Field Report: What I learned by attending a workshop on Korean history

Historians in the News
tags: Korea

Ron Eisenman is a high school teacher in Vermont.

Some people like to travel during summer vacation, while others may enjoy just hanging out with friends. One of the highlights of summer vacation for me is to attend workshops to learn about history-related subjects and new teaching methods. It is an added bonus when the workshop is held in a desirable location. This summer I received a fellowship to travel to Los Angeles to attend the Korea Academy for Educators (KAFE) workshop, which was funded in part by the Korean Foundation and the Korean Studies Institute at University of Southern California.

I highly recommend that students (and teachers) pay attention to Korea for it will continue to play an important role in the world. Most students are familiar with the often bizarre and dangerous behavior of North Korea. At the workshop we were challenged to view the politics of the division of Korea in a different light. USC Professor David Kang argued that while the regime in North Korea may be monstrous towards its citizens, it has always acted very rationally when responding to pressure from the United States and South Korea. Nevertheless, the U.S. and others in the region are concerned about North Korea's continuing quest to develop and refine a nuclear arsenal with sophisticated missile technology. What happens in Korea affects the world, especially since Korea holds the distinction of being the only country in the world in which the world's greatest powers directly meet. China and Russia share a land border while Japan is less than 80 miles away across the Japan Sea. Moreover, the U.S. and South Korea have signed a mutual defense treaty requiring the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula.

Besides this well-known security issue, there are many other lesser known reasons to learn about Korea. Korea’s history is very long and instructive. Compared to the U.S. which did not establish its borders until about 150 years ago, Korea has existed as an independent nation with borders similar to today’s for more than 1300 years. This history is filled with many incredible advances in art, literature, and technology. Korea developed a fine green glazed pottery called Celadon and has produced masterful works in gold and even developed the first moveable print several hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg. Until the 20th Century, Korean history involved remarkably few wars. It has never invaded a foreign country nor has it ever gone to war against its large and dominant neighbor China. In 1300 years, it has had only 3 wars with the Japanese, the last two of which were quite devastating for Korea. Therefore, the last century of conflict and division is more an anomaly than the norm in Korean history.

Korea is also important to the world because it is an example of a nation that has been able to create a thriving democracy after having been ruled by military dictators. Studying Korean political history may provide valuable lessons on how the transition to democracy can be made relatively peacefully. South Korea has also undergone tremendous economic development since the Korean War. During the Korean War, it was hard for the American military even to find targets to bomb because there was so little standing. Completely destroyed by the end of the war in the 1950s and having a GDP per capita of only $87 in 1962, South Korea now possesses the 15th largest economy in the world with a GDP per capita of close to $33,000.

Today, people all over the world are consuming Korean culture and products. K-Pop hits like Gangnam Style were so popular last year that PSY followed up by collaborating on a song with Snoop Dogg. A thriving Korean film industry is producing award-winning films like Tae Guk Gi, Old Boy, Pieta, and The Host. Korean dramas are also very popular along with Korean manga. During the seminar, we explored trends in modern culture as well as the portrayal of gender roles in the media.

Another compelling reason to learn about Korea is that there are 1.5 million Koreans in America, many with incredible stories, who continue to refine and advance the American Dream. At the workshop, we learned when, why, and how Koreans came to this country, but nothing could prepare me for the story of KAFE director Helie Lee. Helie’s generosity of spirit and desire to share her Korean culture were manifested in her hosting of a welcome party at her house attended by 53 fellows and other prominent people in the Korean community. This was no ordinary party with a few hors d’oeuvres and soda. There must have been 20 types of homemade Korean dishes served with 5 types of homemade kimchee, a dessert station, and a Soju cocktail bar. We knew the food was made with love as various relatives, church elders and friends were barbecuing meats and frying a variety of savory pancakes so that the food was fresh and hot. We literally had the red carpet rolled out for us in Helie’s elegant backyard. A Korean dress maker conducted a fashion show of new styles and allowed teachers to try on traditional Korean clothing. A drummer who was just designated a Living National Treasure of Korea provided the beats for a lesson in traditional Korean Dance. Helie commanded respect and loyalty from all those she touched. Four interns from South Korean Universities, a variety of U.S. student volunteers, and numerous adult staff ensured that all of our needs were met. At one point, I joked to Helie that she was very demanding of her interns to do all of their tasks perfectly. She responded, "I'm training leaders here."

After a full week witnessing Helie's leadership and vision, she told us her family’s story. In this short space I cannot do it justice, so you should read her books or watch her interview on the Oprah show if you can find it on youtube. Born in Korea, but growing up in LA, Helie spent much of her life rejecting the culture of her birth and wanting to fit in with dominant white culture in LA. She could not understand her parents and their strange ways. After many tragedies and much soul-searching she learned who she was through learning the stories of her grandmother and mother. Helie told us that “you never know who you really are until you know at least two generations.” She learned about the deep love, sacrifices, and bravery of her ancestors who risked everything to make a better life for their family. Their story involved her grandmother losing everything when the Communists (and before them, the Japanese) took over North Korea. She lost her house, property, husband, and son (or so she thought). Despite the losses, this incredible woman also built a life numerous times. She became a successful businesswoman in China and a landowner in North Korea. When she refused to relinquish her religious beliefs, she and her family walked to South Korea. Helie’s mother and father met in South Korea and decided to seek opportunity in Canada and the U.S. Through their hard work and sacrifice, they were able to establish businesses and ensure that their children became educated. The values demonstrated by Helie seem to be shared in the larger Korean culture. Time and time again throughout the workshop, we met presenters who shared the same deep core values of hard work, family devotion, and education. I was truly inspired by their intellectual achievements, capacity for friendship, and their passion to find an identity as Korean Americans and proudly share it with others.

I feel very lucky that the workshop was in Los Angeles, the city with the largest Korean community in the U.S. In 1992 the Koreatown section of Los Angeles was burned to the ground following outrage at the acquittal of four officers who beat Rodney King. Almost half the size of Rutland, Koreatown has risen from the ashes and is thriving today. Many businesses don't even need English signs since the Korean clientele is so numerous and wealthy. It was also great to return to the city where I graduated law school over 20 years ago. As a UCLA Bruin, I admit that I felt like a traitor going to classes on the USC campus. While some of my favorite places have closed, new places have taken their place. While traffic is still very congested, the air seems cleaner than 20 years ago. Some things that haven't changed are the incredible weather, cultural innovation, and fascinating ethnic and racial diversity.

I hope that some of you will join me in learning about Korean culture and history. I hope to include more Korean themes in my Asian studies-related YES plan. If anybody would like to do an independent study or Global Studies Capstone project related to Korea, please contact me.

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