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Cultural historian leads Center for Korean Studies

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UCLA historian Namhee Lee, director of the Center for Korean Studies. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Namhee Lee looks forward to involving the impressive cadre of Korean specialists at UCLA — who teach in departments and schools across campus — in the activities of the Center for Korean Studies.

“We have a tremendous group of scholars.... I'd like to be able to mobilize the resources that we have and engage with the issues that people feel are important.”

UCLA International Institute, September 28, 2017 — Namhee Lee, a cultural historian of post-1945 South Korea, became director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies this past June. She previously served two years as the center’s co-director alongside fellow historian and UCLA Professor John Duncan.

Lee teaches Korean and East Asian history in the department of Asian Languages and Cultures and is the author of a seminal history of the South Korean democratization movement of the 1970s and 1980s: “The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea” (Cornell, 2007).

The UCLA historian is a soft-spoken, articulate scholar well versed in political ethnography and the theoretical literature of both cultural studies and the political economy. Lee is a whole-picture historian whose research examines the multiple facets of contemporary South Korean society. She is currently working on a sociocultural history of the country since it transitioned away from authoritarianism in the late 1980s.

Korean Studies popular at UCLA

When Lee went to college, few Korean Studies programs existed at U.S. universities. In fact, few even offered courses on modern Korean history. Lee opted to attend University of Chicago, where she studied with Bruce Cumings ("Origins of the Korean War," 2 volumes), precisely because it offered such courses.

Botanical garden on Jeju Island, South Korea. (Photo: <a href="">Richardfabi</a> via Wikicommons, 2003; cropped. <a href="">CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>. Today, strong programs in Korean Studies are offered by UCLA, Columbia and a number of other universities. Courses on Korea are particularly popular among undergraduate students at UCLA, with graduate programs continuing to draw young scholars interested in doing advanced research on the country and its culture.

The depth of expertise on Korea at UCLA is impressive, with distinguished faculty teaching courses on its language, history,  literature, art history, religions, culture and music. The Department of Asian Languages and Cultures offers a B.A. in Korean Studies, complete with language classes through the advanced level (including for heritage speakers).  

Lee herself regularly teaches the survey course “Korean Civilization.” She remarks, “It’s one of the few courses where I have students from North and South Campus — it’s always fun to teach.” Perhaps unsurprising, she says the most popular undergraduate course on Korea at present is “Korean Wave: Globalization of South Korean Popular Culture (K40).”

K-pop star IU with a photo essay produced with a smart phone.
Photo: Samsung Newsroom on Flickr, 2012; cropped.) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In addition to the survey course, Lee teaches a range of undergraduate and graduate courses, many of which respond to the intellectual needs of a given student cohort. For example, she launched a course on North Korea (“North Korea: Beyond the ‘Axis of Evil’,” K191B) in response to the interest in North Korea sparked by that country’s inclusion in President George W. Bush’s label of the same name. More recently, she has introduced graduate seminars on colonial modernity in Korea and the Cold War in East Asia, respectively. 

Showcasing UCLA faculty

Lee looks forward to involving UCLA’s wealth of Korean experts in the activities of the Center for Korean Studies (CKS). UCLA’s strong existing lineup of scholars include two former CKS directors: center founder and Buddhist scholar Robert Buswell (CKS director, 1994–2001), who also founded the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies, and historian of pre-modern Korea John Duncan (CKS director, 2001–2017). “We have a tremendous group of scholars,” remarks Lee.

Bipa, a Korean musical instrument. (Photo: <a href="">Eggmoon</a> via Wikicommons, 2013; altered). <a href="">CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>.

UCLA expertise on Korea continues to grow. A number of new faculty recently joined or will join UCLA this fall, including filmmaker Gina Kim, theater specialist Suk-Young Kim, gender studies scholar Ju Hui Judy Han and ethnomusicologist Katherine In-Young Lee.

“I'm very excited to have all these people joining UCLA,” says Lee. “I’d like to be able to mobilize the resources that we have — not just the material resources, but the fact that CKS is an available venue — and engage with the issues that people feel are important.” Her vision for CKS is clearly collaborative, one in which divergent faculty interests are showcased along with traditional historical and cultural topics, and local Korean organizations are invited to participate in key events.

Sharp swings of South Korean historiography

Although South Korean society continues to live through a contentious debate over what middle and high school textbooks should teach about the decades of authoritarian rule in the country, Lee notes that Korean historiography is presently engrossed in another debate. The current debate centers on a re-examination of Korea’s modern history (i.e., mid-19th century onward) to identify the factors that have made possible its rapid economic development.

From roughly the late 1980s through the Asian economic crisis of 1997, historians and intellectuals largely focused on the repressions and other authoritarian practices of Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee. But the 1997 economic crisis created a new historical demarcation.

“The historical scholarship of modern Korean has become much more complicated,” comments Lee. “An earlier period saw the emergence of the colonial modernity debate, in which scholars complicated the picture of the Japanese colonial rule (1910–45) beyond the previous framework of strict ‘repression versus resistance.’” The expanded understanding of the colonial period, she says, has led to a new revisionism that views the colonial period and the authoritarian regimes of Rhee and Park as having laid crucial building blocks of the country’s eventual economic transformation.

In this view, South Korea’s impressive economic development offers, among other things, a model that can be shared with developing countries. “In some ways,” says Lee, “you can understand the nostalgia and the longing for the former authoritarian leaders who, despite their flagrant civil and human rights violations, are now credited with having developed South Korea.” But she points out that South Korean economic development was also a product of U.S. Cold War-liberalism, as well as the back-breaking hard work of the Korean people.

Following 1997, South Korea underwent a painful structural readjustment program as part of a US$57 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund. Neoliberal economic policies, explains Lee, effected a pronounced retreat of the state from the economy and a corresponding philosophical shift that placed all responsibility for “success” on the individual.

Although the economy has rebounded from the crisis and consequent reforms, Lee says that for many South Koreans, the sharp recession and policy shift have been painful and disorienting. “Many think of tthe 1997 crisis as the second-most difficult experience they have lived through, collectively, after the Korean War,” she comments.

One of the consequences of the country’s ardent embrace of neoliberalism has been an increasing concentration of wealth and privilege in the country. “Up until the 1990s, a university education was a great equalizer in South Korean society,” notes Lee. “It didn't matter what background you were from, as long as you got that diploma, you would be able to get a good job and improve your social and economic standing.” Unfortunately, she says, “That’s no longer the case.” Very few elite university students now come from rural backgrounds. “In some ways, your future is now determined very, very early on by your socioeconomic background,” she comments.

December 31, 2016. Candelight protest in Seoul calling for the resignation of South Korean
President Park Geun-hye. (Photo: Jirangmoon via Wikicommons, 2016; cropped.) CC BY-SA 4.0

Current research

“My current project examines what you might call the ‘afterlives’ of the 1980s — intellectually, socially and politically.” Specifically, she is exploring how the democratic transition enabled new historical debates, which Lee says, “were in turn were shaped and characterized by the rise of the ‘new right’ in South Korea.” Using a wide lens, her research examines the role that historical novels, film exhibitions, festivals, historical restorations, civic movements and the mass media have played in public historical memory.

“For me, the mass media plays an important and critical role in this process — I am looking at the connection between the mass media and intellectual and cultural figures in South Korea in the post-1980s era,” she continues. “Novelists, for example, published a number of very interesting, very popular novels that in some ways can be characterized as proposing a re-thinking of the previous era,” she adds.

Given her peers’ high estimation of her last book, Lee’s approach to South Korean cultural history is all the more valuable for being rooted in close observations of life on the ground. Her forthcoming monograph is sure to reveal many new insights, based on the comprehensive, analytical research for which the UCLA historian is known.

Published: Thursday, September 28, 2017