Korea is getting a lot of attention around the world, whether it is for the rise of Korean female golfers or for the promotion of Koreans to the top positions in the international community at places like the United Nations or the World Bank. Nevertheless, despite Korea’s rapid emergence on the world stage, there remain some glaring blanks in Korea’s impact on the world that suggest there are fundamental problems that hold Korea back and can be rather baffling for a long-time resident like myself.
Let me give an example. One of the greatest advantages for someone with a background in East Asian studies about living in Korea is the large number of experts in Chinese, Japanese and Korean studies from just about every field (history, literature, economics and anthropology) that you can find in Seoul. If you want to put together a seminar on the poetry of ninth-century China, Japan and Korea, you can find 30 people, often with considerable specialization, for an in-depth discussion.
It is a unique advantage for Korea because you could not put together that sort of a group of experts in Chinese, Japanese and Korean studies in Tokyo, Beijing or Boston. Although University of Tokyo and Harvard University produce excellent doctorate degrees in Asian studies, in terms of scale, and increasingly in terms of quality, there is no comparison with the number of Ph.D. students trained at the top Korean universities. And yet Korea has not become the center for Asian studies you might expect.
Koreans say that Korea simply does not have the quality of the scholarship in Korea on a par with the United States. Although the United States does have a few exceptional scholars, I simply do not agree. Korea has all the conditions to be the leader in Asian studies. What is missing is a distinct Korean methodology for Asian studies. The primary reason that Korean scholarship on East Asia does not draw more attention is, not because the work is written in Korean, but because there simply is no concept of a “Korean” approach to sinology. Despite all the expertise and innovation in the field, Koreans have not been able to formulate a Korean set of principles for how the field of Chinese studies is treated that could be a model and inspiration to other scholars around the world.
If one looks at sinology, for example, there is clearly a Japanese tradition of sinology with an emphasis on philology and meticulous attention to textural issues. There is a German approach to sinology that draws upon the German strengths in philosophy and the social sciences. And there is clear French tradition of sinology that we can trace back to Edouard Chavannes who was the first to combine fieldwork and textural studies in the nineteenth century. And there is an American tradition of sinology that we can trace back to scholars like John Fairbanks and Benjamin Schwartz at Harvard University who combined the best of the European sinology with a new American pragmatism.
In the case of Korea, however, Korean scholars have not expressed forcefully a Korean approach to sinology that would attract global attention and bring students to Korea from around the world to study about Chinese.
Nor is this problem unique to sinology. Seoul is the home to a remarkable collection of painters, galleries and art critics and we find some of the most creative and innovative art being produced in Seoul. And yet, for all that talent and energy in Seoul, there is no “Seoul school” of painting that draws artists and critics here. Unlike other cities, from Paris and Berlin to Barcelona and Tokyo, we do not find in Seoul a group of artists who announce a shared vision for art, or art critics tie together the Seoul art scene as a movement, a school or a concept.
And we find the same problem in business. Although it is clear that Samsung, LG, Hyundai and other Korean firms have a unique set of business practices that are world-class, when Koreans try to explain those skills to non-Koreans, they fall back on vague ideas about Korean DNA and jeong. Such explanations do not help foreigners who are trying to understand how Korean companies are actually run. Oddly, I have not seen a book that explains the best of a “Korean-style management” in a way that can be applied easily to other countries.
Korea’s rise has been so quick that Koreans have not been able to keep up with the new status of the country, but the causes of this inability to propose a Korean approach, a Korean methodology, are deeper. It is Korea’s status as a divided nation that continues to undermine Korea’s ability to assert itself as a player in the global discourse of ideas and concepts even as it has become a major producer of cultural artifacts.
Although North Korea is essentially invisible in Seoul and it is rarely mentioned in conversation, the presence of another parallel Korea that has not been integrated in a cultural sense is tremendous drain on Koreans, undercutting their ability to formulate a clear vision of what Korea is. The division is geographical only in the most superficial sense.
The importance of a unified Korea should not be underestimated and the project cannot be assessed in terms of the costs of reunification. Division is a line that runs through the entirety of Korean culture. We must look beyond the costs of reunification and consider that division is above all a spiritual and cultural issue that cannot be calculated in currency.