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From classical scholar to policy adviser

On the cover of Emanuel Pastreich’s “Hangukinman moreuneun dareun Daehanminguk” ― translated by the author as “A Different Republic of Korea” ― bought in preparation for the interview with the author is nothing less than a golden seal of approval from President Park Geun-hye.

Well, it isn’t exactly the presidential seal; the golden seal that sits demurely at the bottom left of the book cover claims that the book was Park’s recommended reading. Indeed, the news of how Park read the book during her brief summer staycation at the Blue House and then recommended it during a Cabinet meeting instantly catapulted the 2013 book to the bestseller list. An author’s dream come true.

When we meet up for this interview at the Seoul Museum of History in downtown Seoul on Sept. 23, my first question is: “How did this come about?” 

Emanuel Pastreich poses outside the Seoul Museum of History. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald
Emanuel Pastreich poses outside the Seoul Museum of History. Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald

Pastreich professes to not know himself. “I don’t know how it happened,” he says.

However it may have landed among Park’s summer reading list, the book is now on the reading list of many more and Pastreich suddenly finds himself a much sought-after public speaker ― his speaking engagements, typically at government ministries and organizations, are booked several months ahead.

It may appear that Pastreich rose to fame overnight after a mention by Park, but Pastreich explains that he did not spring out of nowhere. In fact, he has been a regular columnist at a daily vernacular and has published numerous academic articles and a number of books, including “The Novels of Park Jiwon: Translations of Overlooked Worlds.”

What brought Pastreich ― who studied Chinese literature at Yale University, wrote his master’s thesis on Japanese writers of classical Chinese poetry at Tokyo University and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University with a dissertation titled “The Reception of Chinese Vernacular Fiction in Korea and Japan” ― to Korea where, today, he is an associate professor at College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University, and also the director and founder of the Asia Institute, a research institute dedicated to the study of technology’s impact on society?

Pastreich first came to Korea in 1991 to attend a classmate’s wedding. He discovered that Korea suited him better and began to study Korean ― by this time, he was already fluent in Chinese and Japanese. “At a deep level, there is resonance with Korea,” he says, mentioning his Jewish and Catholic parentage.

In 2005, while teaching at George Washington University, he began working at the Korean Embassy in Washington, advising on public relations and outreach as well as editing “Dynamic Korea,” an online daily published by the Korean Overseas Information Service. Having had a “shift” in his thinking while teaching at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Pastreich recalls he enjoyed the work at the Embassy more than teaching.

His life took another turn when he accepted an offer to work for Lee Wan-koo, then the South Chungcheong Province governor who would later serve as prime minister. “It was an unusual step,” Pastreich recalls, but he put his academic career on hold and came to Korea, advising the governor on foreign direct investment and international relations.

When I observe that this seems rather ambitious for a small province, Pastreich responds, “Provincial governments are more innovative in a way.”
Pastreich describes “A Different Republic of Korea” as a policy prescription for Korea that calls for finding solutions to modern-day issues in the traditions of Korea. A collection of about three years of newspaper columns he began writing eight years ago as policy recommendations, the book posits that Korea has enormous potential. He then call for “taking all the assets and presenting them together in a new way.”

The lack of a definitive book on Korea and Korean culture for the Western audience is a major impediment in foreigners gaining an understanding or insight into Korea. “Ezra Vogel’s ‘Japan as No. 1,’ which came out in 1979, put Japan on the map,” says Pastreich, explaining the need for a similar book on Korea.

However, Pastreich says he doesn’t get any encouragement for such a book from Korean acquaintances. “I wrote the book (‘A Different Republic of Korea’) to argue for the book. I haven’t had any offers yet for the book I want,” he says.

Still, he is heartened by the developments set in motion by Park’s mention of the book. “She took it as a serious proposal,” he says. “The Cabinet took it seriously. I am giving four lectures to ranking government officials at every ministry. That is about 12,000 ranking government officials,” he says. He was also scheduled to lecture to 100 ranking generals and colonels from all branches of the military as well as address 150 judges. He now has lecture halls full of leaders of Korean society to whom he can proselytize his ideas about finding new inspirations in the old.

Pastreich, who in his book proposes the adoption of seonbi, or Joseon-era “virtuous scholars,” as an icon of Korean culture, urges tapping into Korea’s past for new inspiration.

“There is enormous potential of culture up to 1976 that has not been touched. There is enormous pent-up potential in Korean tradition and culture,” he argues. Hanok (traditional house), hanbok (traditional garment) and hanbang (traditional medicine) are among some of the things that he has in mind.

A vegetarian who enjoys simple foods such as bean sprout soup, doenjang (soybean paste) and gim (seaweed), Pastreich seems offended by the assumption held by many Koreans that foreigners would not be interested in Korea. “You need foreigners who speak Korean. Korean language is an incredible asset. But Koreans do not invest in this because they assume that foreigners are not interested,” he says. However, as the popularity of hallyu around the world shows, this is not true.

How does a scholar of classics regard the development of hallyu? Apparently, with weariness. Viewing hallyu as having been developed as a light consumer product, Pastreich says, “That aspect of hallyu is getting worse. Hallyu has reached its peak, is becoming more predictable and not very original,” Pastreich says.

As for the government’s attempt to promote hallyu, Pastreich urges caution. “Hallyu explosion was not some strategy. Government involvement can be helpful, but the best way to create credibility is to build an ecosystem,” he says.