Korean studies programs face financial pressuresSince the 1960s, universities worldwide have developed Korean studies programs, distinguishing them from being part of East Asian studies or Chinese studies programs.
Currently, 661 universities in 60 countries offer courses in Korean history, culture and language. But experts say a lack of funding is making it difficult to sustain and further develop Korean studies programs in institutions.
In April, Oxford University in England announced that it might be forced to end its Korean studies program in June 2007 because of a lack of funding. That has caused alarm about the possible cancellation of Korean studies at one of the world’s top universities. In 1992, Oxford began its program, with two professors teaching Korean history and language, with funding from the Korea Foundation, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that oversees Korean studies programs abroad.
The foundation has pledged to contribute until 2007, but after that it will be up to the university to fund the program itself or rely on private contributions. The university says it requires an $11 million endowment to maintain the Korean studies program, with three professorships rather than the current two, but without the means at the moment the school may be unable to continue the program.
Kwon In-hyuk, president of the Korea Foundation, says that although Oxford said it would be difficult to maintain the Korean studies program without further funding, the university has not made definite plans to cancel the program.
“Oxford, with its name value, is very important for us,” says Mr. Kwon, a former Korean ambassador to France. “We will endeavor to perpetuate the Korean studies program there.” He did say, however, that securing financial support for the program was badly needed.
Harvard and Stanford universities in the United States operate Korean studies programs through a “matching fund” system, whereby the school provides half or more of the operating funds and the remainder comes from an endowment from the Korea Foundation.
Foundation officials say that Oxford has said it is unable to provide matching funds to the Korean studies program and has asked the foundation to provide support. But the foundation says it does not have enough money to fund all of the programs offered by universities and other institutions abroad.
In the case of Japan, for example, local corporations donate large sums of money to foreign institutions that provide Japanese studies programs, since the donations are tax exempt. The Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies at Oxford was set up by the automaker to fund the Japanese studies program there. Currently, Japanese studies are offered at 2,341 institutions in 103 countries.
Mr. Kwon believes that Korean companies should also be encouraged to make private contributions to promote Korean education programs in foreign countries.
From 1995 to 1998, the government granted tax breaks to corporations that gave donations for Korean studies and academic research programs at foreign universities and institutions. During those three years, the government raised $24.4 million from conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, Posco and SBS Broadcasting, among others. The money went to fund Korea-related work at the British Museum, the Guimet Museum of Asian Art in France, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Georgetown University, among many others. Because of the tax benefits, many companies participated, but when the tax exemption period ended, the funding also ceased.
“The private donations collected in the three years amounted to the annual operating cost of the Korea Foundation,” says Mr. Kwon, who espouses the revival of this tax emption policy. “Private sector donations are pivotal.”
Another potential threat to the maintenance of Korean studies in Europe is the “Bologna Process,” whereby European Union members agreed to set up a common education curriculum and higher education system by 2010. The process includes the integration and abolition of certain academic studies that are regarded as “scholastically unpopular.”
Mr. Kwon says the restructuring of academic departments in European universities could mean that some of the Korean studies programs will be terminated. “There have been cases where Korean studies have been combined into East Asian studies programs in Germany because of a lack of interest from students,” he says.
Yet, the situation is not entirely bleak. “[Korean studies] is not waning,” says Mr. Kwon. “Acclaimed universities in France and Italy have recently opened courses on Korean studies.”
Universities in South America are starting such programs as well. For example, the University of Buenos Aires, in Argentina, recently opened a Center for Korean Studies, while there are several such programs in Mexico.
The number of schools and other institutions offering Korean studies has quadrupled in the last 15 years; in the early 1990s, there were 150 universities in 30 countries offering these programs.
While Korean studies programs are encountering difficulties, the popularity of the Korean language is on the rise in Asian countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Some attribute this to the hanryu or Korean wave, the term for the popularity of Korean celebrities, television dramas and movies overseas.
Suh Ah-jeong, the director of the Korean Studies Department at the foundation, says, “It is true that there is an increase in the number of people taking Korean language courses in Southeast Asia, but this has more to do with economic reasons rather than hanryu.”
Ms. Suh explains that those who are keen to learn the Korean language, particularly Southeast Asians, do so for business reasons, such as to get a job in Korea or to conduct business dealings with Koreans.
In Europe and the United States, students who take Korean studies are mostly interested in the economic development and political history of Korea, but in Asia, more students are interested in the Korean language.
The Korea Foundation offers annual workshops and training programs for teachers and professors of Korean studies in foreign institutions, mostly in the summer. “Korean studies programs enable us to promote Korea internationally,” says Mr. Kwon. “It’s a matter of strategic importance that we maintain the programs abroad.”
by Choi Jie-ho
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