Review– Southeast Asian Studies in Korea: The History, Trends and Analysis

Title: 한국의 동남아시아 연구: 연사, 현황 및 분석 (Southeast Asian Studies in Korea: The History, Trends and Analysis)
Edited by: Chung-si Ahn and Je Seong Jeon
Publisher: Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2019

Southeast Asia is relatively terra incognita for most Koreans, but this does not mean that it has also undone in scholarly research. Scholarly interests on countries in Southeast Asia have been recorded since 1950. Its history is not that short to reflexively trace its footprints and plan for the future.

This book is the first but meaningful attempt to review the trajectory of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea. It also provides a comprehensive overview of Master’s and Doctoral theses , academic journals and books addressing countries of Southeast Asian Studies regardless academic disciplines – mainly published in Korean.

It consists of ten chapters. It starts with a historical review of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea  and ends with self-reflection by identifying obstacles that constrain its development. The rest of the chapters which form the main part of this book, individually review the history, trends and analysis of studies on nine countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, The Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, and on ASEAN community.

The first chapter, written by Je Seong Jeon, introduces the history of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea. It officially began as a study group on Southeast Asia in 1990, which later turned to Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS). And in parallel, the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies (KASEAS) was formed in 1992. The first-generation scholars lead Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS). They are mainly political scientists who wrote doctoral theses on Southeast Asia countries in the US universities and have returned to Korea. They called for an organised academic association, and the second generation initiated the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies (KASEAS) to respond to the request. Since then, for a decade from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Southeast Asian Studies in Korea had embraced economics, business and management, history, linguistics, anthropology, and sociology to become a national hub of Southeast Asia regional studies.

Jeon also points out a distinctive feature of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea is that the two non-university-based organisations have voluntarily led the area studies based on academic solidarity in Southeast Asia. These two organisations have deliberately fostered and supported the next generation of scholars by organising visiting programmes to Southeast Asia, reading groups, field research grants, and seminars. Heevaluates that these efforts have vastly contributed to the development of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea amid the general indifference in university-based postgraduate education. 

It is important to note that Indonesia and Vietnam are two countries that Korean researchers are most interested in. For instance, of the 58 members of the Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KISEAS), 14 are experts on Indonesia and 9 are on Vietnam, and of the 333 members of the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies (KASEAS), 25 are experts on Indonesia and 24 are on Vietnam. This trend is in contrast to Japanese context where there are more scholars working on Thailand. Besides, in terms of academic disciplines, political science is dominant, while economics make the second largest. The number of anthropologists is also growing. 

The following chapters written by country experts address the history, trends and analysis of each country: Indonesia (by Hyung Joon Kim and Je Seong Jeon) , Vietnam (by Han Woo Lee), Thailand (by Hong Koo Kim, Mi Ji Lee), The Philippines (by Bup Mo Jeong), Malaysia (by Hyung Jong Kim), Myanmar (by Yun A Oh), Cambodia and Laos (by Mi Kyung Jeong), ASEAN (by Hyung Jong Kim). These chapters include a brief introduction of the country focusing on its relationship with Korea, lists of theses, books, and statistic analysis on the research trends by reviewing Korean academic journals on Southeast Asia. These chapters also contain a diagnosis of the current problems and suggestions for future research. Notwithstanding the record of studies on countries in Southeast Asia and ASEAN community in the 1950s-60s, these authors consider the 1980s as the start of the full-fledged Southeast Asian Studies in Korea and the 1990s as flourished years with the number of studies increased in the post-Cold war. Except studies on Thailand which have considerable research output in the discipline of literature and linguistics, research on Southeast Asia has been mainly conducted in disciplines of politics and diplomacy, management and economics, and sociology. In this vein, these authors point out the limitation of research diversity and also shed light on the lack of interdisciplinary approach mainly due to the disciplinary separation between literature and linguistics, and social science. The problem of disciplinary segregation is also highlighted in the final chapter, which restates the binary of literature and linguistics and social science and adds that of humanity and social science, and natural science and engineering.

The final chapter, written by Je Seong Jeon, offers a conclusion by restating overlapped tendencies and issues shown in the country chapters and suggesting ‘diversification’ and ‘inclusiveness’ as future strategies. This chapter emphasises the necessity to revisit and rediscover the studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, which this book less focused. It requires re-unpacking several historical events (i.e. Asia-Pacific War, the formulation of the nation-state, post-colonial recovery, Indochina Wars, Bandung Conference, Non-Aligned Movement, the formation of ASEAN community and so on), which may help us to understand this period studies as a precedent studies. Jeon also highlights the fact that increasing number of theses written by international students from Southeast Asia countries in Korea. He, therefore, urges Korean academia to appreciate the students’ contribution and embrace them to expand research network.

This book is important for anyone who wants to know the history of Southeast Asian Studies in Korea and shares concerns on the future of Southeast Asian Studies. It encourages scholars of Southeast Asian Studies to take a more diverse, inclusive and interdisciplinary approach to reach out to the broader audience.

Reviewed by Minji Yoo, Research fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Jeonbuk National University

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