International relations, Education | Asia, East Asia

16 March 2016

It’s vital that South Korea knows its neighbour, and the demise of yet another studies department is a sad and unwise thing, Christopher Green and Peter Ward write.

On the day after Valentine’s Day, a small group of students from Korea University, one of South Korea’s top educational institutions, protested in downtown Seoul, to alert the government about the impending demise of yet another North Korean studies department in South Korea.

As of March, the university’s Department of North Koreanology will leave its independent home within the College of Humanities. North Korean studies will disappear as an undergraduate major. Instead, it will be incorporated into a new major, embracing unification, diplomacy, and national security. According to the university, the merger is going to protect the unique identity of the subject and help it survive in a world of harsh economic realities. To many students, however, the study of North Korea deserves unique treatment – to South Korea, they say, it ought to be seen as a matter of life and death.

This is not the first time the study of North Korea in the South has been in crisis. In fact, it has been in crisis for almost as long as North Korea itself has been in crisis. At the turn of the century, no fewer than six South Korean universities had standalone departments dealing with South Korea’s problematic neighbour. But by the time Myongji University in Seoul merged the study of North Korea into its Department of Political Science and Diplomacy in 2010, only two of the original six remained.

Problems are myriad. Most of Korea University’s classes on North Korea are taught on the university’s satellite campus in Sejong City, whereas South Korean students want to stay in Seoul where the best connections, internships and other opportunities are overwhelmingly concentrated. The quality of the education has not always been ideal, either, especially as the departments have shrunk over the years. A third factor is the sheer lack of job prospects for graduates.

This situation is particularly curious. Why are the employment prospects for a graduate of North Korean Studies so poor? After all, North Korea is a real and pressing problem for South Korea.

At the dawning of the Cold War, the US government and a range of private institutions started spending a small fortune on Soviet studies, making huge investments in the creation of tenure track jobs, the nurturing of Russian-speaking students, and specialist area studies programs. This resulted, among other things, in a huge interview project conducted by top social scientists at Harvard that surveyed the views of émigrés from the Soviet Union on a range of important social, political and economic questions. As a result, there were graduate students and professors specialising in many different facets of Soviet and Russian culture, society, economy, politics and history.

More on this: The North Korea challenge | Tessa Morris-Suzuki.

While some research is promoted for policy-making purposes, consecutive South Korean governments have shown that they are not ready to spend money to nurture talent that the US once was, when faced with the threat of the USSR. One reason is probably simple economics: education is expensive, and engineers are much more to the liking of South Korean policymakers than specialist readers of North Korean newspapers and literature.

Some money has been spent on research centres; there is a graduate school, the University of North Korean Studies (at which, full disclosure, one of us is currently affiliated). Founded as a standalone university in 1997, one of its professors was, until recently, the Minister of Unification (Ryu Kihl-jae). But this institution, which does some fascinating research, publishes the premier Korean-language journal in the field and has an outstanding library, is not representative of the overall state of the sector. Indeed, most South Koreans have never heard of the place, and that alone tells us much: South Koreans are just not interested in studying North Korea and are not interested in North Korean issues. And their government is not interested in incentivising them.

North Korea is no Soviet Union. Its provocative behaviour is seen as a nuisance; something to be punished. North Korea’s culture is seen as backward and associated with an irrational belligerent and a personality cult gone mad. There is the pervasive assumption, promoted most recently by President Park, that North Korea is just a nuclear test or missile launch away from collapse.

This is not to say that South Korea has not produced some world famous (within academic circles) scholars of North Korea: Lee Chong-sik, who spent much of his scholarly life in the United States, is still widely cited. We should mention the work of Kim Nam-sik in Korean, and Dae-sook Suh’s pioneering work at the University of Hawaii. Yet most of the major work done on North Korean studies until the mid-1990s was done outside South Korea.

That has now changed, and excellent South Korean work on North Korea is far more common. But North Korea is still generally seen as too poor, small and anachronistic to be taken seriously as a subject of study.

Such trends are regrettable and rather short-sighted. They are also potentially quite dangerous. Reports of North Korea’s impending demise may or may not be exaggerated. That’s the point: whenever change comes and in whatever form it arrives, having specialists on hand would be very helpful. It seems that the South Korean government wants – even expects – the problem to go away in due course, and therefore cannot see its way clear to spending significant sums on looking more closely at the 24 million Koreans and their diverse, intriguing, difficult state just a few tens of kilometres away.

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Green, C. and Ward, P. (2016). North Korean studies: the unloved subject - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: