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On The Passing of Former Wilson Center Scholar Dr. Ryoo Kihl-Jae

Today we commemorate former Wilson Center scholar Dr. Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor of North Korean studies who also served as South Korea's unification minister from 2013 to 2015. Dr. Ryoo passed away earlier this month at age 61.

While at the Wilson Center as a visiting scholar with the History and Public Policy Program in 2007 and again from August 2010 through July 2011, Dr. Ryoo provided an eye-opening perspective on the domestic politics and foreign relations of North Korea during the Cold War era.

As unification minister under then-President Park Geun-hye, Dr. Ryoo was credited with formulating the Park Administration's policy of "trustpolitik," or engaging North Korea but standing firm against provocations.

"Dr. Ryoo was more than an expert and esteemed scholar with keen understanding of the workings of the North Korean state and system,” says Soojin Park, a Wilson Center fellow who previously served as deputy spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry under Dr. Ryoo, in a tribute posted to the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy’s Instagram account.

Her statement reads:

He was a passionate policymaker who endeavored to mold ideas into actionable policies and execute what he believed was right, even when they meant personal sacrifices at times.

A conservative, yet a firm believer in dialogue and engagement, Minister Ryoo was willing to break away from conventional norms to change the status quo to improve inter-Korean relations. Seizing every opportunity available, he engaged in direct conversations and impromptu meetings with his North Korean counterparts including during a surprise visit by a North Korean delegation for the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.

Compassionate and unpretentious, Minister Ryoo was a supervisor, colleague, and a friend with a big and open heart engaging freely and whenever possible with many who worked for and with him -- in the government, civil society, and the media. His passing is a loss to all of us as individuals and a community.

After leaving the Unification Ministry in March 2015, Dr. Ryoo returned to academic life at the University of North Korean Studies. Dr. Ryoo passed away on Aug. 15, 2020, after a battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more