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The Evolution of Human Rights in South Korea


In his meetings with Professor and Chair of History Kevin Grant, Kyung Noh ’18 discussed Grant’s upcoming human rights seminar. The topic inspired Noh to begin examining more closely the differences between human and civil rights.

A relatively new idea, the concept of human rights was developed by the United Nations after WWII as a standard to be implemented internationally. But with a vast majority of the world following a very different set of cultural expectations, Noh wondered how human rights, first created in the Western tradition, is conceptualized by Eastern countries.

Having immigrated from South Korea at the age of three, Noh first conceived of a project analyzing human rights across Asia as a means of learning more about his broader cultural heritage.

“Since beginning my research, I have discovered the empowering effect of studying my heritage,” said Noh. After discussing the project with his advisor, Professor Grant, Noh later narrowed his scope to just South Korea, a country with a complex governmental history marked by dictators and human rights abusers.  Specifically, Noh plans to analyze the effects of the Cold War, and the influence of Cold War geopolitics between the US and South Korea on Korean policy.                                                        

about kyung noh '18

Major: History

Hometown: Atlanta, Ga.

High School: Mill Creek High School

read more student research stories  

After WWII, many Korean dictators who continued to ignore human rights remained in power, despite the narrative of state abuse the U.S. constructed against them in favor of ratifying international human rights laws. Noh wondered how U.S. Cold War interests influenced this apparent inconsistency, leading him to the question at the heart of his 2017 Levitt Research Fellowship: “How could the U.S. have simultaneously been so dedicated to pushing human rights issues and also upholding Korean dictators who clearly did not care about these issues?”                                                                                        

By examining the impact of the Cold War on human rights in South Korea, Noh hopes to gain a better understanding of the international cultural importance of the concept. But before that is possible, he must attempt to address a series of intimidating questions: “Are human rights the product of the Cold War ending? Are they actually a standard? Or just a talking point?”

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