Stanford students experience Korean peninsula politics firsthand

A group of Stanford students, accompanied by Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, learn how to create policy from top-level diplomats in South Korea. Video by Nicole Feldman and Steve Griffin.

Featuring former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and current FSI William J. Perry fellow, Kathleen Stephens, and students from the Ford Dorsey Master’s Program in International Policy: Mackenzie Barnett, Hyeryung Chloe Chung, MC Dinh, Isabelle Foster, Emi Kurooka, and Nicole Southard. Written by Nicole Feldman.

Surreal. That’s the word that hummed through the bus as 20 first-year international policy students from Stanford departed the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Moments before, they had stood on a platform, gazing at the empty space between the two Koreas. The 600-pound North Korean flag waved atop the world’s fourth largest flagpole. Music filled the two-and-a-half mile valley between the countries, and when the North Korean guards saw the students, they turned up the volume.

The 600-pound North Korean flag towers over Panmunjeom, a village hugging the northern border of the DMZ, on the world’s fourth largest flagpole. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

The first-year students from Stanford University’s Ford Dorsey Master’s Program in International Policy, part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), spent a week meeting with top-level local and American diplomats to experience firsthand how international policy works in practice. They got to meet with one of Korean President Moon’s advisors, American Foreign Service officers, a correspondent from The New York Times, and even a former Korean General Assembly member.

The students have lunch with New York Times correspondent Choe Sang-hun. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

“FSI wants to create leaders who understand other points of view,” said FSI Director Michael McFaul. “International opportunities allow students to experience firsthand policy challenges they could encounter after graduation.”

Experiencing the headlines

At the DMZ, the students witnessed the ongoing consequences of the 1953 Korean Armistice, which separated the peninsula into North and South.

Nearly 70 years later, Koreans on both sides still feel torn by the war and the perpetual stalemate.

“I felt the pain from this division, but at the same time, seeing the unity at Camp Bonifas was really impactful for me,” said MC Dinh, a student on the trip. “We met soldiers from around the world who came together to protect the Joint Security Area: from South Korea, the U.S. and New Zealand.”

Student Isabelle Foster asks Lieutenant Commander Daniel McShane about his time defending the DMZ as they stand on a platform overlooking North Korea. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

As the bus began to wind its way out of the DMZ, North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during Kim’s first diplomatic trip abroad since taking office in 2011. On the bus, students huddled around a mobile phone to watch clips of the historic event. One of the students helped translate the Chinese media coverage.

“We felt like we were experiencing the headlines,” said Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and now the William J. Perry fellow at FSI, who accompanied the students on the trip.

During the students’ trip, Kim Jong Un met with Xi Jinping for the first time. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.

Ambling with an ambassador

The students got a real-world view of careers in international policy.

“We designed the meetings like encounters in professional life,” said Stephens.

Working from Stephens’s experiences in the U.S. Foreign Service and then as ambassador, two second-year students, Hyeryung Chloe Chung and Emi Kurooka, developed student-lead meetings in Seoul.

No time to wander! Students leaders Emi Kurooka and Hyeryung Chloe Chung keep everyone on schedule as they shepherd the 20 other students through each day’s meetings. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

“Working with Ambassador Stephens was one of my most precious experiences at Stanford,” said Kurooka.

By directing the discussions themselves, the first-year students practiced working through today’s policy challenges in the program’s five areas of study: international security and cooperation; democracy, development and the rule of law; international political economy; energy, environment and natural resources; and global health.

“FSI is a place that nurtures doers as well as thinkers,” said Stephens. “This kind of opportunity to get on-the-ground experience gives our students the chance to do both.”

In front of her former residence at the U.S. embassy, Seoul, Stephens recounted her journeys in Korea. She began as a Peace Corps middle school teacher in the 1970s, then returned as a U.S. Foreign Service diplomat in the 1980s and finally as the first female and first Korean-speaking ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. She watched a war-torn country develop into a strong economic presence in Asia and the world.

Kathleen Stephens tells the students about her time as ambassador while standing in front of her former home in Seoul. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

The country’s trajectory made it an ideal case study for the students to learn about long-term development firsthand.

“South Korea is one of the most successful countries in the world,” said Stephens. “It’s a good example of policy that works but also where it fell short on occasion.”

Real-world experiences to solve real-world problems

“When I heard we were coming to South Korea, I didn’t necessarily anticipate it being relevant to my interests,” said Nicole Southard, whose studies at Stanford focus on humanitarian crisis response. After seeing how policy has developed from the end of the Korean War to the present, she started to see parallels between Korea’s progress and her own work.

Student Nicole Southard talks about how the trip aided her studies in humanitarian crisis response at Stanford. Video by Nicole Feldman and Steve Griffin.

“You can only learn so much from reading a book,” said Jason Lam, a graduate of Stanford’s master’s program in East Asian Studies who now works for U.S. Forces Korea. Lam talked with the students about how Stanford prepared him for his job as a military advisor on Korean peninsula policy.

“I think Stanford provides just the right mix of practical and academic.”

The students got a peek into Lam’s daily work life when they met with his boss, General Vincent Brooks, who leads the U.S. military on the peninsula. General Brooks is responsible for the joint U.S. and Korean forces and the United Nations Command. To get to the conference room, students had to pass through several checkpoints. They were watched by officers at all times. But Brooks’ easy manner surprised many students.

“Our conversation was incredibly insightful into the thought process of a highly decorated military leader,” said Isabelle Foster. “What resonated with me was his emphasis on compassion and an understanding of and appreciation for cultural differences.”

Having a frank discussion with General Vincent Brooks was a highlight for many students, particularly those born outside of the U.S. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

“Having the chance to sit down for more than an hour with a top military officer in the quintessential hot spot and have a very frank and open discussion was a special opportunity,” said Stephens.

Policy leaders, present and future

Just as valuable as hearing about policymaking was the chance to engage with peers from the other side of world.

At Seoul National University, the Stanford students worked with international students who shared their interests.

Stanford student Julie Gu speaks with fellow international students at Seoul National University. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

“Seeing firsthand how policy works, but also being able to build relationships with your classmates and the people you meet makes events like this invaluable,” said Lam.

On the last night of the trip, the FSI students got to lead a discussion of their own at Heyground, a shared office space that houses about 45 social enterprises and non-profits. As a haze-reddened sun set over the rooftop conference room, four Stanford students shared their own leadership experiences with the Korean entrepreneurs.

“It was a really incredible experience being able to share tips and war stories about starting social ventures in two different countries,” said Mackenzie Barnett, one of the four student leaders. “I learned about the growing culture of social entrepreneurship in South Korea, and I shared advice from my experience fundraising for nonprofits and startups in Silicon Valley.”

The sun sets over Seoul from Heyground’s rooftop deck. Photo by Nicole Feldman.

“Coming to Korea has been a really eye-opening experience,” said Foster as the students prepared to head home. “I have a more in-depth understanding of U.S.-Korea relationships.”


This trip was one of many FSI-sponsored chances to learn and work abroad, which change from year to year. Learn more about current travel opportunities for Stanford undergraduate and graduate students.

Like what you read? Give FSI Stanford a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.