Rowcliffe studies Korean culture

Tom KingFarragut, Feature

Not many people in East Tennessee – or in the United States – have seen, been there, felt or truly experienced these tense times on the Korean Peninsula. It is a dangerous part of the world, involving South Korea, North Korea, China and the United States. She’s only 21, but Emily Rowcliffe has been to South Korea three times now. And she’ll go back. It has become a focus of her life.


Emily, a Webb School graduate (class of 2015), will be a senior this fall, working toward degrees in history and Asian studies at the University of the South-Sewanee. After graduating from Sewanne, she plans to return to Seoul, South Korea, to work with an NGO (non-governmental organization) for two to three years, focusing on the issue of North Korean defectors to South Korea. Then she hopes to work on her master’s degree in Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii and then study for a doctorate from Cambridge University and began life as a university professor.

On Aug. 1, Emily came back to her “home” Rotary club – the Rotary Club of Farragut – to talk about her collective experiences in South Korea. The club was her sponsor club for a year (2013-14) that she spent in South Korea as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. Her year was spent studying in high school and living with three Korean families and traveling the country.

Since her year as an Exchange student she has been back twice – for a semester in the fall of 2017 and again this past summer for eight weeks. This latest trip came about when Sewanne awarded its prestigious Biehl International Research Fellowship to Emily, who conducted independent research as she explores the topic of “South Korea: Re-assimilating North Koreans.”

Here is what she shared with the Rotarians.

She said North Korea defectors come to the south for educational opportunities, economic opportunities and to have a better quality of life and escape the miseries of North Korea. Many are arrested and sent back. “But the South Korean version of our CIA interrogates them to make sure they’re not spies and those are granted citizenship and allowed to stay,” she said.

The refugees from the north have a hard time assimilating into South Korean life. “Life is very hard for them. They are from completely different cultures. The North Koreans have lived through years of watching public executions. They are malnourished and life for them is hard,” she said.

Emily said that the organization Liberty In North Korea has a great website that is full of information about the refugee issue. On the site you will see this: “We rescue and work side by side with North Korean refugees because they have emerged as some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.”

She was back in South Korea for eight weeks this past fall and lived in a 6 x 10-foot apartment in student housing at Yonsei University in Seoul. “None of this, my love for South Korea and these issues, would not have happened for me without Rotary,” she said. “I am so thankful.”

One thing that surprised her was learning that South Korea has the highest suicide rate among developed countries in the world. She witnessed one middle-aged man jump in front of a train at a subway station on her recent trip. “The competition and the stress of trying to be successful and reach the top is fierce in South Korea and people are working overtime to do it and when they can’t, they commit suicide,” she said. “It is a very dark aspect of the South Korean culture. It is a really black mark on a family if someone in the family has a mental illness.”

Research in 2017 discovered the following: On average, 40 people commit suicide every day in South Korea. South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations, which include countries such as Germany, the U.K. and Japan. It is the only OECD country whose suicide rates have increased since the 1990s. Many elderly people live in poverty and commit suicide and it is the leading cause of death of people between the ages of 10 and 39.

As for the tension that exists today in international relations and the issue of nuclear weapons in the north, she said: “South Korea has been living under this for 60 years and they don’t let it affect their lives on a day-to-day basis. The whole issue seems more pressing to us than it does to the South Koreans. I will say that the South Koreans wish that our (the U.S.) military did not have such a big presence there.”

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