Prof. Kim Yung-hee speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at her office in the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa in Honolulu last Thursday. / Korea Times
By Kang Hyun-kyung
HONOLULU, Hawaii ― Professor Kim Yung-hee was an academic warrior who helped the Korean arts and literature department of Ohio State University in Columbus survive academic restructuring in the early 1990s.
Back then, she stood at the forefront of the drive to keep Korean studies there intact amid the university authorities’ desperate endeavor to cut costs after financial woes in the United States.
After being informed of the restructuring attempt, Kim rushed to the office of the university’s president to ask him why the Korean literature department had to be sacrificed.
“I asked him, ‘Was the decision about financial or academic reasons?’ He answered it was financial,” she said last Thursday.
To save Korean studies at the university, Kim made every possible effort that she could ― from building awareness among university authorities of the university about the significance of Korean studies to organizing field trips to Korea which were accompanied by the president and dean of the university.
To cut a long story short, it was a happy ending. The department survived the tough times after the Korea Foundation (KF) committed to providing $100,000 to finance the university’s hiring of a tenure track professor in 1994.
In retrospect, Kim said Korean studies would have not been on the list to be eliminated back then if awareness of the major was built.
Nearly two decades later, Kim, currently director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is wrestling with a fresh challenge.
The class size of Korean studies there is shrinking.
“These days it is hard to find students who are interested in Korean studies as a major. As a Korean literature professor, this is my primary concern,” said Kim. “The arts and literature department is not a priority in many U.S. universities. I think this is the case for Korea, too. I understand many Korean parents encourage their children to attend either law or medical school in the hope that they can land high-paying jobs easily after graduation.”
Students’ lack of interest in Korean studies came as a bit of a surprise, considering the number of undergraduate students taking Korean language courses at the University of Hawaii has continued to increase.
Approximately, 300 to 400 students attend the course every semester.
“This is huge, given that the Korean community in Hawaii is so small, compared with that of other ethnic groups. An estimated 35,000 ethnic Koreans are living in this state,” she said. “In the past, ethnic Korean students were the majority of the language course. But now we have more students from non-Korean ethnic groups.”
The professor observed the rising demand for Korean language courses is the result of various factors combined, such as the Korean wave and the increasing significance of the Korean economy.
Kim, who has taught in colleges for nearly three decades after earning a Ph.D. in Asian Studies at Cornell University, said students’ lack of academic interest in Korean studies has led scholars overseas to depend much on funding from authorities outside the university, such as the KF.”
At present, 100 or more U.S. universities provide Korean arts and literature courses with the financial support from the KF. The foundation has provided funds to academics, scholarships to students and other exchange programs to promote Korean studies overseas.
Kim called for the Korean government’s continued support to promote Korean studies abroad, adding otherwise insufficient funding could hamper the Korean wave or “hallyu.”
She is the first female director overseeing the iconic institute patterned after Gyeongbok Palace in downtown Seoul. Established in 1972, the Center for Korean Studies of the Hawaii University at Manoa is the first of its kind created in overseas universities.
Over the past four decades, the institute has organized and hosted a variety of Korean studies-related programs, including language courses, screening of old and contemporary Korean films and scores of international seminars on Korean arts and literature.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the center, Kim is preparing for an international seminar on modernity in Korea where 17 national and international scholars are to present and exchange their views on the given topic.
As an academic, Kim has done research on and published several articles and books on feminism in Korea.
Her research has been focused on so-called “New Women” referring to a group of female pioneers of the gender movement in modern days in Korea when awareness of the status of women was rarely set in place.
한류 등 여러가지 요인으로 인해 한국어를 배우려는 학생 수는 증가하고 있지만, 한국학을 전공하려는 학생수는 줄고 있다고 한 미국 대학의 교수가 밝혔다.
김영미 하와이 대학 한국학연구소 소장은 1990년대 초반 오하이오 주립대학 교수로 재직하면서 당시 어려운 경제상황으로 인해 대학이 구조조정 압력을 받으면서 한국학 전공이 폐지위기에 직면했던 상황을 이야기하면서 과거는 한국학에 대한 이해부족이 미국내에서 한국학을 위축시키는 주요원인이었지만, 지금은 학문으로서 한국학을 하려는 학생들이 점차 줄고 있어 문제라고 지적했다.
김교수는 1992년 오하이오 주립대학측으로부터 한국학이 구조조정 대상에 있다는 사실을 전해 듣고 직접 총장을 찾아가서 경제적인 문제로 폐지하려는 것인지를 물었다. 총장으로부터 그렇다는 답변을 전해 듣고 김교수는 다양한 노력을 한 끝에 1994년 국제교류재단으로부터 재정지원을 받는 조건으로 한국학 전공을 폐지위기에서 살려낸 장본인이다.
하와이 대학에서 최초의 여성 한국학 연구소장을 맡고 있는 김교수는 한국어 수업을 듣는 학생수가 매 학기 3-400여명에 달한다고 말하면서 한국계 인구가 35,000명에 불과한 하와이에서 이정도의 수강생이 있다는 것 자체가 한국어에 대한 인기를 반영하는 것이라고 주장했다. 과거에는 한국계 학생들이 주요 수강생이었는데, 최근에는 비 한국계 학생들도 한국어 수업을 많이 듣는다는 것.
한국학을 위해 정부의 다양한 지원이 필요하다고 김교수는 지적했다.