East Meets West in Scholar John Duncan

East Meets West in Scholar John Duncan

Photo by Christine Larson

Director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies and a leading light on pre-modern Korea, Duncan has lived comfortably in two cultures since the late 1960s. Duncan is receiving the Korea Foundation Award in Seoul for a lifetime of contributions to Korean studies worldwide.

I get up, I read a Korean newspaper. I come to work, I deal with Korea all day long. On a good day I go down to Koreatown and have some barbequed meat and some soju with my friends. I go home and watch the news in Korean.

John Duncan, director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, doubts he would have become a scholar at all if it hadn't been for his experiences along the Korean demilitarized zone in the late sixties. Stationed there as a 19-year-old American G.I., he remained after his military discharge and was admitted to Korea University in Seoul as the school's first and — at that time — only U.S. student. He completed a degree in history at a historic time for South Korea: the height of student mobilization against military rule.
"Over time, I got a sense that Korean culture had something that we didn't have in this culture…," said Duncan, the son of a copper miner and descendant of cowboys in northern Arizona. "Korea is much more group-oriented, much more family-oriented. And so I had the sense that people cared more about each other in Korea than people care about each other in the U.S., and that struck me as attractive."
He also recalled that during his Army stint he was repulsed by the behavior of many fellow G.I.'s towards South Korean employees and locals they came in contact with near the demilitarized zone. Witnessing this in a place he was beginning to love "pushed me towards really trying to do something serious in Korea and about Korea," Duncan said.
Duncan has since become a leading light on pre-modern Korea and a mediator between Western and South Korean historians. For a lifetime of contributions to Korean studies worldwide, he will receive the Korea Foundation Award in Seoul on Dec. 16.
Duncan is also a remarkably comfortable and involved member of both Korean and American societies. His wife, in-laws and numerous friends are Korean. His work keeps him traveling to Korea. And living in culturally diverse L.A., he added, doesn't hurt.
"I get up in the morning, I read a Korean newspaper," he noted. "I come to work, I deal with Korea all day long. On a good day I go down to Koreatown and I have some barbequed meat and some soju (distilled alcoholic drink) with my friends. I go home and I watch the KBS (Korean broadcasting) 9 o'clock news and I go to bed," he said with a laugh.
Duncan has felt himself to be as much a part of Korea as of America for most of his life, he said. He remembers the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the resignation of Richard Nixon and the election of President Obama alongside events that many former schoolmates in Arizona likely never heard of.
"I recall when Park Chung-hee, the military dictator, sent his troops over the wall and occupied our campus, chased us all off, and beat up a bunch of us. October 1971," Duncan said. He vividly remembers Park's assassination in 1979, the Kwangju massacre of 1980 and democratization in 1987.
"All of those were just tremendously important events in my life," he said.
Duncan will be honored at the Korean Foundation Award ceremony for painstaking historical scholarship and for a range of activities he refers to as "field-building." He helped to found and he currently chairs the Worldwide Consortium of Korean Studies Centers, a key vehicle for global expansion of the field. In addition, the UCLA Center for Korean Studies is leading an effort to strengthen Korean studies in Latin America. And viewing Korea's past as part of East Asia's, Duncan collaborates with historians of China, Japan and Vietnam on topics such as regional intellectuals' responses to Confucianism.
Duncan's most distinctive contribution may be his success in putting Western and other non-Korean scholars into dialogue with South Korean historians, a group whose work is often set aside by outsiders as biased and nationalistic. As a scholar trained on both sides of the divide, he sees it differently and works to mend it by team-teaching courses with visiting Korean professors and sending graduate students off "to study with Korean professors and shoulder-to-shoulder with Korean graduate students" — practices other U.S.-based Korean studies programs might balk at.
UCLA lecturer Jennifer Jung-Kim, who earned a Ph.D. in history under Duncan, says that in forging such ties, "John has changed the nature of Korean studies in the world."
Duncan takes that sort of praise lightly: "I happen to be affiliated with the most successful Korean studies program outside of Korea." And he continues to be concerned about lingering obstacles to the field's development and influence, from reluctance in the academy to support area specialists, to the news media's fixation on nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea.
The Korean peninsula — strategically situated, with almost 80 million inhabitants and thriving arts and institutions in the south — is a place he thinks we should know more about.
"Anyone who goes to Costco can appreciate the achievements of Korean industry," Duncan said.  "Korea is actually by most measures a fairly important country, and yet the general attitude is that Korea is insignificant, tiny."
"There's just so much important stuff going on in northeast Asia, in China, Japan and Korea these days — economically politically, even ecologically," he added. "We really need expertise."

Published: Tuesday, December 15, 2009