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Korean studies struggles to grow despite success of K-pop, K-dramas

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Activities at Korean language village
Activities at Korean language village "Sup Sogui Hosu" in Minnesota / Courtesy of Ross King

Government, companies should make long-term investments in Korean studies: experts

By Dong Sun-hwa

Korean cultural content is sweeping the world off its feet. K-pop titan BTS earned two nominations at the prestigious Grammy Awards, while the 2021 Korean survival series, "Squid Game," attracted the views of over 142 million households worldwide on streaming platform Netflix. Actor Song Kang-ho recently became the first male actor from Korea to nab the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in the 2022 drama film, "Broker."

K-pop boy band BTS / Courtesy of Big Hit Music
K-pop boy band BTS / Courtesy of Big Hit Music

The global popularity of Korean culture has naturally piqued people's interest in Korea itself, with many of them curious about exploring the country from A to Z so that they can have a deeper understanding of the content they love.

"Interest in Korean popular culture is also generating an interest in 'high culture' ― from Korean language to gestures to semiotics to culture customs," Jieun Kiaer, a professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Oxford, told The Korea Times. "Even 'Korean common sense' in the form of concepts like 'nunchi' ― which can be compared to emotional intelligence in the West ― is a hot talking point across the globe."

Kiaer added that people from diverse backgrounds and age groups join her whenever she organizes an event to discuss the subject of "untranslatability" ― or the gap in translation ― in Korean films and shows.

A scene from the 2021 Netflix series,
A scene from the 2021 Netflix series, "Squid Game" / Courtesy of Netflix

"During these events, I and my students break down the verbal and non-verbal communication and unveil the meanings that are not expressed in the subtitles," she explained. "There were more than 100 participants in some cases. Our talk on translating 'Squid Game' was the most sought-after one."

The number of universities that offer Korean studies or language courses has been steadily growing as well. In 1991, there were only 151 universities in 32 countries where students could take courses related to Korea, according to public diplomacy organization Korea Foundation (KF). But by 2022, the number has spiked to 1,408 ― nearly a 10-fold increase.


This figure seems large at first glance. It looks like there will be enough scholars in the future, who will speak for Korea on the international stage and help it amplify its voice when needed. But according to experts, that assumption is far from the truth. They say Korean studies is still the "underdog and straggler."

"Many say overseas Korean studies is booming, but this is very superficial," Ross King, a professor of Korean language and literature at the University of British Columbia, said in a recent email interview. "The Korean government and companies should make long-term investments in the infrastructure for Korean studies. A lot of people seem to believe that foreigners will happily pay their own money to learn about Korea because they enjoy its cultural content, but this is not true, especially for those hailing from the countries that have a higher gross national product (GNP) than Korea."

Loli Kim, a DPhil researcher in Korean studies at the University of Oxford, echoed this sentiment.

"As a student, the greatest challenge was acquiring funding to support me throughout my studies over the years," said Kim, who began learning Korean after studying Mandarin and Japanese. "There are countless diligent and passionate students, but the funding has been so limited."

King believes that now it is time for Korea to step up its game and capitalize on the popularity of its culture before it is too late.

"We need more endowed teaching positions, scholarships and bursaries for students and programs like 'Sup Sogui Hosu' and the Inter-University Center for Korean Language Studies (IUC) at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul," he said.

Korean language village
Korean language village "Sup Sogui Hosu" in Minnesota / Courtesy of Ross King

Founded by King in 1999, "Sup Sogui Hosu" ― which means "a lake in the forest" in Korean ― is the world's one and only Korean language village in Minnesota, which has drawn more than 1,800 students from the U.S. and many other countries. It offers two- and four-week sessions for beginners to advanced speakers of Korean, who are aged from seven to 18. Every year, the village fills up to its capacity of 100 villagers, King says.

"A similar program at the Yokohama Center in Japan has oodles of funding and has been providing high-level training in academic and professional Japanese since the 1960s, but the IUC program struggles to provide scholarships for three to four students, and has only five dues-paying institutional members," King pointed out. "That is because the $8,000 per year membership fee is too much for most universities outside Korea to afford."

The lack of a critical mass of tenure-track academic positions in Korean studies is another issue.

"Most Korean studies programs are one-man or one-woman shows, where one colleague has to do everything him or herself, whereas the Chinese and Japanese studies programs always have more staff, teaching positions, funding and better infrastructure," he said, adding that there are over 140 universities teaching Korean language in North America, but only 30 percent of them teach it for more than 300 hours. The total number of tenure-track jobs on the continent is reportedly only about 15.

"China and Japan studies have five or six times better infrastructure, plus more opportunities for funded study in China, Taiwan and Japan for foreign students," he noted. "So the colleagues in these fields control the vast majority of East Asian Studies departments and programs. In terms of investment, Korea today is doing not even one-fifth of what Japan did 50 years ago."

Villagers at Korean language village
Villagers at Korean language village "Sup Sogui Hosu" in Minnesota / Courtesy of Ross King

The situation is not so different in the U.K., either. Currently, undergraduates at Oxford are only offered Korean as a supplementary language along with either Chinese or Japanese, while Cambridge does not offer any undergraduate course in Korean studies. The latter does have courses for Chinese and Japanese studies though.

"Scholarships and grants for students are always in short supply and they need to be prioritized as they are the academics of the future," Kim stressed. "But I believe that funding for the expansion of Korean studies courses and departments at universities would also be beneficial and the next step to accommodate the growing interest. Government and company support has been central to the popularity of Korean culture and the creation of Korean soft power. Now it is the opportune time to promote Korean studies so that it can teach something beyond pop culture."

Korean government to boost support for Korean studies

The KF, which is under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), and has been supporting students and professors of Korean studies since its establishment in 1991, is well aware of the issue of the lack of support.

"We can see why students and professors are calling for more support," a KF official told The Korea Times. "We know we still have a long way to go."

Korea Foundation (KF) President Lee Geun / Courtesy of KF
Korea Foundation (KF) President Lee Geun / Courtesy of KF

According to the KF's latest research, there are about 25 professors of Korean studies at eight Ivy League schools, including Harvard and Princeton University, whereas the number is far higher for Chinese and Japanese studies, which have 96 and 63 professors, respectively.

"We are planning to conduct a more in-depth research in November to get more accurate data by analyzing about 50 colleges in the U.S.," the official explained.

According to him, the national power of Korea has been relatively weak compared to its neighbors, making it demanding for the government and the KF to lend comparable support.

"To make it worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to our budget," he added. "A large portion of our revenue comes from passport issuance, but most people did not need passports over the past few years due to the global health crisis that forced them to stay at home. Nonetheless, the amount we invest in promoting Korean studies has been steadily growing since 2018."

The KF's investments stood at 12.3 billion won ($9.5 million) in 2018, but it raised the figure to 18 billion won last year.

"The government is now better aware of the fact that they should expand support for Korean studies to meet the growing demand," the official said. "In fact, the KF was recently announced as one of the organizations to promote public cultural diplomacy and this is stipulated in a new law. So I would say investments are highly likely to increase in the days ahead not only for people and institutions based in North America and Europe, but also for those in Asia and South America."

The KF is also planning to play a more active role in developing Korean studies. To date, it has established 153 job positions at 98 universities for academic positions in Korean studies. It has also fielded numerous visiting professors to different colleges, and launched a live online course titled, "Global e-school" in 2021 to provide educational material for more people. Approximately 13,800 people joined the course, the KF says.

'Learn! KOREAN with BTS' is an educational package utilizing BTS' intellectual property to help people learn Korean. Courtesy of HYBE EDU
'Learn! KOREAN with BTS' is an educational package utilizing BTS' intellectual property to help people learn Korean. Courtesy of HYBE EDU

"We also partnered with HYBE EDU, the education technology unit of HYBE that represents BTS, to develop Korean language learning materials utilizing the intellectual property of BTS, titled 'Learn! KOREAN with BTS,'" the official said. "So far, 12 universities in nine countries have picked it as a textbook for their Korean language courses. The total number of students taking these courses is 871 as of 2021."

But many point out that the Korean government should not be the only entity supporting Korean studies positions abroad, calling on Korean companies to do their fair share.

"Companies like Hyundai Motor and SK did make donations to create positions for professors of Korean studies in the past, but we believe more companies should pay attention to this issue because the budget from the government is not sufficient to help everyone," the official said.

King also underscored the need for companies' active participation in both creating and sustaining Korean studies positions over the long term.

"Korean studies is far too important to be left in the hands of the government agencies alone, as it seems the annual operating budgets from the agencies in charge of overseas studies are miniscule and are often spent in short-term ways," he noted.

"So Korean companies need to invest and do so in long-term ways like the Japanese private industry did in the 1970s and 1980s, until the early 1990s. Thanks to those investments, the infrastructure for Japanese studies is quite robust, even though the Japanese economy itself has been quite weak for the past couple of decades. In the case of Korean studies, Kenny Park, CEO of Simone Corporation, gave 5 million dollars to 'Sup Sogui Hosu' a few years ago to launch our year-round site and it was the single largest one-time donation for Korean studies in history."


Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr


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