Korean studies and diplomacy

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Korean studies and diplomacy

When I started college at Yale in 1983, I wanted to learn about Asia. I ended up majoring in Chinese and then started Japanese language my senior year. There was no Korean program at that time at Yale.

Today, Yale has Korean studies, but students cannot major in Korean studies because there is still not a single faculty member in that field. The loss for Korea is significant as many young students at Yale will go on to play important roles in business and government but will not have a chance to take a course in Korean literature, history, philosophy or art history as undergraduates.

The recent passage of the public diplomacy law suggests there is a commitment by the Korean government to address such serious weaknesses as the general lack of expertise about Korea abroad. Perhaps this funding can be directed toward building up Korean studies in the United States, which lags behind Chinese studies and Japanese studies in breadth and depth. But I must say I was disappointed to see in the wording of the law that its purpose is “to help raise the profile and the national image of Korea in the international community.”

When I started studying Chinese, and then Japanese, it had nothing to do with the Chinese or Japanese governments “raising the national image” but rather with values, the philosophical and aesthetic principles that I associated with those two nations. Advertising about Korean food and talks at Harvard by Psy are ineffective for raising long-lasting respect for Korean culture and are counterproductive. To suggest that Korea is something fun waiting to be consumed is much less effective than introducing it as a set of values that has stood the test of time and will offer deep insights for those willing to make the effort.

We must also understand that countries like France, Britain and Japan had a long colonial history in which they actively promoted the superiority of their culture as a means of social control over their colonies. That bitter tradition has little to recommend to it, but it did permit those nations to start creating a mythology, a mystique, about their culture early on. Korea has come late to this game and did not start to invest in promoting its culture abroad until the 1990s, whereas France or Germany had made massive investments more than a century before then.

But that late start could be an advantage if Korea can develop an approach to promoting Korean studies that is more participatory and avoids the mystique employed by the Japanese in their promotion of the “way of the samurai” or the elitist focus on the upper classes of the British and the French that resulted from the colonial legacy.

One of the largest problems for Korean studies has been seeing Korean studies as a zero-sum game. But it is not important that more people be convinced to study Korean language or history rather than learn about Japan or China. In fact, the greatest potentials for the growth in Korean studies is in the promotion of comparative studies involving Korea, Japan and China. That is, after all, how I, a professor of Japanese literature, became interested in Korean studies to start with.

The loss is most serious in pre-modern history, literature, philosophy and art history. There has been little effort to bring experts in Chinese or Japanese studies into Korean studies through research grants from Korea. Yet many of the early texts from Korea are in literary Chinese which is accessible to experts from other fields. The working assumption is that Korean studies should be built up. Although that is a priority, engaging the most inspired scholars to conduct original and compelling research about Korea that has a wide appeal is at least as important a goal.

The real troops in the struggle to keep Korea relevant overseas and ensure it is accurately understood will be the tenured professors who teach for 40 or more years, who make Korea visible through low-key activities like training a new generation of leaders who will know about Korea from an early age.

It is critical that we raise the standards for Korean studies. There are many people associated with Korea in the United States who have a marginal command of Korean and cannot handle original materials. Rather than Koreans accepting low standards as a reality of so-called Korea experts, Koreans should demand that people working on Korean have the level of proficiency demanded of scholars working on France or Spain.

Although this may seem unreasonable, in fact, students and professors respect programs that are rigorous.

But we must remember that Korean studies cannot be purchased. It requires vision as much as it requires money. The greater concern is that the bias against the humanities in Korea today will cripple efforts overseas. It is a shame that positions in literature and art history are being reduced at Korean universities, but it would be a fatal mistake to throw funding at Korean business and Korean economics studies overseas when we lack the basics in terms of research on Korean culture and language.

Finally, academic freedom is a critical factor for success. Japan has budgeted over $15 million for Japanese studies in the United States to counter the growth of Chinese and Korean influence. It would be great if Japan’s commitment inspires Koreans to make a similar effort, but questions have been raised as to whether Japan’s campaign is aimed at supporting American scholars of Japanese studies or at promoting a positive image for Japan and whitewashing unpleasant truths.

If Korea can ensure that the most capable American scholars in Asian studies participate in the development of Korean studies and are able to identify and pursue projects they find compelling, Korea has a strong chance to promote the study of Korea. But it is essential that Korea not attach strings to funding and let American scholars take the field in the direction most appropriate for America.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies at Kyung Hee University.

Emanuel Pastreich
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