Imho Bae of Korea is a pioneer of informal diplomacy
All of Imho Bae’s life, the Korean peninsula has been divided. He grew up in war-torn South Korea among families and communities struggling to rebuild.
Today Bae, Ph.D. ’91, is a leader in the field of conflict resolution. He is recognized internationally as an expert on prospects for peace in Korea and the practical ways of working toward it.
When Bae came to Minnesota this year to accept the University’s Distinguished Leadership Award for Internationals, he spoke eloquently about his work in Korea and around the world. But the centerpiece of his visit was a panel on nonviolent conflict resolution at the local level. Bae acted as facilitator, asking questions that prompted leaders from the Twin Cities’ American Indian and Somali communities and Brian Coyle Center to do most of the talking. The panel described creative ways they reduced or resolved conflicts, from changing language to increasing accountability.
“How did you learn this?” Bae asked. The panelists cited upbringing, experience, education, and training. “You are doing great things,” he said.
The message was clear: the Korean peninsula is hardly alone in its suffering from conflict and division. And Bae knows the day-to-day work toward international peace begins with individual people in their own communities.
Bae himself emanates peace, a quiet steady concentration born of listening well. He grew up in a poor family, studied hard enough to enter college, and majored in social work.
“I felt it fit my personality,” he says. “And looking ahead, I could see it would be needed by society.”
Then he turned his sights on graduate school and was accepted at two U.S. universities. He chose the University of Minnesota because his adviser suggested its large urban setting would offer a greater range of opportunities.
Bae took that advice to heart. As a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, he got involved with Hennepin County’s Council on Crime and Justice, which provided programs for inmates, victims of crime, and their families. His pioneering dissertation surveyed public acceptance of restitution as an alternative to incarceration for property offenders in the county.
Today Bae is South Korea’s best-known scholar of correctional welfare, spanning both juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. He is a professor and dean of the School of Social Welfare at Soongsil University, South Korea’s only university with roots in North Korea. Officials in the Korean justice system often seek his counsel on policy and practice, and he is invited to lecture around the world.
In 2005-06, Bae spent a year and a half as a visiting scholar with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. There he began to work on a people-to-people approach for reducing tensions and encouraging dialogue between North and South Korea. Such dialogue is a form of what is known as Track II diplomacy—unofficial, informal interaction between members of adversarial groups or nations that aims to resolve conflict through various means.
“Until now, efforts to reduce or resolve inter-Korean relations have focused on military, political, and economic issues,” he wrote in a recent article, “but unfortunately, little has been done to restore the relationships of the people in the divided sides over the half century. Relationships broken and wounded over several decades will not heal by themselves.”
Bae continues to advocate for people-to-people dialogue and other new approaches to rebuild relationships. Currently, he is exploring ways to expand the basic ideas of people-to-people dialogue to focus on people’s lives.
During his visit to Minnesota, Bae enjoyed touring the School of Social Work, now located in Peters Hall on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul; during his graduate work, it was headquartered in Ford Hall in Minneapolis. Amid the changes across the campus and city as well as internationally, he reflected on the importance of reconnecting with colleagues and meeting new students and leaders.
“I feel people at the School of Social Work and the University of Minnesota are supporting my back so I can move forward mentally, psychologically, even physically,” he says. “These are special people.”
The work ahead is daunting, as Bae is called to bring his expertise and methods to hotspots around the world, from Asia to the Middle East and beyond.
"Peace is an endless process,” he says.“It comes from the fabric of human relationships, which is community.”
Learn more about the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, which hosted the panel facilitated by Professor Bae.