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Korean studies and K-vibe

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Courtesy of Dickson Phua
Courtesy of Dickson Phua

By David A. Tizzard

During the country's wettest season, a time that has seen expressways closed and rivers flooded, I make my way every morning to Hanyang University. One of the country's biggest and most prestigious universities, it is currently hosting a summer program for international students from all over the word. As part of this, I teach courses on Korea with a focus on culture, society, gender, and Hallyu.

One of the most striking things about the experience, and one that has repeated itself every summer and winter for the past few years, is that young people from all over the world are all about the K-vibe. Students arrive from Arizona and Azerbaijan to learn about Ateez. They come from Sichuan and Sydney to explore Seo Tae-ji. And from Canterbury and Kentucky to discuss Confucianism. There's no real way to generalize the huge number of students in terms of identity, nationality, or ethnicity. They're white, black, men, women, conservative, transgender, hijab-wearing, and so on. What unites them, however, is their age and interest in Korea. It almost feels like an advert for a Gap commercial when described in such a way, but that nevertheless is the reality.

These students bring with them their own experiences, knowledge, and backgrounds. They come ready to learn more about Korea. Not to be initiated into a religion or a cult where everything said is in praise of the great K leader and the shiny plastic fantastic achievements of the country. But, at the same time, nor is it to simply throw shade and highlight every problem, large and small, of Korean society and politics that doesn't quite match up to the utopian standards Twitter users like to promote.

Instead, the work is academic and open-minded. They enjoy understanding the complexity of Park Chung-hee, not only his unavoidable role in Korean society, history, culture, and music, but also the schizophrenic role he occupies in the national narrative today. The students reach immediately for things like han, jeong, and nunchi, believing they have uncovered the secret to Korean society and how to understand the people and culture, before then catching themselves in reflection and analysis of orientalism. They come to understand that Korea is not one thing, but rather many. Everyone has a view on this reality now, not just the 50-million citizens, and the countless diaspora around the world, but people who, 5-10 years ago might not have known their Gwangju from their gopchang.

This struggle for narrative, authorship, and understanding brings with it various challenges and conflicts. Many, of course, want to assert that their view of Korea is THE view of Korea, determined either by age, experience, ethnicity, or education. Such factors should not be discounted, of course. Yet Korea and the study of Korea is growing.

A recent report here in The Korea Times had people in Canada and England lamenting a lack of progress, some even decrying reports of growth as superficial. They demanded more money and investment. "We have to be more like Japan and China", they say. "We want things funded. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should establish programs, sponsorship, and assistance for people who want to learn more about Korea."

That's all very well and good. But, from another point of view, governments and official ministries are generally capable of two things. One, using our tax-funded money inefficiently and, two, failing to understand day-to-day realities. I'm sure the bureaucrats try hard and mean well, but the 20th century taught us that people are driven by unconscious forces largely unknown and uncontrollable. We are not machines. Or if we are, we are certainly not ones influenced by government proclamations and slogans like "I Seoul U". The biggest lesson of the past 10 years was that K-content has been successful abroad despite the government, not because of it. Where once a narrative permeated much conversation about Korean success abroad being funded and propagandized by government officials, now the opposite is true. The popularity and love achieved by private companies is looked upon enviously by politicians, and they are now trying to ride the coattails of the wave. Someone flipped the switch.

Korean Studies is not just degrees from Oxbrige and the Ivy League (though of course it can be). Now it's YouTube. It's blogs. It's people that watch dramas and Netflix. It's people that read Korean literature. It's the people that play online games. Those who read webtoons. It's positive. It's negative. It's young. It's a vibe. And it hits different.

Perhaps we should leave it that way and not try to get too much government involvement or suggest that it's not really happening. Encouragement, engagement, and education rather than direction and bureaucrats. That might be the future of Korean Studies.

Dr. David A. Tizzard ( has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and lectures at Seoul Women's University and Hanyang University. He is a social/cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. He is also the host of the Korea Deconstructed podcast, which can be found online. The views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of The Korea Times.

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