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For IU students, Korea trip gives new meaning to the latest headlines

Recent news reports from the Korean peninsula struck home for Indiana University Bloomington students who had just returned from a 10-day trip to South Korea.

They socialized and made friends with Korean students, then watched from a distance as South Korea grieved over the suicide of its former president, Roh Moo-hyun.

Scholars in Global Citizenship

Participants in the 2009 Scholars in Global Citizenship program in South Korea

Print-Quality Photo

They experienced first-hand the palpable tension between South and North Korea in a visit to Panmunjom, part of the demilitarized zone separating the two countries -- then shared the world's alarm as North Korea defied its allies and adversaries by testing a nuclear weapon.

"Having been in the demilitarized zone just days before, it certainly hit home," said Brett Harris, one of the students. "I'm glad to be back."

The 20 students took part in the second Scholars in Global Citizenship Program in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. In a course taught by SPEA professor Matt Auer, dean of IU's Hutton Honors College, they spent eight weeks learning about trends in globalization, with a focus on South Korea. Students then pursued individual projects, rounding out their studies with research during the May 11-23 visit to South Korea, accompanied by Auer and Stephanie Lewis and Amy Bastin from SPEA's Office of Undergraduate Programs.

News that Rho had killed himself by jumping from a 100-foot cliff broke as the IU students were at Incheon International Airport, departing South Korea. Rho was South Korea's president from 2003 to 2008. He and members of his family had been under investigation for corruption.

"It was a horrible event, but we didn't get to see the reaction in South Korea. We were boarding the plane as we were learning about it," said Harris, a SPEA management major from New Jersey.

The next day, as the students arrived home, North Korea announced it had tested a nuclear device. It followed up days later by renouncing the terms of the 1953 truce that ended the Korean War.

IU student Jessica Fossmeyer said the conflict seemed to confirm the sense of extreme tension that students felt when they visited the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, where armed soldiers from North and South face off.

Korean Soldier

A U.S. soldier patrols the South Korea side of the Joint Security Area in the Korean demilitarized zone; behind the blue United Nations building is North Korean territory.

"The DMZ tour was definitely the most interesting part for me," said Fossmeyer, a senior from Vincennes, Ind., who is majoring in English and political science. "You had to sign a waiver that says you're not responsible for anything that happens. They said, 'Don't wear sandals in case you have to run.' It was surreal -- like something in a movie."

"You could get a sense of the tension," Harris said. "There was a sense of, 'Wow, this is serious.'"

While Rho's suicide and the North Korea nuclear test colored the aftermath of the visit, students made productive use of their time in South Korea, conducting library research, listening to lectures and taking part in interviews from their base at Yonsei University, IU's partner for the program.

Fossmeyer worked on a project on globalization and education reform. Harris conducted research on global dimensions of the auto industry and the current economic crisis.

Along with the students' research, the opportunity to spend 10 days in South Korea, mostly in the ultra-modern, intensely crowded city of Seoul, is an education in itself. "Seoul is the city that never sleeps," said Auer. "You always feel this kind of assault on your senses."

Fossmeyer had studied in London and thought she knew what to expect from a big city in another country. But Seoul, she said, was completely different.

"It kind of blew my mind," she said. "The street markets, the vendors everywhere . . . It's a very, very cool place."

Information about the Scholars in Global Citizenship Program is available online at