The next generation

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The next generation

In the field of political science research on Korea and East Asian security, one of the common practices of our trade is the international academic conference. These usually take place in four- or five-star hotels in the United States and South Korea and bring together top scholars and experts together for a day-long discussion of current events and policy outlooks related to Korea and its relations with the main ally, the United States, as well as regional partners. Scholars present their latest research and these meetings usually gain a modest amount of attention from the media as the views expressed often help to shape the public policy debate in Washington and Seoul.

Lately, however, these conferences have gained some social media notoriety for something unrelated to research — that is, their terrible gender imbalance. Yes, a casual survey of recent conferences on Korea would lead one to believe that men are the only ones who do research on Korean politics and security. These scholars are diverse in the sense that they are Korean, American, European, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian. Some wear glasses and others do not. Some have black hair (dyed), while others do not.

But they all frequent the same bathroom in the conference facility. Pictures on Twitter of these conferences feature multiple panel discussions where the uniform for every participant is in a dark suit and tie. Indeed, the nickname now coined by one prominent international journalist, Anna Fifield of the Washington Post, for such conferences are “Manels” or “Man-Panels.” Social media commentary asks: “Yet another ‘Manel’ on Korea??” “Are there no women in this field?” “Are men’s opinions the only ones that matter when it comes to Korean security and foreign policy?”

I must admit that I too have noticed the gender discrimination over the years despite the fact that there are many top-notch female scholars of Korea in the United States and in Seoul, whose views are no less well-researched and no less relevant than those of their two-piece-suited male counterparts.

Moreover, the next generation is as promising on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. On the Korean side, I have been invited on several occasions to address the incoming class for foreign service officer candidates at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now led by the country’s first female minister of foreign affairs. I have been heartened to find that well over sixty percent of the entering class is female. They are the most vocal in asking questions and socially less awkward than the young men. This bodes well not only for a more balanced gender distribution among Korean diplomats in Seoul and at embassies around the world, but also the incorporation of women into management and decision-making positions in how Korea interacts with the world.

And in the United States and Europe, it has been gratifying over recent years to work with an emerging group of women who are doing important and ground-breaking research on different aspects of international relations and foreign policy as it relates to Korea. Some of these individuals are Korea scholars, trained in the language and culture, while others are political scientists or historians with a deep interest in studying Korea. Many of these are tenure-track assistant professors at universities or research scholars at think-tanks. And particularly in the United States, when something happens in Korea — e.g., a North Korean nuclear test, or a visit by the South Korean president — they are often the only Korea scholar within 250 square miles of their university and are therefore flagged by local media to give comments on the events of the day.

I doubt that people like Jiun Bang (University of Michigan), Bridget Coggins (University of California-Santa Barbara), Lisa Collins (CSIS), Alice Ekman (French Institute of International Relations), Sandra Fahy (Sophia University), Sheena Greitens (University of Missouri), Katrin Katz (Northwestern), Ellen Kim (USC), Lee Ji-young (American University), or Lauren Richardson (Australian National University), among others, identify themselves as a group, but they all are formative thinkers who will shape the future of Korean studies in their areas of expertise and in public policy. Moreover, they will ensure that these international conference panels will look more gender balanced in the future.

On the other hand, I would not blame these scholars for denying invitations to participate in “Manels” that perpetually regurgitate and reproduce the same opinions, and instead focusing on their research and teaching in pursuit of successful academic careers.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Victor Cha
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