Historical Dynamics of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea

JEON Je Seong

2.  Establishing  a Nationwide  Research  Organisations

An irreversible accomplishment in the 1990s by Korean Southeast Asianists is the establishment of a nationwide research organisation. Specifically in 1990, five scholars including Professor Sa-Myung PARK (from Kangwon National University’s Political Science Department) and Professor Yoon Hwan SHIN (from Sogang University’s Political Science Department), who received their PhDs between 1988 and 1990 and thereafter returned to Korea, organised the Dong Nam Ah Jeong Chi Yeon Gu Hoi (Study Group on Southeast Asian Politics) — viewed as a momentous event for Southeast Asian studies in Korea. This small group organised weekly study sessions and translated key books on Southeast Asia. Over a year-and-a-half, the membership expanded to 16, even though it did not have office facilities and research fund.

It was at this time that the first-generation scholars including Professor Chung-Si AHN proposed, with the support of second-generation scholars, the establishment of the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies on 29 June 1991. Professor AHN asked Professor SHIN to be a coordinator of a steering committee for the Association. The first Chairman, Professor Sung-Joo HAN of Korea University’s Political Science Department, suggested the Korea-ASEAN academic exchange programme, which has been an important activity of the Association, as well as annual academic conferences. The Association has also published the Dong Nam Asia Yeon Gu (Southeast Asian Studies Review) since 1992.

Diploma and graduating cap

The second-generation scholars not only actively planned activities for the Association, but further transformed the Study Group into the Dong Nam Ah Ji Yeok Yeon Gu Hoi (old version of KISEAS: Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The 24 founding members came not only from a political science background, but also from the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, linguistics, economics and management studies. The Institute could be distinguished by its strict membership policy from other scholarly organisations. For example, a new member needs to be initially recommended by a current member(s), and the application has to be agreed upon by at least two-third of present members in a general meeting that is attended by at least half the total members. If a member does not participate in at least half the monthly meetings, (s)he is subject to a vote for membership dismissal. This strict membership policy has been maintained at the Institute.

Activities of the Institute are also recognisable by its fresh ideas, programmes and fruitful results. There are five main activities: monthly presentations, collaborative publications, field trip, public education, and organisation of graduate students. Its monthly presentations have been held for over 20 years continuously. Open only to its members, they present pre-publication papers and hold long discussions over the meetings. These have helped improve the papers and the communication of members across disciplines and specialties. Publication activities were not just confined to translations of major works, but also extended to collaborative original works. The Institute published several original and collaborative works in Korean on Southeast Asian political change, party politics, political leadership, political economy, society, culture and religion. The collaborative field trips to Southeast Asian countries have provided a good opportunity for the members not only to understand the region but also to consolidate the membership among them. The public education programme on Southeast Asia sought to educate prospective expatriate employees dispatched to Southeast Asia or graduate students wanting to major in Southeast Asian studies.

In retrospect, the most important programme was that for graduate students which aimed to foster next-generation scholars. The Institute accepted 10 graduate student members through the recommendation of members within a year of its establishment. The Institute helped and sponsored graduate students to organise seminars, which were supervised by its education director. More importantly, the Institute treated these graduate students not just as students but colleagues. Graduate student members could take part in all the activities such as monthly seminars, field trips, collaborative research and translation projects. They were granted full privileges of the Institute except for voting rights in the general board meetings. Members were also willingly responding to advisory requests for the graduate student seminars (Jeon and Lee, 2008). The educational programme for graduate students has made a decisive contribution to the emergence of third-generation scholars and their solidarity with the second-generation scholars.

Resource mobilisation, just like in other organisations, is a very important factor in an organisation’s development. Second-generation scholars, since the inauguration meeting, only needed to pay annual membership fees until 2003. Despite that, the Institute could engage in diverse activities and remained financially stable for over 10 years. A major reason was that it could secure financial contribution from external sources through active efforts of the members. First, the Daewoo Foundation’s study group grant was small but important financial source in the initial stage. Second, the Twenty-First Century Korea Foundation of the Hanjin Group (Korean Airline Co.) provided unconditional support for five years from 1993 to 1997, which helped in the consolidation of the organisation (Interview with Yoon Hwan SHIN on 10 February 2006). Since then, the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) has provided the seminar facility for the Institute’s monthly presentations.

Lastly, the Consortium for East Asian Studies, which received grants from the Korea Research Foundation (KRF), made direct and indirect contributions. Professor Shin, then Director of the Institute for East Asian Studies of Sogang University, organised the Consortium with over 60 area specialists on China, Japan and Southeast Asia, and successfully secured mega-sized research projects, as well as the largest grant for humanities and social science projects in the Foundation’s history. The two-year Consortium’s Southeast Asia research section was entirely compiled from the KISEAS’ members. They could publish six volumes of books on politics, economics and socio-cultural studies on Southeast Asia based on fieldwork. Participation in the Consortium also provided a critical leap forward for Southeast Asia research institutions, which will be discussed in next chapter.

 3.  Increasing  and  Diversifying  Research 

Visible accomplishment has also been made in research outcomes since the 1990s. Surveying the Southeast Asian Review, the official journal of the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies, shows vividly a quantitative increase in articles, improvement in research methods and diversification of topical areas and subject countries. Contributions rose to the extent that the journal has been published twice a year since 2000. Table 3 shows that case studies still comprise a majority of the articles but efforts at generalisation have also risen in comparison with the past. The most remarkable indicator of development is fieldwork-related publication. In the earliest issues of the journal, fieldwork-related contributions were less than one-third of the total. From year 2000 onwards, this has increased to about half the total contributions. Considering the critical role of fieldwork in area studies, this can be viewed as an indicator of qualitative advancement of Southeast Asian studies in Korea.


Since the 1990s, there has been more research in the subfields of domestic politics, society, culture and linguistic studies as well as cultural studies conducted by anthropologists, which differs from the first-generational scholars’ concentration on international relations, economics and Korea-related works.

Table 4 also shows diversification of countries studied: Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia which have been preferred in the earlier stage, and now studies are conducted on other countries less examined in the past. In particular, works on Thailand and Malaysia have increased faster than others. These five countries have become the most studied in Korea. On a smaller scale, works on Singapore, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia have begun. As a whole, the trends of Southeast Asian studies in Korea show clear expansions in research topics and cases.


The  Emergence  of  the  Third  Generation?

1.  Identity  of  the  Third  Generation

As  mentioned  earlier,  the  second-generational  scholars  declared  their  emergence.  We  have yet  to  witness  that  for  the  third  generation.  If  so,  have  they  arrived  yet?  Interestingly,  it  is the  second-generation  scholars  who  recognised  the  possible  emergence  of  their  successors.

We may regard young PhD holders as the third generation, though they have a weak identity as such. Most of the second-generation scholars, though they wrote their dissertations on Southeast Asia, based their works on secondary sources rather than visits and conducting fieldwork (Interview with Yoon Hwan SHIN on 30 December 2006).

When we came back to Korea, after completing our PhD, we were not sure of conducting independent research on Southeast Asia by ourselves. It was a reason why we started the reading group and translation projects. These days, young PhD holders have the capacity to conduct independent fieldwork and run into the field. They even publish their dissertations in major foreign publications in English (Interview with Sa-Myung PARK on 3 January 2006).

According to their remarks, the third-generation scholars are closer to area specialists than the second-generation ones. Completing their dissertations with fieldwork and native sources, third-generational scholars contributed to the diversification and localisation of papers in the Southeast Asian Review. These third-generation scholars are in their late 30s and early 40s, and make up about 40% of active members of the KASEAS. Professor Seung Woo PARK, Coordinating Director of the Association, surveyed and received replies from 67 active members of the Association. According to the survey, 14.9% of them were aged 55 or older, 41.8% were between 45 and 54 years old, and 40.3% were between 35 and 44 years old. Among them, 64% were university professors and 4% were full-time researchers, but 25% were either part-time lecturers or contracted researchers (Park, 2004). Most of the third-generation scholars joined the KISEAS from year 2000.

The ‘internationalisation’ of research may be as an indicator of a new generation. Some new PhD published their dissertations through foreign publishers (In-Won HWANG, 2003; Byung Wook CHOI, 2004) for the first time, and some (for example, Yeonsik JEONG, Junguk CHOI, Dong-Yeob KIM, Nankyung CHOI, and Je Seong JEON) had articles published in internationally referred journals. Another obvious characteristic of a third-generation scholar is purpose-consciousness. They began their courses when the second-generation scholars had teaching jobs in Korean universities, and have been influenced by seniors in their area of study. Many of them went to graduate school to study on Southeast Asia. They were therefore not ‘accidental’ but ‘purposive’ students.

2.  Establishment  of  the  Research  Organization  based  on  Hard  Solidarity

The third generation proposed, planned and managed the transformation of the research institute into a legally based organization, new version of KISEAS (Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Stduies). A critical moment was when most of them took part in Consortium on East Asian Studies from August 2002 for two years, as mentioned earlier. Employed at the Consortium, most had to have daily face-to-face interactions for cooperation and collaboration on the projects, which led to lively discussions and debates on the transformation and management of the Institute.

Young researchers then felt the need to have an organisation which can accumulates their ‘products of labor’ on a ‘permanent’ basis, rather than a ‘temporary’ Consortium. By taking part in the Consortium, they built up the capacity and learned ways to mobilise the resources from the Korea Research Foundation (KRF), which subsidises overhead costs and expenses for full-time researchers and research assistants. This was the first hurdle in the transformation of the voluntary research organization (old version) into a formal and registered research entity (new version, 法人), to apply for research grants by the Korea Research Foundation.

Among the new younger members, Dr. In-Won HWANG was the most enthusiastic about the plan for reestablishment of the Institute. He persuaded me of the need, though I initially thought it was too early for this because of the low level of communication among young PhD holders. I took on the role for the establishment of new version of the Institute. When 10 young members held the first steering meeting, I named the gathering ‘hungry young Turks’, because the participants were all ‘contract worker’ and younger than the second generation. This could be the first naming about the identity of the third generation by itself thus far. Dr. Seok-Joon HONG of Mokpo National University, played a bridging role by strongly supporting the idea of transforming the Institute.

Following the proposal of the third generation on the transformation of the Institute, the second-generation scholars agreed to take up their roles, which dissolved the ‘old’ KISEAS and established the ‘new’ KISEAS. On 13 December 2003, a general meeting to establish the new KISEAS, Han Kuk Dong Nam Ah Yeon Gu So, was convened. In the next year, they realised its registration as a legally-approved independent organization by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This transformation was to change a ‘softsolidarity’ organisation into ‘hard-solidarity’ one with an office and library space, hierarchical structure, and management and account systems complying with the relevant laws.

In fact, the establishment of KISEAS was the dream of the second generation. Their wish was reflected in the naming of the old organisation as KISEAS, adopting the name from ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore). Their long-lasting wishes could be on the track to realisation by the proposal and active participation of the third-generation scholars. Despite the change in the Institute’s Korean name from Dong Nam Ah Ji Yeok Yeon Gu Hoi (동남아지역연구회: 東南亞地域硏究會) to Han Kuk Dong Nam Ah Yeon Gu So (한국동남아연구소: 韓國東南亞硏究所), the Romanisation of the name remained as such.

Considering  the  fact  that  most  research  institutes  were  established  by  grants and support from government sources or universities, the experience of KISEAS is distinguishable. About the half of Institute members contributed their money for seed funding. The Institute successfully secured costs for the office maintenance and the employment of full-time researchers and research assistants through ‘bottom-up’ research projects from the Korea Research Foundation, which was unusual for non-university-based research institutes in Korea. The Institute also cooperated with the KASEAS (Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies) to receive the project from the Korea-ASEAN Academic Exchange Fund, which required the consent of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the ASEAN Secretariat. This helped the Institute to secure additional funds and grants for the consolidation of the organisation.

Congratulations graduates

Waiting  for  the  Third  Generation’s  Manifesto

The emergence of the third-generation scholars and the reformation of the Institute should not be regarded as a happy ending of the story yet. Inauguration of the Institute has brought the challenge of maintaining a ‘hard’ organisation for its operation to researchers who have been accustomed to a ‘soft’ organisation. In other words, a soft organisation has a low ratio of input to output, while a hard organisation requires a certain level of minimum input such as resources for maintenance. A hard organisation requires a high level of administrative capacity, resource mobilisation, disciplines and consensus of its members. Based on this viewpoint, I would like to end this essay by suggesting some future challenges for the third-generational scholars in Korea.

1.  Organic  Intellectuals

In general, local language fluency and fieldwork experience have often been regarded as prerequisites of an area specialist (Rhee et al., 2004: 8). However, I think we should add another characteristic of ‘organic intellectual’ for specialists in areas often categorised as ‘minor’. We, Southeast Asia area specialists, should take the roles and the attitudes of “organic intellectuals”, who can play the part of “constructor, organiser, and permanent persuader” as minority researchers for the advancement of research and building of research communities. Organic intellectual is the term used by Antonio Gramsci in Prison Notebook. If we modify the implications of the term, we may use it as a model for Southeast Asianists. Gramsci distinguished traditional intellectuals from organic intellectuals. Organic intellectuals, in comparison with traditional intellectuals, are more organised, and can be understood as a group rather than individuals. They orientate towards practical and counterhegemonic intellectuals rather than towards the status quo (Burke, 2006). I refer to the term ‘organic’ as having character and capacity which will induce interlinked cooperation of all

Looking at the history of the first and the second generations, there have been some organic intellectuals who have not only actively participated in research activities but have also organised and mobilised the resources. Unconditional support from private foundations has proved critical in the formation of institutions and development of research but those who have committed to mobilising them should not be forgotten. Without their labor in producing public goods, consolidation of the research institute would not be possible.

However, the labor should not just be conventional. It should also aim to go beyond the conventional divisions of universities, schools and disciplines in social sciences and humanities, but also include other fields such as environmental and forestry studies. The exchange should not just extend to governmental and corporate organisations, but also to diverse non-governmental organisations, which advocate exchange and solidarity in Asia. By doing this, we may raise the utility of the knowledge we produce and further facilitate the development of Southeast Asian studies in Korea.

We should also pursue organic solidarity across the generations. Development of research institutes of Southeast Asian studies in Korea has been characterised by ‘eclectic development by generations’. Solidarity between the first and the second generation resulted in the formation of the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies; that between the second and the third generation produced the Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The second-generational specialists received the call of collaboration from the first generation who waited the area specialists. The third generation was either nurtured or warmly greeted by the second. At the same time, the newer generation takes up the central roles in academia and activities, which further facilitates the development of a scholarly society. I would like to stress the need for a forward-looking self-consciousness of the third generation for the future development of Southeast Asian studies in Korea.

2.  IR  Area  Specialists

We should also have organic capacity in resource mobilisation not only domestically but also internationally. Southeast Asian studies in Korea should aim to be more international. For swift capacity-building, we may use lessons from Japanese experiences as reference. Japanese Indonesianist Takashi Shiraishi (1994) selectively translated works of Japanese scholars that possessed originality into English, thereby introducing Japanese works on Southeast Asia to the world. I think similar efforts of translation from Korean authors into English would be worthwhile efforts for the internationalization of Southeast Asian studies in Korea.

A final comment regarding future development is about hybridization. The third generation may play a continual role in activities with the area studies tradition, but it should also be able to hybridize the traditions of the first generation which emphasized international relations (IR) studies and those of the second which pursued comparative studies. Especially, the current situation mandates hybridization of international relations studies and area studies. A senior scholar in Southeast Asian studies, Ruth McVey, argued that globalization resulted in the marginalization of Southeast Asian studies (McVey, 1998). However, the situation in Korea at present does not seem to support his argument. Globalization in East Asia has accelerated the regional cooperation between Korea and Southeast Asia in response to the trans-border crisis in the region.

To actively engage in the further development of East Asian regional cooperation, Southeast Asianists need to be ‘reform’ as “IR (International Relations) area specialists” (Moore, 2004). An IR area specialist refers to an area specialist who has the capacity for conducting research on the issues of international relations, besides his role in the conventional sense. These scholars can contribute to real and practical applications of international relations by combining theories of international relations with local knowledge. This will prove the value of area studies in the contemporary era. Emerging East Asian regionalism and the undercurrent of transnational issues in East Asia, for example, economic development, financial crises, avian influenza, terrorism, separatism, refugee issues, migration, natural disaster, history textbook controversies, international solidarity of social movement and spread of democracy, urgently need IR area specialists.

I call for organic intellectuals and IR area specialists to be models for the new generation of Southeast Asian specialists in Korea, whose roles still seem to be as a marginalized minority in academia, despite surprising developments in the field. The organic intellectual model can consolidate the research community. The IR area specialist model can provide a productive tool for a breakthrough in seemingly unfavorable research environments.

JEON Je Seong
Chonbuk National University

* This essay is a revised and updated version of “Dynamics and the Future of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea: Waiting for a Manifesto of the ‘Third Generation’.” East Asian Studies (Dong Ah Yeon Gu) No.50 (February 2006) published by the Institute for East Asian Studies at Sogang University in Seoul. The author would like to thank Ms SUH Jiwon, a PhD candidate at Ohio State University for her assistance in data collection, and Dr. KIM Jeehun, a HK Professor at Sogang University, who helped translate this essay into English. The responsibility for any errors or omissions is mine.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 11 (March 2011). Southeast Asian Studies in Korea

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