Q&A with Eugene Y. Park

Around 100 years ago, the Korean peninsula was forgotten by the rest of the world—literally forgotten, lost in the might of the Japanese Empire.

Almost as soon as Korea began opening its ports in the late 19th century, entering into relations and signing modern treaties with various nations around the globe, the peninsula was colonized by Japan.

“In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, and Korea became part of the Japanese Empire,” says Eugene Y. Park, the Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies. “So for the next few decades, there was no reason for anybody to talk about Korea or care about Korea. It was just part of Japan.”

With the defeat of the Japanese Empire at the end of World War II and subsequent advent of the Cold War, Park says Korea “began to slowly enter into everybody’s consciousness.”

The United States and Soviet Union, victors during the Second World War and emerging superpowers, divided the peninsula into a north and south along the 38th parallel. Korea remains divided today.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Park came to the United States at age 12 and grew up in Southern California. He came to Penn in 2009 after spending nine years at the University of California, Irvine.

While he still considers Southern California home, and has friends and family members there, Park says he was attracted to the “sense of history, that you’re surrounded by and reminded of history” afforded by Philadelphia and Penn.

“My wife and I were always looking for a way to move to the East Coast,” he says. “In that sense, we’re very unusual Californians.”

The Current sat down with Park to discuss Korea, past and present, unification and Cold War creations, and rumors of nuclear war.

Q: Your family came to the United States in 1980. What do you recall about the experience?
A: When I arrived, I didn’t know English. In fact, the first month or so is sort of a memory blackout for me. I guess when you don’t know what’s going on verbally, it affects your memory. I remember that after about three months, I felt like I was starting to communicate at a basic level. By the time I was here six months, I finally felt like I could get by.

Q: You studied history as an undergraduate at UCLA, and received your master’s in East Asian regional studies and your Ph.D. in East Asian languages and civilizations from Harvard. Did you have an interest in history at an early age?
A: Even when I was a kid. As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved history. Initially at UCLA, I started out as an electrical engineering major, mainly because my parents just could not see how an 18-year-old could make a living with a history degree. Engineering was sort of the default option for me because my father had studied chemical engineering.

Q: What drew you to East Asian history?
A: Actually, I was more interested in Medieval European history, especially Byzantium, but once it was time for me to choose a field to apply for graduate school, the history professors around me more or less advised me against going into Medieval European history by saying that the job market is not good, whereas for East Asian history, specifically Korean history, the future job market was expected to be quite good.

Q: Were these history professors accurate in their advice?
A: Yes. I hit the job market just at the right time.

Q: You specialize in the social history of Korea since the 17th century. I presume that for many Americans, the history of Korea probably begins with the Korean War. Can you talk about the history of Korea before the peninsula was colonized by the Empire of Japan?
A: Before colonization, Korea had been a single, united, independent state with a relatively homogenous culture for a millennium. So by any standard, that’s a remarkable record considering that, for example, a lot of European countries, such as Germany and Italy, did not even emerge as a united country until the 19th century. I always emphasize to my students that although today in the West many tend to think of Asia as mainly China and Japan, we need to think of Asia before the age of imperialism as a gigantic China at the center, surrounded by and influencing much smaller entities like Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and others. In fact, Japan’s prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, going no further back than, say, 140 years.

Q: Before colonization, was Korea unified or was there an unofficial north and south?
A: Since the 10th century, Korea had been an independent kingdom ritually recognizing the superiority of the Chinese empire by submitting tributes. For the most part, a Chinese dynasty rarely interfered with Korea’s internal affairs. Of course, throughout its history, Korea was strongly influenced by the Chinese civilization, but then it was a shared, universal civilization in eastern Eurasia at the time in the same way, for example, that the Greco-Roman civilization continued to influence the West throughout history.

Q: You previously taught a course called ‘Korea’s Military Tradition.’ Has the peninsula always been heavily militarized?
A: No. Compared to China, the Middle East, and Europe, for example, Korea enjoyed remarkably long stretches free of warfare with another power. For instance, between 1637, when the Manchus invaded Korea for a second time, and the late 19th century, there was no war with a foreign power. That’s more than 200 years. It’s harder to find a stretch like this in the history of China, the Middle East, or Europe. Understandably so, Korean civilization, at least for a few centuries prior to colonization, idealized civil or literary culture over anything martial. It was the opposite of how in Japan, being a warrior was an integral part of elite culture after centuries of internal warfare in the Middle Ages.

Q: South Korea is now one of the world’s great democracies, but is it accurate to say that South Korea was a military dictatorship until the 1980s?
A: Yes. In 1961, there was a military coup. That’s when a series of leaders from military backgrounds began governing the country, and it only ended in 1988 with a president who was chosen by direct popular election—although I have to add that that president, too, was actually a former general. After 1961, South Korea did not get a directly elected president with a pure civilian background until 1993.

Q: Was this a peaceful transition, from a military dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy?
A: I would say relatively peaceful in the sense that in ’87, there was a nationwide protest as the people took to the streets. It peaked in June of that year. These protests were sparked by a series of deaths resulting from brutal interrogations and tortures by the police, and the outraged people began demanding direct presidential elections, which had not been held since 1971. In the end, the military-background president at the time gave in and agreed to a constitutional change allowing direct elections.

Q: What’s your take on the current situation on the Korean peninsula? Is it as serious as it has been portrayed in the media or has the situation been overblown?
A: Fundamentally, it is nothing new. It happens every spring when the United States and South Korea carry out a massive joint military exercise, essentially a war game, and North Korea has all the reasons to feel irritated, if not threatened. All the same, the North Korean rhetoric and actions this year are unusually aggressive, mainly due to the leadership change. That is, North Korea has a relatively young leader, Kim Jong-un, who needs to show his country and the people that he’s in charge, protecting the nation against hostile foreign powers. So fundamentally, what North Korea has been doing the last several weeks is for domestic consumption and to bolster its position internationally so that ultimately, all concerned parties can sit down and negotiate on what North Korea wants.

Q: So you’re not worried at all that all this rhetoric and actions could lead to war, or even nuclear war?
A: No. My wife and I, with our two little kids, visit South Korea every summer, and we’re not canceling our trip this summer—at least not as of now. At the least, an all-out war is almost impossible, though a small skirmish is possible. For example, in 2010, a South Korean island off the shores of North Korea was barraged by North Korean artillery. Something like that is possible.

Q: All-out war is almost impossible because it’s not in North Korea’s interest?
A: Not just North Korea’s; the stakes are high for all other concerned parties, especially South Korea, China, Japan, and the United States.

Q: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is only 30. Is he just a figurehead or is he genuinely in charge of the country?
A: Evidently he is in charge, although there’s some speculation on the degree. Is he completely in charge or is he being heavily influenced by his aunt and uncle? Most Korea observers somewhat cynically ask, ‘Who really knows what’s going on in North Korea?’ After all, it’s one of the most isolated, closed-off countries in the world, and reliable information is hard to come by.

Q: Do you have any sense about how the North Korean people feel about Americans, even if they disapprove of the U.S. government?
A: The North Korean population is probably the most insulated one in the whole world. The North Korean government does not allow free internet access or the use of mobile devices, and the state strictly controls the media. Reportedly, many North Koreans who live closer to the Sino-North Korean border communicate with those on the China side. Korea observers tend to agree that, as time passes, the North Korean population can only learn more about the outside world through word of mouth. In fact, South Korean dramas, movies, songs, and other cultural products are being circulated illegally inside North Korea.

Q: Do you think you will see unification in your lifetime?
A: Probably, because time is not on North Korea’s side. The often-raised question is, ‘Why can’t North Korea just interact with the rest of the world, pursue a Chinese-style economic reform, and become a more affluent country?’ The problem with all of that is if North Korea ever were to do that, then the North Korean regime or its hold on power will suffer. Since the Korean War and especially since the end of the Cold War, the regime has been surviving by presenting itself to its own population as the protector against the hostile powers, the United States and South Korea.

Q: How much of the problems on the peninsula do you think are the fault of the United States and the former Soviet Union?
A: Historically, the United States played the most critical role in creating the situation. Because I’m a historian who’s interested in long-term changes, I take it as far back as the early 20th century when the United States unilaterally supported the rise of the Japanese Empire, which went on to take over Korea, Manchuria, and parts of east and south China by aggression. Many would say that my take on America’s role in creating the current situation in Korea is unfair, but I think the more prudent American statesmen at the time with long-term vision should have known better than to let Japan have its way. Before colonization by Japan, Korea had been making real progress building a modern nation-state. Precolonial Korea’s own modernization effort saw a budding civil society in which people argued over ideas, with a wide range of civic organizations emerging. The Japanese colonial rule basically swept all of that under the rug, thus thwarting the development of Korea as a modern, democratic nation-state. And once the Japanese were gone in 1945, Korea was a society brimming with a wide range of ideas and visions about the country’s future, but without mature decmocratic institutions for the people to sort things out peacefully when the Soviets and the Americans came along. Between the Soviet Union and the United States, I would say the United States was more responsible for creating the current situation because toward the end of the Second World War, when the Soviets were in a good position to occupy the entire Korean peninsula, the United States proposed to divide the region into two occupation zones—even though the American troops were still far away from Korea. What happened is that [former Soviet leader] Joseph Stalin, who certainly did not want to be left out [of the spoils of World War II], declared war on Japan at the last minute. Soviet troops were sweeping their way down through Manchuria and Korea, and almost out of panic, some U.S. State Department officials decided to gamble—since they had little to lose—by proposing that the Soviet Union and the U.S. divide Korea, although the officials were doubtful that the Soviets would accept. Since Stalin did not want to stretch his resources in the Far East, the Soviets accepted the proposal to the pleasant surprise of the Americans. For the next couple of years or so, the two superpowers negotiated on setting up a unified Korean government, but it just didn’t work out as each had its own preferred leaders and groups for independent Korea. Three years later, in 1948, two Korean regimes emerged on the Korean peninsula, each backed by its own sponsor superpower. The Korean War erupted when Kim Il sung, the North Korean leader, concluded that he could conquer South Korea easily because by then the United States had publicly announced that both Taiwan and South Korea were beyond America’s defensive perimeter in the Far East. And assured of receiving weapons from Stalin and troops from China’s Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung launched an all-out attack against the South. In history, wars tend to begin when the aggressor-power believes that it can achieve its objectives in a decisive fashion. But as it turned out, the Americans intervened once the Korean War started.

Q: Tell me about the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies. What are its goals and mission?
A: Thanks to James Joo-Jin Kim, whose gifts have endowed the Kim Program in Korean Studies, we’re in a position to build a competitive, bigger program in Korean studies. We are, one by one, implementing different components of the program, and the word is out. Among professors, graduate students, and undergraduates who are interested in Korea, an increasing number now know that Penn is building up a quality program. In fact, the number of applicants and the quality of the applicant pool is steadily improving.

Q: Each year, you also teach as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Seoul National University’s International Summer Institute and in the Penn-in-Seoul Summer Abroad program. What does Penn-in-Seoul offer students?
A: As a Penn Summer Abroad program, Penn-in-Seoul allows a Penn undergraduate to do an internship and take courses at Seoul National University’s International Summer Institute. As the director of Penn-in-Seoul, each year my staff and I secure internships for participating students, as well as work closely with Seoul National University to make sure that all goes smoothly for the participants with their coursework. Actually every Penn-in-Seoul student is required to take “East Asia: Past and Present,” which I teach at the university and is also open to other students from all over the world. It’s a Penn-rostered course, meaning that it counts as a Penn course for our students. Not just the credits transfer, the actual letter grade appears in the transcript.

Q: You are currently completing your second book, ‘A Family of No Prominence: The Descendants of Pak Tokhwa and the Birth of Modern Korea, 1590–1945.’ What is it about?
A: The book is about my paternal grandfather’s family. I started doing this because I’ve always been interested in trying to find out who my paternal ancestors were because I knew my father’s family knew so little about their family or their ancestors and what they were doing before the 20th century. Finally, as a historian, about 10 years ago, I found out through my own research who they were, and I concluded that this whole process of finding who they were and also who they turned out to be had intellectual implications. I thought the whole process and who they were really explained why the descendants lost memory of their ancestors. It has a lot to do with the family’s social status before the modern era and how Koreans in the modern time have come to deal with their status anxiety, and also, I guess, inventing traditions for thinking about the past. I thought that my project had intellectual implications that I would like to share with a broader audience.

Eugene Park