Shortly after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the American presidential election, forty Koreans specially selected from the provinces of Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do huddled around tables at a U.S. diplomatic facility in Gwangju and debated what the new administration might mean for their country.
For 60 tense minutes, they drafted a speech that sought to address how Trump’s threat to decrease American military aid might complicate already dicey diplomatic problems on the peninsula, foremost being how to counter North Korea missile testing without disrupting trade relationships with an increasingly assertive China.
It was easy to forget that these events unfolded not in a situation room but a library, with the interlocutors not diplomats but high school students.
You’d even be forgiven for forgetting that the students delivering speeches at the Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference, or YDAC, were speaking knowledgeably about international diplomacy in what for them was a foreign language.
Ten high schools from across the Jeolla region sent students to the fall 2016 YDAC, a one-day event for the students of Fulbright ETAs to develop their English skills by debating issues affecting Korean society with their peers. ETA Anthony Cho started the YDAC program in 2011, and hundreds of students across Korea have participated in YDAC events in the years since.
The event format closely resembles Model United Nations. About a month before the Fall 2016 conference, Fulbright ETAs at participating high schools selected teams of four first and second year students, and those teams then picked a topic, researched, and wrote speeches under their ETA’s guidance.
On the day of the event, the students and teachers traveled from their respective schools and convened at the Gwangju American Corner, a resource room connected with the U.S. Embassy in Korea. The U.S. Embassy typically sponsors the conference, but in cases where funding has been unavailable, ETAs or their schools have covered the costs for lunch and transportation.
Once at the American Corner, students took turns presenting on topics ranging from Korean education policy to presidential impeachment, from artificial intelligence to disputes over international and territorial waters. After each presentation, the students had time to ask questions and challenge the presenters on their arguments.
The morning session finished with a presentation by Consular Officer Morton Park, who traveled from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to talk to students about his job and what diplomacy looks like in practice.
After eating lunch together at a nearby restaurant, students from different schools divided into teams to tackle a diplomatic “mock crisis” — something of a misnomer this year since the Trump-focused scenario adhered more closely to actual events than past crises.