Yongusil 70: Korean Studies, the Copenhagen Interpretation, and BAKS Papers 16

By | July 30, 2015 | No Comments

Scholarly configurations are mysterious things. Why and how certain groups of academics choose to cluster together, or find themselves locked into a formation, is rarely explained. What binds together or underpins any discipline, or any collection of papers for that matter? Perhaps a scientific parallel could be of use. Erwin Schrödinger, best known for considering the viability of his cat, and Neils Böhr and the Copenhagen School of Physics, which built upon Schrödinger’s work and later influenced developments in the field of Quantum Theory, appear never to have considered the relationality of epistemic communities as far as their field of study was concerned. Yet the later Copenhagen Interpretation, derived from Schrödinger’s thought experiments and lab-based observations at the micro-particle level in Physics, seems aptly to illustrate issues arising in the academic field(s) once described as “Area Studies.” Following the Copenhagen school, from a methodological and analytical point of view the terrain, polity and culture of Korea appears radically different depending on issues relating to particularity of view; accordingly, the academic discipline called Korean Studies manifests in a number of radically different forms.

In the United Kingdom, Korean Studies took a form connected to its host nation’s post-Imperial state of semi-peripherality, slightly disconnected from the academic imperatives driven in the United States by the perceived need to respond to military threats and in other Asian states by the desire to take advantage of new geopolitical or economic realities. Korean Studies in the UK has also been relatively free of the common pressure to construct or reconstruct new conceptions of nationalism, historiography and cultural homogeneity in the British Isles. In a sense, Korean Studies in the UK has been free to continue wandering, encountering and exploring the field with the same guile and energy of adventurers and ‘derivistes’ that characterized a previous age. Formed in the early 1980s, the British Association of Korean Studies crystallized that energy into an initial series of conferences and then a welcome academic journal, the Papers of the British Association of Korean Studies.

Over the years, BAKS Papers (as it is now known, in spite of its entirely digital modern form) has offered up boundless fruits of scholarship from the work of James Huntley Grayson, Keith Howard, Werner Sasse, Owen Miller and many more. This Yongusil marks the emergence of its 16th volume, born of a recent BAKS conference under the esteemed auspices of the University of Sheffield and James Lewis (of the University of Oxford), and now under the careful editorial guidance of Sino-NK’s very own Editor-in-Chief, Adam Cathcart.

BAKS Papers 16 is replete with fascinating content, including a paper from Shinyoung Kwon of the University of Chicago that explores the institutional agendas of the Governor-Generals of Chosun in the 1930s and their harnessing of the language and function of popular connection and engagement in order to solidify imperial power and colonial structures. Benjamin Young, erstwhile contributor to Sino-NK and current graduate student of George Washington University in Washington DC, offers a fascinating extension of his exploration of the esoteric connections made by North Korea during the Cold War in his fine paper, “The Struggle for Legitimacy: North Korea’s Relations with Africa, 1965–1992”. Addressing matters of religion, Victoria Ten of Leiden University offers a deeply theorized methodological encounter between Michel Foucault and a nascent spiritual movement from South Korea, while Niu Song of Shanghai International Studies University analyses the unexpectedly rich history of Islam in South Korea and its connections and interactions with both cultural development and international diplomacy.

BAKS Papers 16 does not neglect issues of identity and national formation, presenting interesting papers from Jong-chol An (of Tubingen University) and Anna Noh (of Warwick University), who respectively consider the incorporation or otherwise of Koreans within the Republic of Korea’s ethno-legal framework and historical narratives as an exercise in the imposition of religious identity and commitment during the USAMGIK period (1945-1948). BAKS Papers 16 is a fine contribution to the epistemic, analytic and evidentiary base of Korean Studies as a discipline, no matter on which side of the post-Copenhagen divide the reader might happen to reside.