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[Herald Interview] K-pop has sparked interest in Korean studies, but it’s not the end: Ross King

Government should make targeted, strategic investments to turn interest into long-term commitments

K-pop may have led to an increased interest in Korean among foreign students, but those seeking to study the language in higher level education still face huge obstacles, according to professor Ross King.

King, a Canadian national who has been helming the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia since 2008, says that compared to nine years ago, “the base has expanded” for Korean studies abroad. The rise of K-pop has been a contributing factor, he says.

“K-pop is definitely a big motivation for students who want to learn beginner Korean,” King told The Korea Herald in an interview at the Academy of Korean Studies in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province Friday. The Korean language and literature scholar was attending a conference on the translation of Korean classics. 

Ross King, professor of Korean language and literature, speaks at an interview at the Academy of Korean Studies on Friday. (Academy of Korean Studies)
Ross King, professor of Korean language and literature, speaks at an interview at the Academy of Korean Studies on Friday. (Academy of Korean Studies)

The vast majority of the population at UBC seeking to study Korean are ethnically Chinese, King points out, because K-pop is so popular among Asian and Asian-Canadian students. “Korean can also be useful for career prospects if they’re going to work in Asia,” he added.

Two decades ago, meanwhile, Korean studies classes consisted mainly of second-generation Korean-Canadians, or “kyopo.” “Now, they’re all gone,” King says, possibly due to greater access to Korean culture via the internet -- there’s no need for kyopo to take courses to reconnect with their roots.

But the challenges remain more prominent than ever for foreign students who aim to study pre-modern, classical Korean literature, King says. Unlike in the past, the issue is no longer about a lack of funding, but how the money is being used, he points out.

“Ten, 15, 20 years ago ... Korea was a poor developing country. Now, there’s too much money and people don’t know what to do with it,” he said. “There are plenty of talented foreign students who would love to study and translate Korean classics, but there are no graduate fellowships, no sufficient opportunities for them to come to Korea and learn Hanmun,” he said, referring to the writing system used in Korea until the 1400s that borrowed Chinese characters.

The problem lies in the misappropriation of funds, according to King -- most of the funding is oriented toward immediate results.

“Money is being spent on conferences and other short-term glitzy things that can be put on an annual report, instead of training and investing in scholars in the long-term.

“Most classics translations are being done by Koreans who haven’t studied classical literature or Hanmun. Instead of paying those people to translate texts, they should use that money to train good translators. They’re focusing on products, not people.”

A thorough education in Hanmun, the cornerstone of Korean classics, is essential for classics scholars, King says. “You have Hanmun training workshops that last three weeks but that’s not enough.”

A serious foreign student of Korean classics would need to come to Korea to study for at least a year and read texts everyday with other Korean graduate students, he said. “That’s not something you can learn anywhere else.”

King, 56, who is self-taught in Hanmun, obtained his M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in linguistics at Harvard University, and has authored numerous publications with a focus on Korean historical linguistics. He founded the Korean Language Village in Bemidji, Minnesota in 1999 and won the Prime Minister Award in 2000 for contributions to the advancement of the Korean language.

Currently, though job opportunities in Korean studies academia remain scarce and the competition high, they are growing, he says. “In North America, almost 10 new faculty positions are being advertised for Korean studies this year -- only one in pre-modern, the rest in modern studies. It’s the biggest number in my memory for the past 20 years. Last year there were maybe only four.”

In contrast, there are no fellowships or funding in the field for aspiring Korean language scholars -- or even sufficient programs for undergraduates, King says.

“Students who want to study abroad in Japan, China, Taiwan have access to any number of really helpful scholarships that will provide incentive for them. ... For Korea, there is almost nothing.”

Support for classics studies is better in China, King says. “There’s a lot of effort going into excavating texts and spending time to study and translate them.”

And while significant progress has been made in establishing and developing Korean studies departments around the world for the past 20 years, it could quickly disappear without effective government funding.

Ross King, professor of Korean language and literature, speaks at an interview at the Academy of Korean Studies on Friday. (Academy of Korean Studies)
Ross King, professor of Korean language and literature, speaks at an interview at the Academy of Korean Studies on Friday. (Academy of Korean Studies)

“Just to maintain a tiny portion in the world’s intellectual map, Korea is going to have to work very hard,” King said. “As of now, Korea is unrealistically putting all of its eggs in the wrong basket. ... Interest (in Korean studies) has increased but targeted, strategic investment has not been made by the government to turn that interest into long-term commitments.”

King calls for the need for cooperation between relevant organizations.

“The Academy of Korean Studies has all the money. All the know-how is at the Korea Foundation, but they don’t have any money. These two government organizations need to cooperate better and figure out a way for long-term investments in students.”

By Rumy Doo (
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