Interning with the Wilson Center – Heejae Park’s Impressions

This summer I interned at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a think tank which fosters research, study, and discussion concerned with policy in national and world affairs. Specifically, I worked at the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP), which is a part of the History and the Public Policy Program (HAPP) at the Wilson Center.

HAPP has several projects, including NKIDP, the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP). In order to inform policy makers, analysts, and scholars, HAPP facilitates and sponsors academic research in non-US archives about history by translating and publishing primary sources from non-US archives.

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Before I started my internship in earnest, I had a chance to go to the National Archives at College Park on a field trip with all the staff and other interns at HAPP. The National Archives at College Park has more documents, particularly more foreign service documents, than the National Archives in DC. Before heading to the National Archives, I found an interesting document called Russian-Language Publications and Records in Pyongyang and Other Locations in Korea, 10/1956-1/1958 while looking at the National Archives catalog page. Since it takes more than an hour to receive requested documents in the archives, it is always better to print the form of the document you are interested in (see first picture below) and submit it as soon as you arrive. I received several big stacks of documents on this subject, and the second picture below shows some examples of them.

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As an intern at the Wilson Center, my main job was to look at Russian documents written in the Soviet Embassy in North Korea during the Cold War era. For example, in July, I read Russian documents which were written in 1969.

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The documents include the records of conversations that occurred between the Soviet Ambassador and many Korean officials, such as Pak Seung-cheol, Kim Yong-nam or Kim Il Sung. There are also long and detailed reports by Soviet diplomats on topics such as North Korea’s domestic political or economic situation and relations with other communist allies, the Soviet Union and China. I read through these Russian documents, created a basic catalog, and posted them on the Wilson Center catalog website.

This job was fascinating because it is always hard to get reliable information about North Korea. Though we do have access to North Korean official publications, they do not always reveal the full truth. However, these Soviet Union documents and the diplomatic records, known to be reliable sources on North Korea, allow us to get a better understanding of both what was happening inside North Korea and with its international relationships, particularly with the Soviet Union and China throughout the Cold War.

In addition to creating a catalog and posting it on the website, I have had several opportunities to work with scholars directly. For example, Dr. Yafeng Xia, a professor of history at Long Island University, was working on his book on the Sino-North Korean relationship during 1949 to 1975 at the Wilson Center. Since the Russian documents that I read and made a catalog of included material on the Sino-North Korean relationship on that period, Dr. Yafeng Xia asked me to gather some information from the documents that he could include in his book. I discussed with him what might be useful for his book and felt great that I was able to be helpful.

Aside from my work, I learned a lot and met interesting people at the Wilson Center by attending various conferences and events which took place right in the building. For example, there was a film screening event, at which I watched a film called “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” by Mark Jonathan Harris, which described the Ukrainian crisis. Not only did the movie provide me with a deeper understanding on the Ukrainian crisis, but I was also able to listen to Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s talk after the movie. During my internship this summer, I attended a number of interesting events on Russian and North Korean affairs.

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Lastly, another exciting part of interning at the Wilson Center was that, since many scholars and important figures come to the Wilson Center and work for a year to finish their books or do a project, there are amazing people here that I can meet with and talk to. A very good example of this was the former Foreign Minister of Russia, Andrei Kozyrev, who served under President Yeltsin from 1991 to 1996. Having lunch with him was very interesting because I could hear some fun anecdotes from his time as a foreign minister. He will be finishing his memoir at the Wilson Center and the book will be published while he is working there for a year.

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I have enjoyed my summer here at the Wilson Center. I am very pleased that, thanks to my job, I could narrow down my academic interest and could learn a lot by going on field trips, attending events, and having opportunities to meet interesting figures. I think the Wilson Center is one of the best places to learn at as an intern.

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