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Latin American Scholars Meet over Kimchi
Carolina Mera of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (left), UCLA's Kyeyoung Park, and about two dozen other Korea specialists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and the United States described ongoing research projects at the July conference.

Latin American Scholars Meet over Kimchi

A conference this month in Koreatown was the first step in bridging studies of Korea carried out in North and South America. Under a five-year grant, UCLA Korean studies researchers and their Latin American colleagues are planning collaboration and exchanges.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

Somehow they find it very urgent to be a part of the Asian Pacific.

During the next four winter quarters, when it's summer below the equator, UCLA students will benefit from visits by South American experts on the politics and economy of Korea. Scholars will also arrive from Mexico, and at least two Latin American graduate students working on Korea will come to UCLA each year. Meanwhile, UCLA plans to send Korean studies professors to deliver lectures at universities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, and Southern Californian academics will collaborate with their Latin American colleagues on research projects about topics such as Korean communities in Latin America and South Korean trade and political economy.

Already this month, more than two dozen anthropologists, economists, geographers, historians, linguists, literary scholars, and other specialists from Latin American and Southern California met for two days in Los Angeles' Koreatown and at UCLA to acquaint one another with ongoing research projects and concerns—for example, the peculiar challenges of teaching Korean to Spanish speakers. The Los Angeles–based consuls general of Argentina, Korea, and Mexico addressed the scholars over a Korean lunch on July 16, 2007. Local Korean-language newspapers (Korea Times, Korea Daily), Korea's Yonhap News, and South Korean public television covered the event.


UCLA Center for Korean Studies Director John Duncan talks about the conference for Korean public television. (Photos by Kevin Matthews)

On the second day of the conference on Korean Studies in the Americas, participants discussed the upcoming faculty exchanges, agreeing in broad terms to tap UCLA faculty in the humanities and in Korean history for travel southward, while sending a larger proportion of Latin American social scientists to share their expertise with colleagues at UCLA.

All of these activities—two continents' exchange of views on one corner of a third—are growing out of a $1.2 million grant from the Seoul-based Academy of Korean Studies (AKS), which in a competitive process selected UCLA as the first of four universities worldwide to become a partner in the development and expansion of Korean studies in regions around the globe. UCLA's Korean studies program has the largest enrollments in the United States and second-largest faculty, and the city of Los Angeles is viewed as a gateway not only to Latin America but also to the Pacific Rim.

UCLA Asia Institute Director Bin Wong says that the project is unusual and "exciting" because it asks far-flung scholars to coordinate their studies of a place in common and because it has arisen in a context of increasing East Asian diplomatic and economic overtures to the developing world, most notably China's so-called southern strategy and Japan's involvement in Southeast Asia.

In part owing to scarce resources, Korean studies is generally less developed in Latin America than in the United States, but there are many ways to complicate that "abstraction," says UCLA Associate Professor of Anthropology Kyeyoung Park, a lead organizer of the project who has studied the migration and entrepreneurship of ethnic Koreans and within the Americas.

"That doesn't mean that [Koreanists in Latin America] play less important roles," she says. For example, on a tour of nine Korean studies programs in South America that she took last November along with UCLA Latin American Institute (LAI) Director Randal Johnson, Park noted that some of the programs were able to welcome top cabinet ministers and, in one case, a Nobel laureate to academic conferences and talks—what would be a major feat in the United States.

In January, Johnson accompanied UCLA Center for Korean Studies Director John Duncan on a trip to three Mexican universities, so UCLA faculty were able to solidify contacts and interview colleagues about the conditions of study on a dozen campuses. A scholar of Brazilian literature and film, Johnson is quick to point out that UCLA is not participating in the project in order to shape or direct Korean studies elsewhere; he quotes a South American colleague as saying, "We don't want to be objects. We want to be subjects."

According to Park, scholarship on Korea is advanced in Argentina and is growing fast in Chile in response to booming bilateral trade with South Korea, in spite of Chile's much smaller Korean and Asian populations. Particularly in Chile, she explains, "somehow they find it very urgent to be a part of the Asian Pacific."

Interviewed at the conference, Jorge Rafael Di Masi, an expert in political economy who heads the Department of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, identified himself as a member of a second generation of Koreanists in Argentina that succeeded a first one sparked by South Korean immigration to the country from the 1960s. Since the Argentine financial crisis that ended in 2002, the number of ethnic Koreans in that country has dropped to about 15,000. Brazil's Korean population, the largest in Latin America, is about 50,000. Paraguay and Bolivia also have substantial numbers of ethnic Koreans, and South Korean transnational corporations often set up operations in Brazil and Chile, says Park.

The talks delivered on the first day of the conference in Koreatown demonstrated some of the range of studies taken up by Koreanists this side of the Pacific, including studies on South Korea and the Korean diaspora. For example, the anthropologists and geographers on a panel chaired by Park discussed their work on Korean migration and issues of identity (Carolina Mera of Universidad de Buenos Aires), the recording and archiving of sounds of the Korean communities of Buenos Aires (Corina Courtis, UBA), a documentary on the first Korean migrations to Brazil (Eunyung Park, Univesidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie–Brazil), and gender and other issues in the design and use of public parks in Seoul (Lisa Kim Davis, UCLA).

For her own part, UCLA's Park has investigated the "remigration" of some ethnic Koreans from Latin America to the United States and has done recent fieldwork on Argentine and Brazilian textile manufacturing, an industry that Koreans in Latin America have largely come to control. In a 1999 article, she looked at Korean remigrants' attempts to adjust to the generally harsher climate of U.S. race relations and at the "Latin American cosmopolitanism" that sets them apart from direct immigrants to this country.

In a sense, Park's "Korean-Latino Americans," many of whom have never been to Korea, have a point of view that is analogous to the one now being developed jointly by academics in Latin American and Southern California. They are capable of seeing their country of ultimate origin through more than one lens.

"I see them coming up with a different definition of Korean-ness," Park says.

Center for Korean Studies

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