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Why do we study Korea?
Austrialia considers why, how to build links with Korea
Leonid Petrov (Leonid7)     Print Article 
Published 2009-11-30 12:46 (KST)   
In 2009, the Korea-Australasia Research Centre (KAREC) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) commenced a national project designed to improve Asian language education, including Korean.

The project, funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, has a Strategic Collaboration and Partnership Fund with $9.36 AUD million to grant.

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The Australian government's aim is to increase opportunities for school students to become familiar with the languages and cultures of Australia's key regional neighbors: China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea.

As the first milestone of the Project, KAREC has organized a National Strategic Conference, which was held on 19-21 November 2009 at UNSW, Sydney. On the 20th of November, there was a round-table discussion on the coverage of Korea in high school non-language subjects.

Korean Studies academics and high school teachers of Society and Environment, English and Arts participated in this discussion.

Part of the focus was on why Australians are interested in studying their northerly neighbor.

Why do we study Korea?

What motivates us, while residing in Australia, America or Europe, to invest our time, money and effort in examining the past of this small country, squeezed between the giants of East Asia? It must be our interest in Korea's dynamic present and promising future that stimulates our curiosity about its tumultuous history.

The Korean peninsula, a land bridge between the Asian mainland and North Pacific islands, for centuries possessed great strategic geopolitical significance and played the role of a middleman in cultural transmission from China to Japan. Transformed under Chinese influence, Korea itself nurtured a unique culture and independent spirit. Despite the rise and fall of local dynasties and foreign suzerains, the Korean people managed to develop and preserve their own identity throughout thousands of years of existence.

The problem, however, exists in the variety of interpretations of Korea's past, which have been adopted since 1945 in North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and other countries of the Pacific Rim. These academic traditions have developed their own particular views on the character of events which took place in Korea at different historical periods. These conflicting views create misunderstandings and often lead to full-scale "history wars."

Controversies over the representation of history in East Asia continue to damage regional relations. China, Japan and Korea have emerged as substantial economic powers known for their fierce industrial and trade competition. This rivalry can translate into a war of nationalisms, with a special place reserved for history studies. In the last decade we have witnessed several major conflicts sparked by Japanese history textbooks, the Chinese "Northeast Research Project", and UNESCO registration policies.

But as an export-oriented economy, relations with its neighbors are crucial for Korea. Even minor events on the peninsula always attract the attention and reaction of world powers. The behavior of foreign investors also depends on a sense of predictability, which can be developed only with a great deal of knowledge and first-hand experience. In such circumstances, any Korea-related subject (including history and culture) becomes essential for a successful career move or business decision.

Ultimately, a high-school and undergraduate students' motivation to study Korean history or language is usually associated with the status of South Korea's economic prospects, political climate in and around North Korea, and many other factors directly affecting regional peace and stability. In order to correctly interpret the present and predict the future of East Asia, we must know Korea well.

Practical Implementation of Korean Studies

A training approach which advocates the practical application of Korean Studies in economy and trade, politics and international relations, administration and communication can achieve a double benefit. First, it prepares the students to be better equipped for interesting and well-paid jobs, and, second, helps Korean businesses find excellent local staff and skilled consultants who will promote their export-oriented activities.

Korean business conglomerates, such as Hyundai, LG, Samsung, and Korean Air, are aggressively looking for more high-achieving bi-lingual graduates in Europe, Russia and Central Asia, and therefore, Korean Studies is booming there.

Subjects like "Korean Business Culture", "Korea as a Tourism Destination", "Korean Language for Business People", and other practice-oriented units of study, are offered at the high school and undergraduate levels, with the purpose being to create a stronger basis for closer links between those countries and Korea.

The Australian experience, in contrast, is very different. The knowledge of foreign languages here has little or no value for the local employment market. The Korean managers of the above mentioned conglomerates, when dispatched to Australia for business and trade activities, are normally fluent in English and choose local staff from many candidates with proven accounting or sales skills. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Defense, and other government agencies clearly prefer "generalists" when advertising employment opportunities. The knowledge, experience of life in and understanding of one specific country is deemed to be superfluous, or even may negatively affect the candidate's security clearance.

Against this backdrop, the student's choice to study Korea must be supported by a serious practical motivation. Only those students who excel in the studies of language, politics and economy can expect employment related to their area of study. Competition throughout the course of education will be high, preparing the students for a tough struggle for jobs in the increasingly globalizing world. Ultimately, Australian graduates will need to compete against their American, European and Asian peers, all fighting for jobs in the unpredictable environment of international politics and economy.

In crisis there is also opportunity

The socio-economic and political position of Korea, in such circumstances, is pivotal for success or failure of Korean Studies in Australia and elsewhere. When choosing a regional language, students must realize that Korea provides them with many more opportunities than, say China or Japan.

The image of Korea as the bridge or hub of East Asia can be helpful in fulfilling this task. However, the studies of language and culture form only a basis for further government-sponsored or industry-linked training.

The teaching of the Korean language should be complemented with introductions to Korean contemporary politics, cultural trends, and economic challenges. The study of controversial issues of Korean history will also stimulate students' interest in the ideological situation which has shaped Korean society and politics.

Students should be invited to discuss the prospects of the future reconciliation and reunification of the two Koreas. Country visits and exchange programs will be invaluable for creating consolidating knowledge and understanding.

Such practice-oriented training would prepare a new generation of business people, academics and civil servants possessing a solid understanding of regional affairs and languages. The ROK Ministry of Education, Korea Foundation, Australia-Korean Foundation and Northeast Asian History Foundation already provide generous scholarships and grants to those graduates who demonstrate aptitude in research. These initiatives are commendable and objectively lead to peace-building and conflict resolution in East Asia.

What we must not forget is that Australia's trade and security cooperation with Korea cannot be best served by "generalists" without the involvement of professionally trained country specialists who speak the language and understand the culture. Korea is famous for valuing trust and inter-personal links in business deals and politics. For this, human exchanges are needed to build trust; the trust would bring about cooperation, and cooperation would result in peace and prosperity.
Also submitted to The Korea Times.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Leonid Petrov

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