Posted : 2009-12-20 18:21
Updated : 2009-12-20 18:21

Professor Bridges East & West, Past & Future

John Duncan, professor and director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, 64, speaks to The Korea Times about the charms of soju and Korean democracy, in Seoul, Wednesday. On the same day, he received the Korea Foundation Award for a lifetime of contributions to Korean studies worldwide.
/ Courtesy of Korea Foundation
By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

It's easy to take someone out of Korea, but taking Korea out of that person is a much more trying task.

``If you can't live in Seoul, then Los Angeles is the second best place to be,'' John Duncan, a historian who has comfortably straddled cultures for most of life, said about living in the "capital of the Korean Diaspora."

``I wake up in the morning, read the Hankook Ilbo (the sister paper of The Korea Times). I go to work and teach about Korea and work with people from Korea. ㅁfter work I go to Koreatown and have some `samgyeopsal' (grilled pork) and soju, and I go home and watch the KBS `ahopsi' (9 o'clock) News and I go to bed.''

The 64-year-old professor was in Seoul last week to receive the Korea Foundation Award for a lifetime of contributions to Korean studies worldwide. Director and professor of University of California, Los Angeles' (UCLA) Center for Korean Studies, Duncan has been credited with leading the university's growth into a Mecca for the field.

East Meets West

His ``inyeon,'' or deep affinity for Korea, took root in the 1960s. The Arizona native got stationed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as a G.I., and he took an interest in the local language and culture. He eventually enrolled at Korea University ― as its first American student ― and earned a Bachelor's degree in history during a historic time: the aftermath of the devastating Korean War (1950-53) and the rise of student-led protests against military rule.

``It was a very difficult period during the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. I remember walking through the `jeongmun' (main gate) and there was a lot of tear gas,'' he said, recalling the occupation of his school campus. ``The attainment of democracy and aspects of social democratization is the most exciting thing.''

Duncan's work may focus on the past, from old Confucian values to modern Korean history, but it is relevant in the present and oriented toward the future. Bottom-up, youth-driven democratic designs prevail today. U.S. Internet users are working around the establishment and mass media to tune into ``hallyu'' or Korean cultural content, he said.

``There is a growing interest in Korean culture in the United States. The economy is one driving factor as well as the prominence of Korean sports stars. You're also bound to run into someone who is learning taekwondo. But above all, it's Korean popular culture.

``Kids today, even in remote parts of the U.S. where there aren't Koreans, are downloading Korean films. I see this kind of underground activity as a very positive development. It's more democratic and populist, and kids with the Internet don't care about CNN or Fox and their ownership of the media; these kids may be our salvation,'' he said.

In the meantime, he plays his part as an educator. ``The most satisfying thing for me is training students,'' he said, having produced more than two dozen Ph.D. students who are now working at top universities around the world.

Academic interest in Korea is also rising. Twenty years ago, around 90 percent of Korean studies students at UCLA were ethnic Korean but these days the majority are non-Korean, he said.

The professor has also been trying to reach out to the masses in a more democratic way. He and his colleagues have been working hard to revise California's primary and secondary school textbooks to include more information on Korean history and culture.

Moreover, he fulfills his part as ``a bridge between Korean and Western scholars.'' He requires graduate students to spend time in Korea so they can understand the ``positionality'' of Korean professors. When asked about how nationalism, often accompanied by a negative connotation, is associated with Korean historiography, he said that the term is often misunderstood.

``Korean professors have the burden as protectors of national identity. But Korea is no more nationalistic than China, Japan or even the U.S. What is the first thing you see in public American facilities? Yes, it's an American flag. It's a question of what kind of nationalism you're talking about, whether it's fascist or open nationalism.

``It's in fashion to think that nationalism is irrational and bad, and it can be negative if it marginalizes social groups. But, in a positive sense, nationalism was important in building modern Korea,'' said Duncan.

Nationalism risks being used in certain ways as long as Korea remains divided and surrounded by troublesome neighbors, he said, because remnants of the past ― mainly the Korean War ― continue to haunt.

Cold War in Continuum

Duncan remembers when the Korean War was close to reopening, but the past tense is irrelevant. ``We're technically at war since no peace treaty was signed; it's an armistice. There is generally much less tension with the exception of the nuclear issue.

``I would like to see the tension reduced and Korea reunified. Of course reunification will be a long process, but it must happen for a number of reasons. One is the human suffering that the division has caused,'' he said, knowing how painful the divide is for his wife, a Korean whose family is originally from the North. ``Second, as long as Korea is divided, different powers can play the North and South against each other. This weakens Korea, and Korea cannot participate equally in the Northeast Asian cooperative community," he said.

Then he turned with a smile that lit up his unwavering sense of determination.

``I hope to see reunification before I die.''
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