While a growing number of college students abroad want to learn about Korea thanks to the country’s popular culture, most universities around the world still lack faculty, courses and textbooks for key areas of Korean studies such as pre-modern Korean history.
Virtually all the Korean history professors that teach at universities such as Harvard and UCLA specialize in Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) or post-Joseon Korea. There are no faculty specializing in ancient or medieval Korean history, which means those interested in Korea before the 15th century have to learn from Chinese or Japanese history professors or textbooks.
“A number of scholars have left the field, and very few are remaining. Only two or three scholars who deal with prehistoric archaeology of Korea have faculty positions,” said Mark Byington, who runs the nonprofit, Cambridge Institute for the Study of Korea, to provide a space for academic research on Korea.
The primary reason, according to the US-based scholar, is the prolonged and persistent funding drought.
“US universities are generally not interested in taking funding for study of early Korean history or archaeology. You have to have a faculty member who is interested in the field,” Byington said in a recent interview.
The Korean government, in the past, had run programs to promote the academic study of early Korean history and archaeology overseas, like the “Early Korea Project” that began in 2006 at Harvard University. Byington led the project as its director.
But the entire project was terminated in 2018 after funding from Korean state-funded institutions was cut off due to political problems in Korea.
“The Early Korea Project was extremely lucky because there was a senior Korean literature professor (now retired David McCann) at Harvard who thought early Korean history and archaeology were important,” Byington said.
Ever since the project lost funding, the state of studies of early Korea in the US has been bad, and is getting worse each year.
His CISK “provides scholars interested in Korea with something similar to what the Early Korea Project provided, as a way to share their scholarship, but getting it funded has been a problem,” he said.
However, the resumption of a grant project in South Korea, matching the scope and scale of the Early Korea Project, seems improbable at present. Officials in Seoul express concerns about the potential recurrence of the political noise that disrupted the Harvard project.
The Early Korea Project, consisting of lectures, workshops and publications on the academic study of early Korean history and archaeology, focused on periods prior to the 10th century, and received multi-year support from Korean state-funded institutions such as the Academy of Korean Studies, Korea Foundation and Northeast Asian History Foundation (NAHF).
Then, Lee Deok-il, who leads the Hangaram History and Culture Institute in Seoul, raised an issue about a book titled, “The Han Commanderies in Early Korean History,” which Byington wrote as part of the project.
One of the four commanderies, known as Lelang, was located in what is now Pyongyang, according to the book and mainstream Korean historians. Lee, however, claims that this was colonial Japan’s view of history, and that the Lelang Commandery was in fact outside of the Korean Peninsula. Lee also took issue with historical maps that the NAHF was working on, saying that some of them look just like China’s ancient maps.
The issues raised by Lee got on the agenda of a parliamentary special committee with the stated purpose of coming up with “countermeasures for distortions in Northeast Asian history."
Lawmakers on the committee publicly chastised the NAHF over the maps as supporting a Chinese perspective of early East Asian history. In the whirlwind of disputes, funding for both projects – the maps and the Early Korea Project – was cut off.
“Korean mainstream scholars did their best to explain to the special committee (the absurdity of Lee’s attacks), but the committee had already made up their minds,” Byington said, adding that even Korean media such as JoongAng Ilbo were not interested in interviewing him at the time.
Western scholars who are familiar with Korean history are generally aware of the problems of “pseudohistory” in Korea, he said, referring to the likes of Lee.
The Hangaram Institute states on its official website that its goal is to counter and debunk the “Sino-centric and Japanese colonialist perspectives” prevalent among mainstream historians. These views, it asserts, result in distortions of Korean history that make Korea’s historical timeline shorter and territorial space smaller.
“There are some good academic studies in English on this pseudohistory, its origins and development, and the interests of those who push fringe views,” Byington said.
The difficulty of access to archaeological sites now in North Korea limits scholarship on the early states of that region, and this is true also of sites in China, but to a lesser degree, according to him.
“Unfortunately, when there is a significant lack of information, this provides an invitation to pseudohistorians to speculate on what might be missing, which in turn leads to wild and unsubstantiated claims,” he said.
“I think it would be useful for western scholars to be aware of the effects of pseudohistory within Korea, including academia, to understand better why certain issues are viewed as important or sensitive to many people in Korea today.”
“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 will delve 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.