Inaugurating Korean Studies at Stanford

May/June 2002

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Although no one knows for sure how many people died during North Korea’s recent famine, conservative estimates put the number at about 500,000, or 2 percent of the nation’s 20 million citizens.

“The worst may be over, but many problems remain and the prospects for the North Korean economy are not that bright,” sociology professor Gi-Wook Shin told the 23 students enrolled in State and Society in Korea. “Still, it’s amazing that [people] were able to survive at all.”

Shin’s observation is filled with empathy. As a specialist in 20th-century Korean history and politics, he has studied the roots of rapid postwar industrialization and democratization in South Korea and the prospects for reunification. But he also speaks as one whose minister father—like thousands of his generation—was separated from his parents in the North by the Korean War and never saw them again. “Whenever he delivered a sermon on Mother’s Day,” Shin recently wrote in UCLA’s alumni magazine, “he could not escape a sense of guilt for not fulfilling the Confucian responsibility of filial piety toward his mother.”

Recruited from UCLA last summer, Shin was appointed director of Korean studies at the Asia Pacific Research Center and a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies, and is in charge of building a Korean studies program at Stanford. Instead of following the lead of the 20 or so other Korean programs and centers in the United States, which draw primarily on the humanities, Shin intends to put undergraduates and graduate students to work on research projects that will examine social science policy issues. This summer he plans to find corporate, government and media internships in Seoul for several students; and in September, he will take 15 students to Seoul National University for a weeklong seminar sponsored by Stanford’s overseas studies program. His overall goal: “to give students a broad perspective of issues on the peninsula.”

But for now, Shin is concentrating on his new course. It’s the first Korean studies course at Stanford to be taught by a tenured faculty member, and he wants to lay groundwork for students’ future study. Rather than a survey or general history class, it is intended to focus on major sociological and theoretical issues in social change and development.

In the middle of a discussion about the failing North Korean economy, Shin asks, “Are the causes structural or situational?” He presses the class to think in practical terms about the country’s isolation from world markets, its lack of capital and even the overuse of chemical fertilizers. Shin also wants his students to consider the daily lives of the estimated 2 million South Korean immigrants living in the United States. “What is the role of Korean churches in Los Angeles?” he asks, pointing out that there is one for every 500 Koreans in that metropolitan area.

The diversity of the class adds to Shin’s challenges. Half the undergraduates were educated in foreign-language high schools in South Korea and are more fluent in Korean than English; the other half are from the so-called “1.5” generation, a designation for those who were born in Korea but came to the United States as youngsters and speak only minimal “kitchen Korean.” And then there’s a wide range of graduate students—a handful of Caucasians, including one on a U.S. State Department fellowship, and a number of students from Japan, China and Singapore. Shin accommodates the varying levels of English proficiency in the class by sticking close to a written English-language outline, which is projected on the wall as he speaks.

In a session on Korean-United States relations, he brings up contemporary examples of insults to Koreans in U.S. media. Case in point: the joke Jay Leno told on the Tonight Show during the winter Olympics about a Korean speed skater who “must have kicked a dog in frustration, then eaten it” after losing a gold medal. Noting that Leno’s remarks ignited a storm of protest in South Korea, Shin said, “That kind of remark only hurts Koreans’ national pride and leads to anger and frustration—and it is why there are reasons for some anti-American sentiment today.”

The presence of 37,000 American troops in South Korea also feeds resentment, Shin tells the class. “There is a lot of criticism from those who believe that Korea does not have real sovereignty, especially when the Korean government has to pay one-third of the forces’ operational expenses but cannot take custody of American GIs during criminal investigations.” But, asked one student, are there generational differences in how Koreans perceive the U.S. presence? “Of course,” Shin says. “Younger people are far more critical of the American presence, and those who experienced the Korean War are far more grateful.”

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