A meeting between School of Management students and a former South Korean dictator over spring break has sparked controversy in South Korea and raised questions about the morality of meetings with controversial figures abroad.
During the trip to South Korea — part of a first-year SOM requirement for which students analyze business and management issues abroad — a group discussed economic policy with Chun Doo-hwan, a former dictator who took power in a 1979 military coup. Though the Chun administration is often credited for paving the way for Korea’s economic prosperity in recent decades, Chun was found guilty for leading a brutal military repression of pro-democracy protests in the city of Kwangju in 1980. The two-hour visit at Chun’s home was televised and gained media scrutiny throughout South Korea because Chun’s questionably accurate descriptions of his presidency went unchallenged by the students.
Professor Shin Jiwoong, who led the trip, said Chun’s office carefully vetted students’ questions in advance, adding that he and his students were informed the media would be present at the visit three days beforehand. SOM Dean Edward Snyder, along with Shin and three other professors who led spring break trips, said students should not be automatically prohibited from meeting with leaders with a poor human rights records, since their perspectives can have educational value.
“If you had a chance to meet Hitler, would you avoid it because he’s a bad person?” Shin said. “I’d say it’s better to meet him and hear from him.”
SOM professor Dina Mayzlin, who led a trip to Israel this spring break, said she felt students must “deal with the good and the bad” in order to gain a stronger understanding of countries’ economies. She added that students are mature enough not to be swayed by a politician’s inaccurate representation of history, in part because they prepared extensively before leaving the United States.
But SOM professor Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, who led a trip to Bangladesh and Vietnam, said it was important to consider whether meetings with leaders might provide implicit support for their political actions.
“If there are important and credible human rights concerns about certain people, then we ought not to help legitimize them by allowing them to advertise that a group from Yale University visited to learn from them,” he said, adding that such concerns must be considered on a case-by-case basis and weighed against educational benefits and academic ideals.
Professors said private meetings and meetings covered by the media can have different tones and implications, adding that media coverage can result in politicians using events as platforms for their ideas. Still, they said it is difficult to completely control the itinerary of a trip, and media outlets sometimes arrive unexpectedly.
“If someone is trying to use Yale to help their image, there’s no way to know that in advance,” Mayzlin said. “Any time you meet a politician, it’s a photo op for them. If you met with Barack Obama, it would be the same thing.”
Five students interviewed who went on the trip to South Korea said they felt meeting Chun and Sakong Il, Chun’s finance minister and economic secretary, contributed significantly to the educational value of the trip, adding that Sakong fielded the majority of students’ questions.
Adam Rose SOM ’13 said meeting Chun supplemented the required SOM course “State and Society” because it allowed students to learn firsthand about why the Chun administration supported state-sponsored private companies.
But students said they felt uncomfortable challenging Chun’s description of his rule — which included claims that he had not intended to become president — because they were in the former dictator’s home and because their conversation was intended to focus exclusively on economic policy. Shin said the media coverage focused mostly on Chun’s remarks about his presidency, without paying attention to the fact that the students were there to discuss economics.
“If we were representatives of the U.S. government, we wouldn’t want to visit somebody who committed certain crimes, but from an educational standpoint, there isn’t a line,” Su Wang SOM ’13 said.
Students on the South Korea trip also visited the facilities of Samsung, LG and Hyundai.