In South Korea, SOM students stir controversy

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.


  • jamesdakrn

    As a South Korean citizen I am angered that this meeting took place. So what if they were there to “discuss economics?” The fact remains that Chun is a brutal dictator who 1. murdered hundreds (if not thousands) of citizens in Gwangju in May 1980,

    2. Arrested thousands of the opposition including Kim Dae Jung and Kim Yong Sam. (In fact gave out death sentence to Kim Dae Jung blaming him for what happened in Gwangju)

    3. Under his regime, there were numerous accounts of torture, including one done against Kim Geun Tae, which left him with Parkinson’s disease due to electric shocks received during the torture. Other accounts of torture include the case of Bucheon Police Department, where the police tortured and sexually assaulted a college student who tried to start a labor union in a factory.

    4. Torture also killed Park Jong Chul, who was arrested so that the police can find where his fellow classmate, Park Jong Un was. Under arrest, the police used “standard” methods of waterboarding; not the weak version that the US army does, but one that actually includes putting the face of the defendant underwater for 30 seconds at a time. Under torture, he died of cardiac arrest. Oh and the police statement on his death? “책상을 탁 치니 억 하고 죽었다.” “I hit the desk really hard and he died of shock.”

    5. Took away students who were heavily involved in protest movements to “Samcheong Educational Facitility” in the army, which in fact was nothing but a concentration camp for democracy fighters. In here, at least 54 people died, as well as 364 dying afterwards due to injuries sustained in this camp, and there were 2786 injured. Of course, this is the report made by the Defense Ministry of Korea. There are anecdotes of drill sergeants claiming that there was at least 11 who died in his regiment, or another who claimed 3 committed suicide in one company. The biggest problem is that there was no record of who were sent out from these camps.

    6. Again, took away many protesters from universities, sent them to the army where they went through all kinds of dehumanizing experiences (and these practices were outside the public’s eye since it was the army, the power base of Chun) and tortured many to become spies for the secret police.

    7. Has a ton of $$$ that he owes to the gov’t as a result of his astronomical amounts of bribes that he received. He claimed that he only had 290,000 Won left in his bank account, which is almost 290 dollars.

    • jamesdakrn

      P.S. The amount of money he made into his slush fund? over 1 percent of South Korea’s GDP in 1987.

  • Outraged

    I believe Prof. Shin may be a bit disingenuous in his Hitler comment. It has been widely reported by the S. Korean media that Prof. Shin is a friend of the former president’s son, and it was the (often unapologetic) son who served as the liaison. I am certain that students – especially business school students whose careers may involve having to oppose, appease, or otherwise deal with questionable leaders of the world – can learn a lot from opportunities such as this. Nonetheless, one must wonder what Prof. Shin actually thinks of the former president and whether he was able to properly educate the students without bias.

    I will share the following statement that reflects at least a significant minority, if not a plurality or majority, of the public opinion in S. Korea: “전통께서는 아직도 할말이 남으셨습니까? 제발 주둥이를 닥치시고 국가에 배상할 1,673억원이나 찾아보시오.”

  • joey00

    Through the past darkly.Ghosting into Christmas Presents with bribes,deals,investments and position offers,handshakes – With a black cloaked skeleton in the closet . Woooooooo. C’mon you guys can do better than a state and city funded casino that was proffered to Singapore

    • jamesdakrn

      wtf are you saying?