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The Peninsula

A Star-Studded Affair: Can Korean Celebrities Bring Awareness to Human Rights Issues in North Korea?

Published June 26, 2014
Category: North Korea

By Clare Hubbard

While atrocious human rights violations continue in North Korea, the South Korean public remains focused on their daily lives. A prolonged separation and ideological division on the Korean peninsula has gradually produced two different peoples and the younger generations of South Koreans are losing more and more interest in their North Korean counterparts. While the financial burden of unification is often discussed, could greater celebrity involvement help to raise awareness about the social differences that are creating a deeper divide between the two Korea’s and the humanitarian crisis documented in the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry Report?

In the United States, one way to raise public awareness to global and domestic issues is through the causes promoted by celebrities. For an average American who is busy with their own day-to-day responsibilities, seeing Angelina Jolie on the cover of a magazine supporting one of her 25 causes, or George Clooney’s involvement  in conflicts in Darfur can be the difference between continuing through life with a minimal understanding of current conflicts and knowing about the issues and possibly donating to their perspective charities.

According to a poll by Harris Interactive, half of Americans believe celebrities can make a positive difference when they support a cause. The support of an international or domestic cause by a celebrity can bring a positive change in viewpoint toward the charity from the American public, raising awareness to a range of issues from violence against women to the environment and health concerns.  According to the same poll, almost three in five Americans believe the support of a celebrity can change a person’s view in supporting a political candidate.  Republicans and Democrats are wise to these facts, getting celebrities like Eva Longoria or Clint Eastwood to support their candidates at national conventions.

Could these charitable tactics by American celebrities translate to Korean culture? What would the effect be if a Korean pop or movie star supported human rights in North Korea? While voicing a pro-unification opinion may be considered too political, the cause of human rights in North Korea or aiding North Korean defectors in assimilation could easily be taken on as a worthy cause.

Some Korean-American celebrities are already involved in Korea-related causes.  Sandra Oh, an actress who portrays a surgeon on the show Grey’s Anatomy does work on human rights, slavery and human trafficking and the environment through high-profile support of Human Rights Watch and The Nature Conservancy.  She’s also been involved in highlighting human rights in North Korea through her support of The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act, passed in 2012.

Another actor who could spark more interest on North Korean humanitarian issues is Steven Yeun, who is best known for portraying Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead.  Yeun has made a name for himself in the U.S. and Korea, and has yet to take on a major cause of his own.

Along with singers and actors, sports stars should not be ruled out for raising North Korean awareness.  Baseball players like Hyun-Jin Ryu (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Shin-Soo Choo (Texas Rangers) both placed in the top ten of Forbes’ 2014 Korea Power Celebrity 40 list. As of now, Dennis Rodman is probably the best known sports player involved in North Korea, and although he is not supporting humanitarian issues, he is drawing awareness.

There is a reason that you may never have noticed that Sandra Oh is so involved in charities.  The trend is that only high profile actors and actresses have been able to draw wide spread attention to their causes and issues.  While Sandra Oh has had a respectable career, mostly through Grey’s Anatomy, but also with supporting roles in movies like Sideways and The Princess Diaries, she has not had enough exposure to be considered an A-List celebrity who would draw crowds to her causes. So, it’s likely that for celebrities in Korea to raise awareness on a societal level, they have to already have a certain level of stardom.

So who in South Korea would fit the bill to take on North Korean humanitarian causes? K-pop groups are almost too ephemeral to play a large role in supporting the cause, with groups like H.O.T. and S.E.S. making a splash and then disappearing.  Which Korean stars do you see joining the ranks of Western celebrities such as Sean Penn (Haitian relief), Matt Damon (fracking), Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s disease), and Bono (ridding the world of poverty)? Write your suggestions below!

Clare Hubbard is the Associate Director for Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from (stephan)’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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