Professor Han Park helps keep peace between the U.S. and North Korea and helps UGA students better understand global issues
Han Park closes his eyes and sees the dead bodies piled in the streets where he grew up in war-torn China and Korea. Innocent civilians killed at close range. Others dying of opium addiction. Children starving to death.
The bloodshed and gruesome scenes from those early years set the stage for what Park describes as a lifelong passion for peacemaking.
“From the time of my birth I have been subjected to anything but peace,” he says. “So in my boyhood, I was fed up with the killing and wars and self destruction.”
Decades and a world away from the killing fields, Park, a UGA political science professor, has committed his life to help North Korea find peace. In the past 25 years he has traveled there more than 50 times, serving as an unofficial ambassador between it and the rest of the world.
“It is a deeply rooted, obsessive commitment to peace building,” he says.
Over the years Park has worked on behalf of former President Jimmy Carter during his trips, including a peace mission this spring in which Carter met with Kim Jong-il to discuss the country’s nuclear program and its food shortages. His first effort secured a controversial 1994 trip to meet former North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung in the capital of Pyongyang, a meeting that some believe averted war between the U.S. and North Korea.
Park’s focus has been on creating trust between the U.S. and North Korea, as well as North Korea and South Korea. As six-party talks reached a stalemate in 2003, Park organized an informal diplomatic seminar that included high-level North Korean and U.S. government officials, which paved the way for talks to resume in 2004.
The most recent high-profile event involving Park was the 2009 release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were detained by North Korean border guards while reporting on a story about the plight of women who cross the border from North Korea into China to escape starvation, only to fall prey to human traffickers.
From top: Park with Jimmy Carter not long after Carter lost his 1980 re-election campaign; Park with Carter in 2007 at the Carter Presidency: Lessons for the 21st Century Conference held at UGA; and Park with UGA videographer Bill Evelyn while preparing for a live video conference about Korea on CNN in 2003.
Ling and Lee were sentenced by a North Korean court to 12 years hard labor for “hostile acts.” Park visited North Korea three times to negotiate specific terms that would allow former President Bill Clinton to travel to the country to win their freedom. In April, Lee and Ling were awarded the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
While Park is often approached to be a go-between, he’s selective about his opportunities. It’s not his job to be a missionary, he says, but a scholar and a humanitarian, with other trips focused on providing food or housing for North Koreans.
Park, whose standing invitation to visit North Korea commands a rare respect, also serves as director of UGA’s Center for the Study of Global Issues, known as Globis. Research-related and educational trips to Japan, Ecuador, Italy and South Africa thrust students into learning how political, economic and sociocultural trends can impact public policy.
In 2010, Morehouse College awarded him the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Builders Prize, which recognizes individuals who have a legacy of creating peace. The historically black, all-male Atlanta college, which counts Martin Luther King Jr. among its alumni, has presented the award to eight Nobel Peace Prize recipients since it began in 2001.
“He’s one of the very few people in this country at this point who truly has earned the trust and the respect of the North Korean officials,” says Habitat of Humanity co-founder Don Mosley, who, with Park’s help, took volunteers to North Korea this spring to build homes. “He has done that by his dogged persistence, his year after year, his decade after decade of humanitarian work and straight speaking. They might not always like what Han Park says, but they know that he is very much committed to being a peacemaker.”
Seeking Peace Out of Suffering
For three long years, Park, who was born in China and moved to Korea when he was 9, lived in the middle of the Korean War, surrounded by deadly confrontations and the gruesome aftermath of air strikes. He had enough.
“I was so disturbed by what appeared to be human nature,” Park says.
As a middle and high school student, Park was disappointed by the politicians and decision makers, which propelled him to study political science. His purpose was not to become a politician, but to do something about the “real politics behind the war games,” he says.
His parents were Buddhists, but Park met Christian missionaries and teachers who came from the U.S. to serve in North Korea. He was determined to work for peace and love, which he saw as the essence of Christianity. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1963 from Seoul National University and then came to the U.S. with his fiancée, Sungwon, in 1965, earning his master’s from American University in 1967 and a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1971.
Park, who arrived at UGA to teach in 1970, received his first invitation to Pyongyang in 1981 to join a group of U.S. scholars visiting the country. During the 1980s, much of his work was with Uniting Families, an organization Park founded that decade with the late Dean Rusk. Armed with a camcorder—and well before the explosion of social media and virtual chatting—Park took video messages from displaced Koreans living in China to reunite family members over the airwaves. He spent the ’90s involved in efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis that developed in North Korea. Over the years, he’s also sought to promote the U.S.-North Korea relationship by bringing media and academic scholars to North Korea and bringing North Koreans to America.
“There are very few people that have devoted much of their professional activity over an entire lifetime to a particular problem and country, and that’s Han Park,” says Gary Bertsch, founding director of UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security. “His name is widely recognized in this country and abroad as being a man of careful, deep thought and experience and of good judgment.”
The relationship that Park has achieved with North Korea is unusual—and took years to build.
“We look at it today and say, how did this happen? The answer is it happened over multiple decades,” says Thomas Lauth, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs. “It’s in part because he’s Korean. It’s in part because he has expertise in Asian government and Asian politics. It’s in part because of trust built up.”
Park wades through his downtown Athens office, his desk covered by papers including his contract renewal with ABC News, which employs him as a political consultant. After a few minutes, he locates a Korean publication in which he was recently featured, his photo on the cover reflecting his prominence overseas. Park believes he has shown his sincere support for peace while on their turf, although not always in a calm manner. He remembers a trip to an orphanage in North Korea in the mid-’90s, when he witnessed babies dying of hunger.
“There are many, many sad tragic scenes in the world, but nothing beats that—a baby dying, not over illness, not of accident, or even war, but of starvation. It’s unthinkable. So I showed my emotion. I assaulted the government officials physically. I became insane. I lost my composure,” he recalls. “So that really prompted their assessing this little man. So ironically, it really helped me win their trust. Because I am genuinely interested in helping North Korea in a humanitarian manner.”
Park, who views North Koreans as innocent victims of a system plagued by deplorable policies, speaks strongly about the impact governing bodies around the world have on the population.
“International sanctions they may deserve, but the consequences of hurting people, it’s not something that we should implement. We are not hurting the regime at all. We are hurting the people.”
(clockwise from top left) During their 2003 visit to UGA, Park confers with members of the North Korean delegation. WUGA radio reporter May Kay Mitchell interviews Park following his closing remarks to the delegation. Park with (left to right) Han Song-Ryol, ambassador to the United Nations; Curt Weldon, vice chairman of the U.S. House Arms Service Committee; Kim Myong Gil, senior researcher at the Institute of Disarmament and Peace; Jo Sung Ju, IDP head of American Affairs; Sim Il Gwang, IDP researcher; and an unidentified man during the delegation’s visit.
The Relationship Builder
Han Park’s religion is serving as a peacemaker, says Mosley, who served as a Peace Corps director in South Korea in the late ’60s. Park opened the door for a spring trip to North Korea by volunteers with the Fuller Center for Housing (founded by the late Millard Fuller, Habitat co-founder), which seeks to build homes in North Korea alongside locals. The ability to have Americans and North Koreans spend time together, eating lunch and working on homes is a way to make peace, Park says.
The seven team members planned to spend time with Koreans and build the first of 50 houses in a community between Pyongyang and Sunan International Airport, says David Snell, director of the Fuller Center for Housing.
“It’s really groundbreaking,” he says. “For 60 years, we really haven’t had much to do with each other in a friendly way. To my knowledge, no one is doing the kind of grassroots, on-the-ground initiative that we’re involved with. He saw this as an opportunity to take a little different approach.”
Park sees himself representing the U.S. as a system of diversity and accomplishment, and he seeks to change North Koreans’ perceptions of Americans. While he recognizes that others have tried to do what he has been doing for 40-plus years, many of them have their own agendas, whether to further Christianity or to increase their self-esteem, he says.
While Park holds U.S. citizenship, Bertsch says he doesn’t shy away from making comments that may rub Americans and the State Department the wrong way because they are not in line with U.S. policy.
“The important thing is that Han Park is his own man. He doesn’t take orders or he doesn’t try to please anyone but his own good judgment about what will be best for the broader humanity or the broader group of people that is involved,” Bertsch says. “I know that governments are often unhappy with it.”
At 72, Park plans to continue teaching in some capacity, but can now envision retirement, which he will spend attempting to reconnect with lost family members in China and the Koreas.
But some folks, like Bertsch, believe that Park’s best years are ahead of him. His knowledge, wisdom and trust will be crucial to help ease the tense relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.
“To have somebody of the understanding and experience and values of Han Park assisting the leaders of the countries involved in dealing with these issues is the thing that we need most,” Bertsch says. “I think that his contributions in this area of public diplomacy and strategic and informal communication will be of continuing value for the rest of his life. Therefore, I think he has much to do and probably becomes of greater value to our country and to all of the countries involved in the world over year by year.”
—Lori Johnston is a writer living in Watkinsville.