Cal State Fullerton Professor takes another look at the crisis on the Korean Peninsula

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“Aren’t you afraid to go?” is a question Kristine Dennehy, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Cal State Fullerton History Department, said she was often asked when she received the funding for an academic trip to South Korea.

“I’m more afraid of getting hit on the 91 Freeway, statistically,” Dennehy said.

In a way, her concerns are not unfounded.

The crisis of the divided peninsula seems to have peaked to unprecedented levels within the last year. South Korea’s conservative opposition party has called for the country to be well-equipped to counter the rising threat of North Korea and President Trump’s frequent Twitter tirades denigrating North Korean President Kim-Jong Un as “Rocket Man.”

With North Korea’s explicit calls for reunification this year and the agreement between North and South Korea to have their women’s ice hockey teams march under one 2018 Olympic flag, the situation has shown no sign of losing its unpredictable flair.

These recent moves by both parties seemed to indicate an improvement in relations, but Dennehy noted the historical tendency of such moves to be a “ruse,” according to a CSUF News Center interview.

Dennehy’s expertise includes Korea’s rich political and cultural history and she spoke about it to Fullerton residents at the Fullerton Public Library on Jan. 23.

“For me, it’s actually very important to add that the historical precedent I was thinking of was the ‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ under President Nixon,” Dennehy told the Daily Titan, referring to the April 1971 visit of U.S. table tennis players to Communist China, (marking the first contact between the two nations in 20 years).

“That was the concrete example of it not really being about the ping pong. I don’t know that you would say that’s a ruse, necessarily. Maybe a better way to put it is that athletes can be used as pawns by politicians,” Dennehy said.

Whether or not that is the case, Dennehy believes that should the crisis intensify, the implications “would be felt nationwide (considering) the fact that Korean-Americans are more integrated into the fabric of American life, especially in running for political office.”

On Jan. 10, Korean-American Young Kim announced her candidacy for CA 39th District House Representative following the announcement of Rep. Ed Royce’s retirement. Kim was a one-time member of the California State Assembly before she was unseated in 2016 by Sharon Quirk-Silva.

Royce officially endorsed Kim the day of her announcement.

Dennehy calls on more Korean-Americans like Kim to fill government positions so they can be an “integral part of the dialogue and debate.” The CSUF professor also said she has heard stories of teachers who have asked Koreans in their area whether they were from the North or South.

“For me, it’s kind of shocking that you could ask that,” Dennehy said, adding that it is a sign of how much work there is to do, in terms of educating Orange County as well as Americans as a whole.

With that, Dennehy said she plans to educate the community further. She’s open to staging discussion with students in her courses on the current crisis.

“I’m doing the best I can, where I can have an impact at the local level,” Dennehy said.

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