market place curating K-beauty products in the United States. Their founders, Charlotte and Dave Cho, sit down with Korean Kontext to discuss how they built the business and where they hope to take the industry in the future. 

This is the second of three episodes with honorees from KEI's Korean-American Day celebration. If you haven't yet, we highly recommend the first episode with Susan Kang, the founder of Soompi. 


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We Built This K-pop Community: Susan Kang

January 11th, 2019

K-pop had an explosive year in 2018, but it didn't arise from a vacuum. Since 1998, one web community - Soompi - has been sharing the latest information about Korea's thriving pop culture scene and steadily building a community. It would be no exaggeration to claim that a lot of South Korea's soft power is built on this community. 

Korean Kontext sits down with Soompi's founder, Susan Kang - who is also the 2019 Korean-American Day honoree for her contributions to advancing awareness of Korean culture in the United States. But as the interview with her reveals, the community she built was more than a place for K-pop fans to gather - it was a safe place, a home away from home, and a place of understanding. And perhaps that's the biggest takeaway from the Korean Wave: that we are not all that different from one another.  

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2018 in Review from the Korea Economic Institute

December 21st, 2018

2018 has been an incredibly eventful year for both the Koreas and the U.S.-Korea relationship: from North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics at the start of the year to the Trump-Kim Summit in June, things moved at a dizzying speed.

But it was more than just the summitry - there were developments on social and economic fronts. South Korea’s foreign policy looked to Southeast Asia, women rallied against harassment, and people debated the country’s energy mix. This and much more on this final episode of the year.

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Children are our future, our present: Dafna Zur

December 14th, 2018

Interest in the Korean peninsula is generally very narrow in the United States - it tends to be focused on North Korea and security issues, particularly the country's ballistic and nuclear weapons developments. Given the security challenges, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but how do we begin to engage with a society that we don’t quite understand? What are the aspirations of the North Korean people? What is their world view?

Making the task particularly difficult, North Korea is a notoriously isolated country - doing field studies in the country is not an option. But there is one discipline that presents a window into the collective imagination and perceptions of the North Korean society: literature.

Dr. Dafna Zur joins Korean Kontext to address how literature can be used to better understand North Korea - and also tells us about the complex history of children’s literature on the Korean Peninsula. 

Also check out her lecture at the Library of Congress on science fiction in North Korea:

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Remembering President George H.W. Bush’s Legacy in Korea: Ambassador Donald Gregg

December 7th, 2018

Last Friday, on November 30, 2018, President George H.W. Bush passed away. In the days that followed, there were many discussions in the foreign policy community about the late president's handling of the many dramatic events during his tenure: the collapse of the Soviet Union, unification of Germany, democratization of Eastern Europe, the Gulf War, etc. Here, the Korean Peninsula often gets sidelined - however, President Bush senior should be remembered for strengthening not only the U.S.-Korea relationship but also extending critical support to the nascent democratic institution in South Korea. Moreover, it was during the Bush administration that the two Koreas joined the United Nations and began discussing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. To talk about these developments in greater detail, KEI sat down with Donald Gregg who served as ambassador to South Korea between 1989 and 1993. 

A good accompanying piece for this episode is the article on President H.W. Bush's legacy in Korea by our president, Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, on KEI's Peninsula Blog. Find the post here

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How Koreans Define Koreaness: Christopher Green and Steven Denney

November 30th, 2018

What does a unified Korea look like? Beyond the question of whether the government of this new country will be a unitary or federal one, how will the people - separated not just by time, but also increasingly language and worldview - interact with one another? This goes to the heart of the research by Christopher Green (PhD candidate, Leiden University) and Steven Denney (PhD candidate, University of Toronto) who are examining how the broader Korean perspective on what defines a Korean nation is evolving over time.

You can find their research paper for KEI's Academic Paper Series here   

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Across the Tumen River: A Journey through North Korea

November 20th, 2018

On this week’s episode, we welcome back Victoria Kim, a researcher and multimedia journalist. When she last joined us in 2016, Victoria discussed her project “Lost and Found in Uzbekistan: The Korean Story” which chronicled the stories of the Korean diaspora in Central Asia, including her own grandfather.

This time, she sat down with KEI Program Manager Juni Kim and discussed her experiences and impressions from her recent trip to North Korea, and what the trip meant to her as she followed the same route her ancestors used across the Tumen River from North Korea into Russia.

Link to Victoria's presentation at Johns Hopkins SAIS:

Link to previous Korean Kontext episode with Victoria:


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[Rebroadcast] Home is Where Our Story Begins: Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko

November 16th, 2018

This is a re-broadcast of an episode from January - KEI's Jenna Gibson interviews Min Jin Lee, award winning author of Pachinko.

Spanning nearly a century and multiple generations, Min Jin Lee's 2017 novel Pachinko tells the story of a Korean family struggling to find their place in Japan before, during, and after the Korean War. Praised by The Chicago Tribune, NPR, CNN, and others, the novel touches on a myriad of themes, including identity, the role of women, war, and discrimination, all within a rich historical background. In this episode, Jenna spoke with Min Jin Lee about why she started writing Pachinko, how the story evolved over time, and what she's working on next.

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North Korea, The Global Arms Dealer: Dr. Bruce Bechtol

November 9th, 2018

When we think about the threat posed by North Korea, we tend to narrowly talk about the missiles and nuclear weapons that are inside North Korea. But North Korea is also a prolific international arms dealer - it is largely responsible for the missile programs in Iran and Pakistan, not to mention small arms proliferation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite this, other than the occasional news stories about a boat load of North Korean guns in the Caribbean and gas masks that were heading to Syria being intercepted on the high seas, media coverage of North Korea’s arms sales abroad has been scant. And when public attention comes short, it runs the risk of getting left behind in diplomatic negotiations.

Here to give us a better sense of what is going on, our guest today is Dr. Bruce Bechtol, author of “North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa: Enabling Violence and Instability” (Amazon page link here). We discuss how Pyongyang’s global arms sales activities have implications for both the effectiveness of our sanctions policy towards North Korea and Pyongyang’s ability to make its own weapons program more deadly.

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How Things Look from the Peninsula: WSJ’s Jonathan Cheng

November 2nd, 2018

From the United States, events on the Korean Peninsula have moved quickly and dramatically - we were first surprised to find that North Korea had ballistic weapons that could reach continental United States and before we knew it, the president of the United States was meeting Kim Jong-un face-to-face. But what did this all look like in South Korea? The South Korean people have lived with the risk of war for decades - they have also seen their presidents travel to Pyongyang in the past to talk about peace. 

In this context, what has the past year looked like for South Korean audiences?

We speak with veteran journalist and Seoul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal Jonathan Cheng to get a sense of how things look from the ground.   

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War’s Impact on the American Homefront: Robert Powell and Sam Yoon

October 26th, 2018

What happens if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula? In addition to the incalculable cost of lives lost, a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula would have an immense, tangible impact on the livelihood of Americans far away from the front lines. Our guests, Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Senior Consultant Robert Powell and Korean-Americans for Action Executive Director Sam Yoon, explain exactly what is at stake if the current peace process falters. 

You can also find Robert Powell's special report on this issue here 

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Learning from Past Engagements with Pyongyang: Ambassador Chun Yung-woo

October 19th, 2018

Are negotiations with North Korea headed in the right direction? Between the high-profile summit meetings and images of an inter-Korean team competing in the Olympics together, are we any closer to denuclearization than we were before?

We can start answering these questions by examining where we erred in the past. Ambassador Chun Yung-woo represented South Korea in the final rounds of the Six Party Talks - he watched a deal come together then fall apart. Building on his unique experience, he shares his outlook on current prospects for denuclearization and what might be required to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula

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Growing Up as a Defector Migrant in South Korea

October 12th, 2018

Life in North Korea is difficult. But when defectors make their way to South Korea, they confront new challenges. This is particularly true for children who have to deal with not only adapting to South Korean society, but also its infamously rigorous education system.

To get a glimpse into their lives, Jenna Gibson sat down with administrators and students from Keunsaem, an afterschool program dedicated to defector-migrant youth from North Korea. In this special episode of Korean Kontext, students from this program tell Jenna about their hopes and aspirations for a unified peninsula. Meanwhile, the school's directors, themselves defectors from North Korea, highlight the role that these students will play in the near future as ambassadors for unification. 



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[Rebroadcast] Talk to Us in Korean: The Mavericks of Teaching Korean Online

September 14th, 2018

It started in 2009 with a few audio lessons. Within just six years, Talk to Me in Korean has grown into a huge hit, with millions of listeners from all over the world visiting the site to improve their Korean language skills. The organization has now expanded to include video lessons, textbooks, and even a coffee shop.

In this episode of Korean Kontext, host Jenna Gibson connects with TTMIK founder Hyunwoo Sun to discuss how how he got the idea for the site, how they have dealt with its popularity, and his thoughts on teaching Korean culture along with teaching language.

*Rebroadcast from 12/2/15

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[Rebroadcast] Korean American Day 2018: Photojournalist Chang Lee

September 7th, 2018

As part of KEI’s annual commemoration of Korean-American Day on January 13th, KEI honors exceptional Korean-Americans in various fields and industries for their respective contributions to both their professions and the Korean-American community. 

For 2018, KEI honored three Korean-American journalists. Jenna Gibson also sat down with honoree Chang Lee, a photojournalist from  the New York Times. He spoke with Jenna on how he first became interested in photography and his experiences of covering everything from war zones to the Olympics. 

The New York Times featured Chang Lee and his photographs from the Pyeongchang Olympics in a February 15th article, which can be found in the link below.

Note: The interview took place on January 12th and prior to the start of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

*Rebroadcast from 2/23/2018

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[Rebroadcast] Covering PyeongChang: The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng

September 4th, 2018

From February 9-25, athletes and fans from around the world gathered in PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Olympics. But while the athletes competed for gold, the Olympics also had major political implications, especially after the North Koreans decided to send a high-level delegation to the Games and agreed to field a joint women's hockey team with South Korea.

In this episode of Korean Kontext, host Jenna Gibson spoke with Jonathan Cheng, the Seoul Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, about how he and the Journal's team chose to cover all these different aspects of the Olympics, how Korea prepared for the Games, and, of course, the rise of Korea's famous Garlic Girls curling team.

*Rebroadcast from 3/2/2018

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K-pop’s HIgh Tide in the United States

August 24th, 2018

With appearances on major mainstream American TV shows like Jimmy Kimmel and the American Music Awards, BTS have broken into the American market in an unprecedented way this year. With their success and increased popularity for k-pop in the United States, it is clear that Korean pop music is here to stay. But how has k-pop managed to break through in 2018 in a way it has not been able to before?


To learn more about the state of k-pop in the United States and how we got to the point where the wave of Korean entertainment is now washing upon American shores, Korean Kontext host Jenna Gibson sat down with journalist Tamar Herman. Tamar, who is a kpop columnist at Billboard and contributor at Forbes, discusses the state of k-pop in the United States, what has brough this recent success in a way that hasn't been seen in the past, and what trends to look for in the future. 

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How Would New U.S. Auto Tariffs Impact Hyundai and Kia?

August 8th, 2018

The Trump Administration is once again considering using Section 232 to impose tariffs on imported goods based on a threat to national security. The President originally used this provision to add tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and his administration is now considering whether to allow tariffs on auto imports as well.


To learn more about Section 232 and how it would impact not only car manufacturers, but also local dealers, and even the American consumer, Korean Kontext host Jenna Gibson sat down with representatives from Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia. David Kim, Vice President of Government Affairs at Hyundai Motor Company's Washington Office, and Christopher Wenk, Vice Oresident of Government Affairs at Kia Motors Corportation's Washington Office, discussed the background of 232, how it would impact their operations in the United States, and why it could have adverse effects on every part of the auto industry.

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Behind the Scenes of Repatriating American Soldiers’ Remains from North Korea

August 1st, 2018

On August 1, the remains of what are believed to be 55 American servicemen lost during the Korean War finally returned home, arriving in Hawaii to begin the long process of identification. These are the first remains returned from North Korea since the June 12 Singapore Summit, when Kim Jong-un pledged to begin sending back bodies recovered in North Korea.


This week's guest personally participated in previous efforts to recover and return American remains from North Korea during the 1990s and 2000s. Ashton Ormes, a retired U.S. Army colonel, an Army Northeast Asia Foreign Area Officer, and a former civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, sat down with Korean Kontext host Jenna Gibson to discuss those experiences, what it was like traveling within North Korea to search for remains, and what is different about this round of repatriations.


Col. Ormes also wrote a blog for KEI titled "Five Misconceptions About Recovering the Remains of America’s Korean War Servicemen Missing in North Korea." You can find it on the KEI blog by clicking here.

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Examining Korea’s Economic Growth: A View from the OECD

July 30th, 2018

After more than a year in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and has administration have pushed for an economic policy of "income-led growth," which includes a minimum wage increase, providing more public sector jobs, and higher social spending.


Dr. Randall Jones, the head of the Japan/Korea Desk at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), returns to Korean Kontext to discuss the 2018 OECD Economic Survey on South Korea and what the results mean for the administration's policy and Korea's economic future.


*Dr. Jones last appeared on Korean Kontext in 2016 to discuss the 2016 OECD survey. That episode can be found at this link:

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Ambassador Chris Hill on North Korea Negotiations

July 13th, 2018

With the Trump Administration's North Korea negotiations ongoing, many analysts have been making comparisons to past talks to try to make sense of the current process, and to predict what may happen in the future. For this episode, Korean Kontext host Jenna Gibson spoke with a distinguished expert who has firsthand knowledge of negotiating with North Korea during one of those previous processes, the Six Party Talks.


Ambassador Chris Hill was Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2005 to 2009 and served as Head of the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks. Ambassador Hill is now the Chief Advisor to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

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[Rebroadcast] Shamans, Goblins, and Ghosts: A Look at Korean Folk Culture

July 5th, 2018

Ghosts and goblins are everywhere in Korean folktales, causing havoc for people through their antics. Equally common are the shamans who act as intermediaries, helping offer solutions to life's supernatural problems.


For this week's episode of Korean Kontext, host Jenna Gibson interviewed Dr. Michael Pettid, of the State University of New York at Binghamton, who specializes in pre-modern Korea, particularly the role shamanism and folk culture has played in Korea. They discuss the history and experience of Korean shamans over the centuries, how they fit into folk tales, and what to do when a hobgoblin tries to steal your shoes. 


Please note: this episode originally aired in August, 2016.

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Farewell Podcast with KEI President Donald Manzullo

June 29th, 2018

On June 30, after 5 1/2 years as the head of KEI, Donald Manzullo will be retiring. In honor of his service to the Korea policy community, Korean Kontext host Jenna Gibson sat down with him to chat about his journey to KEI, how things have changed in the last five years since he took over the organization, and his advice for Korea policy watchers going forward.


Please enjoy this conversation with President Manzullo, and join us in thanking him for his leadership over the last five years.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Identity

June 22nd, 2018

Now that Trump has met Kim, and with the Singapore Summit laying out the beginning of a path to denuclearization, analysts are still trying to figure out if Kim Jong Un is sincere about the possibility of giving up his nuclear arsenal. 


This week's guest, Dr. Marco Milani, has focused on North Korea's nuclear program as a part of the regime's identity and security - not just as a guaranteur of physical security, but legitimacy and economic security as well. But that doesn't necessarily mean they won't give them up within the right context. Check out this week's episode to learn more about his research.

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