The Korea Herald


[Korea Beyond Korea] Korean culture boom fuels interest in Korean studies in Europe

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Oct. 9, 2023 - 17:23

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For a long time, the field of Korean studies in Europe remained in the shadow of Japanese and Chinese studies. But the global boom of Korean pop music, films and dramas has elevated the standing of Korean studies in recent years and is likely to continue doing so, said Anders Karlsson, senior lecturer and chair of the Centre of Korean Studies at SOAS University of London.

Anders Karlsson Anders Karlsson

The most noticeable development from when he started teaching in the field 23 years ago, Karlsson said, is diversification within the discipline: a shift in focus from the humanities and language studies to studies of contemporary aspects of Korean culture and society.

“For a long time in Europe, Korean Studies tended to be mainly focused on humanities, but recently there has been a significant increase in the number of scholars working in social sciences,” Karlsson, who has taught Korean studies since 2000, said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

Korean studies has a long tradition in Europe, with its roots in the philological study of the Korean language. Early scholars focused on the humanities and premodern periods in Korean history by exploring textual materials.

After liberation from Japanese occupation and the division of the Korean Peninsula, scholarship in social science fields such as Korean politics and economics emerged. Now, more scholars are paying attention to visual material and screen cultures to study Korean popular culture, he noted.

This development in Korean studies is partially attributed to the global popularity of Korean cultural content, which triggered a surge in demand for Korean language courses and Korean studies programs at European universities.

“In terms of student numbers, at universities where Korean studies is offered, it nowadays often ‘outperforms’ Japanese and Chinese studies,” Karlsson said, adding that the increased number of students has elevated the standing of Korean studies at universities.

“Universities are very much aware of the potential (of Korean studies) and have started to introduce Korean language classes or non-language classes related to Korea.”

In Europe, some 253 universities offer Korean studies or language courses, with 126 of them running degree programs as of 2023. By region, it is second only to Northeast Asia, where 703 universities provide such courses, according to the Korea Foundation.

Regardless of how popular Korean pop culture remains globally, Karlsson believes that the interest in Korean studies will reach a “stable” level and the academic presence of Korean studies is likely to expand in Europe further.

“A fascinating aspect of the Korean Wave is that many people that start with an interest in maybe K-pop or dramas soon start to develop an interest in other aspects of Korea as well, not only the language, but also Korean society, history and traditional culture,” Karlsson said.

“So, I think that it would be wrong for universities in Europe, or for bodies in Korea that financially support overseas Korean studies, to think that they predominantly must invest in contemporary popular culture to cater to this interest in Korea and in Korean studies.”

Karlsson, who started studying Korea in 1987 at Stockholm University in Sweden, has conducted research on the social and institutional history of the Joseon era, famine and disaster relief policies and activities during the reigns of kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo as well as legal developments during the period. With his wife, he also has translated Korean literature by such authors as Hwang Sok-yong and Han Kang into Swedish.

Over the years, the field of Korean studies has seen some tension between nationalist Korean scholarship seeking to overcome colonial views of Korean history and approaches criticized as "Western-centric."

With more active academic exchanges between both sides and demographic changes in scholars, there is no “fundamentally different” understanding between Korean and Western scholars today, Karlsson said.

As a Korean studies scholar in the UK, Karlsson believes that studying Korea from outside the country has advantages.

“It is not a question of being able to understand certain aspects of Korea better. It is about being able to understand them differently, to look at them from another angle and to provide a different picture, which is a good thing,” he said.

“Korean Studies Beyond Korea” explores the current landscape of Korean studies through interviews, in-depth analyses and on-the-ground stories told from diverse world areas. Funded by the Korea Press Foundation, this series delves into the challenges and opportunities facing the field as Korea's rise as a cultural powerhouse has drawn interest from scholars, researchers and leaders from around the globe. – Ed.