Interview with KAIST-NEREC Summer Fellow Yoonki Lee
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Interview with KAIST-NEREC Summer Fellow Yoonki Lee

The KAIST-NEREC Summer Fellows Program is an intensive, short-term education and training course on nuclear nonproliferation for undergraduate and graduate students. It aims to train and nurture the next generation of international leaders in nuclear nonproliferation. For five weeks, undergraduate and graduate students who are studying nuclear engineering, international relations, economics, and other disciplines participate in diverse educational and research activities including lectures, group projects, and field trips to government agencies, think-tanks and nuclear facilities in Korea and abroad. The program provides participants with opportunities to interact with fellow students and experts in the field, which will contribute to building networks for further collaboration and achievement.  

As one of the program’s sponsors, APLN fellows joined the program to attend some of the lectures and interact with the KAIST-NEREC Summer Fellows. They interviewed Yoonki Lee, an undergraduate student at Hanyang University, about his experiences at the summer program.  

Please give us a brief recap of your experience at the KAIST-NEREC Summer Fellows Program.

The KAIST-NEREC Summer Fellows Program trains and nurtures next-generation international leaders in nuclear nonproliferation and related nuclear policy. As a Summer Young Fellow, I had to conduct group research work with international peer students (Young Fellows and Graduate Fellows) from diverse backgrounds in the afternoons and took lectures in the evenings on the topics of nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear technology policy issues, nuclear risk management, international relations, and research methodology. I also presented my mid-term research outcome with my group to other fellows and NEREC faculty members and received feedback for our final policy paper, poster presentation, and promotional video. Once finalized, my group and I presented our research at the three-day 2021 NEREC Conference on Nuclear Nonproliferation on “Promoting Nuclear Nonproliferation for the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy,” which is an annual international conference of established nuclear scientists and policy researchers to discuss their current research and global nonproliferation issues.

What was your research focused on? Why or how did you decide to tackle the research question of choice? How was it developed and what were your findings and observations?

My group’s research was on the topic of “Nuclear Suppliers Countries.” After much deliberation, our team decided to focus on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and tackling proliferation issues by engaging the private sector. Our research question was: “Given that major exporters of nuclear-related technology are private firms and enterprises, how can NSG member states synchronize efforts between the public-private sector to reinforce NSG guidelines and rules through effective enforcement mechanisms with the implementation of supply-side controls?” We wanted to ascertain the effectiveness of the NSG to see whether it has successfully prevented the proliferation of nuclear weapons which warrants a closer examination.

Our research suggested that over the years, major nuclear exporters have turned out to be private firms and entities, which meant that there is a lack of government policy to pressure private firms to comply with NSG guidelines and rules. We found a list of common smuggling methods and their type of related schemes to help us identify the loopholes in the system. Thanks to KAIST-NEREC and Professor Yim, we were able to reach out to several academic experts on this topic, who gave us many recommendations such as strengthening the non-proliferation culture. Our key policy recommendations were the following: fostering a Corporate Culture of Compliance (companies tend to avoid legal risks that may damage their corporate reputations); enhancing the coordination of the laws and practices of NSG governments; and bolstering government and industry partnerships to thwart illicit trade.

Which speaker or lecture was your favorite?

I really enjoyed Professor Man-Sung Yim’s lecture on “Risk Management of Nuclear Technology: Risk Perception and Communication.” He explored the social and ethical issues in nuclear power and public perception towards nuclear power. He also explained how people can be susceptible to cognitive biases and heuristics, which directly influences their perceived risks. Lastly, he emphasized the importance of effective communication of risks such as building trust and credibility, addressing key information gaps, and being mindful of equity issues.

What was the most difficult challenge you faced and how did you overcome it?

Since I come from a social science background in international relations, I had difficulty keeping up with the technical dimensions of nuclear engineering. There were many technical key terms, processes, concepts, and mathematical equations that I was not very familiar with. However, I received help from other fellows majoring in nuclear engineering, who kindly explained them to me.  

What was the biggest takeaway from this experience?

One of the biggest takeaways from KAIST-NEREC was being able to meet and interact with so many fellows who are very talented and motivated. It was an honor to be able to network with incredible people! Additionally, it was wonderful to meet former KAIST-NEREC fellows at the Alumni Meeting and learn about how I can develop my career. Although we all had diverse experiences and backgrounds, we shared one common goal, which was to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Furthermore, it was a privilege to meet so many distinguished academics and experts in this field.

Can you share some highlights or memorable moments that you had during the program?

One of the best highlights was the Alumni Meeting and Talent Show where all the NEREC alumni were invited to join for dinner at the hotel in Jeju and interact with other fellows. It was a great opportunity to meet new people and connect with them. Also, the 2021 Summer Fellows organized an exciting talent show where members got to show off their incredible talent in singing, drawing, playing musical instruments, etc. Everyone had fun, and we made great memories together.

Would you recommend the program to other students?

I highly recommend this program to students in both the social and natural sciences who are interested in nuclear nonproliferation and security! Extending learning beyond the classroom walls made this experience a formative time that helped me bridge the gap between theory and practice. Furthermore, this undoubtedly provided an excellent opportunity for me to grow in my knowledge and understanding of current events that allowed me to make insightful connections that are relevant to my studies.

Yoonki Lee is an undergraduate student at Hanyang University in the Division of International Studies. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations. He is a NEREC (Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center) Young Fellow and participated in the 2021 NEREC Summer Fellows Program. His research interests include: security studies, human rights, comparative politics, and nuclear nonproliferation.