42 | Eugene Y. Park, Korea: A History

My guest today is Eugene Park. Gene is a historian of East Asia, especially Korean politics and society since the 14th century. He is the Rick and Cathy Trachok Endowed Chair in International Studies and Professor in History at the University of Nevada, and is also the author of Korea: A History, which is today’s focus. Korea: A History addresses general readers, providing an up-to-date, accessible overview of Korean history from antiquity, all the way to the present.

In this conversation, we cover Korean history, Japan’s colonization of Korea, and a little about the future.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Eugene Park.

Show Notes:

[00:00:31] – [First question] – Eugene’s Background
[00:03:32] – Writing Korea: A History
[00:09:44] – Advice for young academics looking for tenure
[00:10:56] – South Korea’s success story
[00:12:37] – Attitudes towards reunification
[00:15:08] – South Korean identity and challenges
[00:18:39] – Lesson’s from South Korea’s success
[00:21:43] – Japan and Korea’s relationship
[00:27:37] – Most undervalued life experience
[00:28:51] – Influential books?
[00:31:15] – Plans going forward and wrapping up

Connect with Gene:

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Kalani Scarrott (00:31): Okay, my guest today is Eugene Park. Gene is a historian of East Asia, especially Korean politics and society since the 14th century. He is the Rick and Cathy Trachok Endowed Chair in International Studies and Professor in History at the University of Nevada, and is also the author of Korea: A History, which is today’s focus. Korea: A History addresses general readers, providing an up-to-date, accessible overview of Korean history from antiquity, all the way to the present. So in today’s conversation, we cover Korean history, Japan’s colonization of Korea, and a little bit about Korea’s future. So I hope you enjoy my conversation with Eugene Park. All right. So Gene, thank you so much for coming on today. And I’ll start with this question cause it could lead in a multitude of different ways, but for you personally, what’s your favorite period of Korea’s history?

Eugene Y. Park (01:22): Not just Korean history, but growing up as a history buff, I think I’ve always liked the ancient history also the medieval period whereas when I began thinking about going to graduate school to pursue PhD in history this was what we’re talking late eighties, early nineties, and at the time job market for Medievalist. And the ancient period especially was just abysmal. Not that they’ve gotten so much better, but that’s why I am here where I am today.

Kalani Scarrott (02:01): Have you sensed that, I don’t know, maybe with people starting to make up the term ‘Asian Century’ and stuff like that, have you sensed that the tide is starting to shift and people are getting more interested and the job market is better for Korean history and Asian history?

Eugene Y. Park (02:14): Oh, it’s much better than, say a decade ago. I remember hearing from my advisor and a senior scholars at when they’re getting their PhDs in the 1960s and seventies, that there was no job at least not Korean studies or Korean history per se. But by the end of the nineties, it began to change dramatically.

Kalani Scarrott (02:38): Yeah, fair enough. And maybe we’ll do this just for guess in case they don’t know you, but could you maybe introduce yourself a little bit and who you are, what you’re doing, and yeah.

Eugene Y. Park (02:47): Yes. My name is Eugene Park. I am a professor of history at the University of Nevada Reno. I haven’t been here all that long. I arrived here in 2020. Previously I was at the University of Pennsylvania, and prior to that I was at the University of California Irvine. So I seemed to switch jobs every 10 years or so. And by training, I’m a social and political historian of Korea, especially the early modern era. So let’s say roughly 1450 to the late 19th century. But as I mentioned a moment ago I just am interested, I’ve always been interested in history of all parts of the world regions.

Kalani Scarrott (03:32): So especially with Korea history, it’s such a big undertaking. So why write the book in the first place? What motivated you? And you’ve already written a few books before as well, so yeah. How’d you find this?

Eugene Y. Park (03:43): Yeah still there aren’t all that many English language books that I would consider based on solid research scholarship that are also readable. I mean, the one main one problem is that there is a bit of a gap, a divide between the Korean language scholarship in South Korea and the Anglophone scholarship center around the US. The gap in the sense that well those are trained in South Korea, there their English is generally limited and that those who are trained in the West, sure, they’re supposed to read stuff’s written in Korean or produced by Korean scholars, but for various reasons are not including different perspectives. There’s a gap. And so I wanted to bridge the gap as best as I could. And overall, I guess not finding any of the available English language or Korea surveys to my satisfaction, I just decided to write my own and use it for teaching.

Kalani Scarrott (04:54): No, that’s always a good excuse. Just do it yourself. If you can’t find something, it’s like me with this podcast, I’ve always wanted something like, but I never found it, so why not do it myself? So for your process, how long was the idea of starting the book to publishing? How long was that start to finish?

Eugene Y. Park (05:10): So it’s not like I started from scratch, and much of it, the book is based on the lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, but I’ve been putting together updating for years. So perhaps you could push it as far back as about 2000 when I first landed my starting assistant professor job. But in terms of really conceptualizing and the organizing the book, the way it has turned out that I started perhaps four or five years ago, I would say

Kalani Scarrott (05:46): Yeah. So in terms of conceptualizing and organizing, what does that process actually look like? Yeah, you’d mentioned pulling old slides and stuff like that, but yeah, how do you even start? Yeah.

Eugene Y. Park (05:56): Okay. I wouldn’t say I’m a very quantitative person in the sense that the sociologist or economists would use that word, but I guess compared to many of my humanities scholar, human colleagues in my humanities field before I start anything I tend to think about and break up my task in terms of chapter length how many chapters there should be and how Korean history should be divided up chronologically with how much pages should be devoted to these time periods. So yeah, that was definitely my task number one.

Kalani Scarrott (06:40): Yeah. And how do you decide on what information to leave out? Cause I bet there was, Yeah, a tonne.

Eugene Y. Park (06:46): As much as I would’ve liked this to be a detailed comprehensive reference book and I guess I’m sort of an old fashioned historian in the sense that that’s how I first laid my hands on history books. And I like these a thick, dense reference type history books the more senior scholars were producing earlier in the 20th century. But that said of course, I gotta be mindful of the readership, the market out there. So especially for the late 19th century Korean history I try to leave out things that I did not feel were central. Although I’ve been reading many comments postings by readers saying, Oh, they wish that my book were more, have provided more information on the modern era. So even then,

Kalani Scarrott (07:44): How at all did your opinion of Korea change when writing the book and researching and organizing it all?

Eugene Y. Park (07:49): I would say no, did not change fun fundamentally, but especially the ancient Korean history as I began doing some research and then looking up various subject matters, and of course the internet in this day and age is just godsend, just looking things up. I learned a lot. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to update my knowledge of the different aspects of Korean industry that I otherwise have been able to.

Kalani Scarrott (08:20): And how does it all work with the publisher? Are they pushing you to include certain things or how it should be structured or what’s their role just because, Yeah, I don’t know. So I’m curious

Eugene Y. Park (08:30): As well known that academic books monographs you don’t make profit. And so of course they’re not too thrilled. The acquisition editors definitely won’t be thrilled if you say you wanna write a thousand page book academic monographs. So yeah, they prefer something concise but at the same time, it is readable and perhaps most important about an author who will deliver on time doing the things that the editor would request. And unfortunately, as a human beings that we, academics are very tremendously when it comes to all these qualities. <laugh>. Yeah.

Kalani Scarrott (09:13): And were there any unexpected challenges or hurdles when writing a book that you didn’t anticipate?

Eugene Y. Park (09:21): No This particular book, the process I thought went quite smoothly. In fact I think for younger, more junior scholars is always getting the first book, which basically means that books that is crucial for want to get tenure. That’s just so daunting very challenging, but I think it gets somewhat easier.

Kalani Scarrott (09:44): And just quickly before we dive into Korea’s history, any advice you’d give to young academics looking for tenure and stuff? Because I’m always curious about what that whole profession track looks

Eugene Y. Park (09:54): Like. So, well, unlike more than 20 years ago when I was hitting the job market, I think now they’re more the resources mutual support groups available for untenured that junior scholars of me to get their books out. And I think Ari, such a writer, should think of the project as not some sort of brand like a masterpiece project, but rather just think of it as a, well as, I mean, think of it as a task, just something that what needs to get out of the way. And the person should never ever say that that book is a revision of the dissertation. But now the acceptable line is that this builds on and it expands the ones dissertation because basically nobody wants to read a dissertation. Definitely not the book publishes.

Kalani Scarrott (10:56): Fair enough. So let’s dive into Korea and South Korea and North Korea and everything there. So especially with South Korea and the success they’ve had, especially after being called a basket case after the war. And what do you think are the main things that South Korea’s done differently or done better than others that have allowed them to succeed?

Eugene Y. Park (11:13): I mean, the difference has to do with how these two Korean regimes originated. And as well known, South Korea was backed up by and the sponsored by the United States, whereas North Korea we’re talking the Soviet Union and the China and the way the Cold War itself played out, and the way the sin Soviet relations within that Cold War played out, basically meaning that the Soviet Union and China, they had a fallout by the sixties. This forced North Korea to pursue an independence course rather than being entirely dependent on either one of the two big communist countries and the end of the Cold War. What meant what that meant for Eastern Europe as well known is that yes, many of them, most of them transition toward the democracies. Whereas for North Korea no, the end of the Cold War meant a further isolation and also digging in deeper with a strong fortress mentality. This idea that the feeling that the North Korea is completely isolated and that the North Korean used to do whatever it can to continue what has basically now turned out be a diagnostic system.

Kalani Scarrott (12:37): And in terms of avenues for reunification, what avenues are still on the table for north and south, especially as new generations? For younger people, all they’ve ever known is South Korea. But for older generations, maybe they still have an idea or expectation of what’s possible. But yeah, is that assessment fair and correct, or how do you see that maybe playing out?

Eugene Y. Park (12:55): Yeah I think for older generations there were at least two very different attitudes toward that unification, which pretty much everyone in South Korea and North Korea were supposed to agree that is a good thing. So in the case of South, in South Korea, the two very different positions, one was that North Korean regime is illegitimate, they should not be there. And Korean people must achieve a reunification on South Korean terms that what conservative South Koreans would like to call free democracy. But what they mean by free is not liberal or libertarian. But what they mean is anti-communist, I guess a very different, a South Korean take on unification or desire for unification. And this is more left-leaning position, is that the look, Korean people were divided against their will in 1945 by the Soviet Union and the United States. And for all its awards and wrinkles, South Korea must work with North Korea at least set up a stable security framework so that the two Koreas gradually worked toward at least a peaceful coexistence, if not reunification.

But now with the younger generations, meaning people, South Koreans and their perhaps forties or younger, talk of a UN reunification is just the luxury because at many young people, young South Koreans feel that is tough enough for them looking for jobs, securing jobs, and that they don’t wanna compete with others. They don’t want more competition. And to add one more, I guess, a tidbit to this, let’s say South Korea and North Korea every now and then, talking about forming a unified team, whether it’s like Olympics, summer Olympic games or the FIFA World Cup in the seventies and the eighties yeah, most people would’ve agreed on that. But now I think especially with the younger South Korean’s, as well, so conservative, they feel that why waste or give our precious slots to these North Korean players were not as good as we are. So that’s the mindset.

Kalani Scarrott (15:08): Just curious, especially with identity, has that shifted from being Korean to maybe South Korean, especially with South Korea’s success? Is it something that younger people are very proud of and want to keep, I guess Keep going?

Eugene Y. Park (15:19): Sure. Certainly there’s a strong pride. So the phenomena, the K-pop have definitely contributed that strong the pride. One thing I’ve noticed ever since I was born in South Korea, I left in 1980 as a 12 year old. And one thing I’ve noticed living in the United States since then, and also notice about myself, is that when South Koreans first leave, travel outside South Korea they still say, Oh, I’m, I’m Korean, I’m a Korean. They feel almost bothered when they hear non Korean say, Oh, are you from also in your country? South Korea? What is that? North Korea? So, cause it is almost as if the knee jerk reactions, there’s only one real Korea, right? South Korea. So you’ll still see that a lot among academics were born and raised in South. They simply say, Oh, Korea, there’s Korea that, but what they’re really talking about is South Korea.

Kalani Scarrott (16:19): Yeah, interesting point. Never would’ve thought about that. So you mentioned a couple problems that younger people in Korea are facing. So what are some of the problems that are being faced both north and south? So fertility rates and low immigration numbers often mentioned for the south and north problems are pretty well documented, but what do you think are the key challenges that they’re facing today?

Eugene Y. Park (16:38): Oh, just the main challenge. I would describe it as first of all, entering as good a university as one can. There’s still, the competition is intense. I think a south korean high school students rate very poorly when it comes to a self-reported level of happiness. Both certainly so among the advanced economies and college degree just is not enough. And that people, young adults, that they struggle to find jobs. And not only that I mean it’s awful expensive to get married to have a family. And also there’s not enough the social or the institution I support for young married the women to give birth and continue their careers. All these things are not there. So yeah, the young adults are now just choosing not to, to have any children.

Kalani Scarrott (17:49): And for the north, maybe?

Eugene Y. Park (17:50): North Korea very different situation. In fact that North Korea as a population increased a rate of increase surpassed South Korea as quite some time ago. I think it was more than at least a decade ago, if not considerably more. But at the same time and also there is a great incentive, the reason for the North Korean state to encourage a population increase. But that said, of course the North Korean Korea economy continues to struggle. The question, of course, the fundamental question of defeating the population. And so yeah, North Korea has a two seemingly conflicting aims to pursue

Kalani Scarrott (18:39): For all of South Korea’s success that they’ve had. How much can countries copy South Korea’s model and how much can they learn from it? What do you think are the big takeaways?

Eugene Y. Park (18:48): Yeah, so in talking about South Korea as a success in a sense of it’s a economic takeoff in the 1960s yes. I think a lot of South Koreans like to pat themselves on their back and talk about somewhat more subjective, intangible qualities like a determination, the hard work the national spirit. Sure. I mean, all those things are there I think compared to many advanced Western economies Well, I’ll just stick with United States. What I find very interesting about America as different from many other western nations as well as a country like South Japan, is that there’s this whole curious phenomenon about blue color working class who are proud of just that. They drive big trucks, they wave flags and their proud supporters of former President Donald Trump. And they’re generally critical to higher education. But it’s very interesting phenomenon because as you know, in many other advanced economies and also South Korea, Japan, that’s sort of an identity that one wants to get out of.

(20:10): And so what I’m getting at is that I think for South Korean still, the education fervor is strong, that drive for that desire for upward to desire to achieve a upward social mobility. And aside from all these factors, I think that they were, Oh, that’s right. I think after Korean War, there was a very strong desire on part of Korean people, South Koreans, to strengthen the national defense and also the strengthen the economy so that the South Korea can withstand any future attack aggression by North Korea. But on top of all these things, the states of course played a key role. I don’t think without the United States, South Korea would not be where it is today. So what I mean by that is that yes, by the sixties the US have become very keen on seeing Japan and South Korea establish relations work together. So that for this American led security framework in the northeast Asia, Japan is America’s a junior partner, and the South Korea would be important, new partner. And that need, America’s need became a good stronger with America’s expanding role during the Vietnam world. So America offered all sorts of incentives, opportunities and also market for South Korean well diverting South Korean companies to do very well.

Kalani Scarrott (21:43): And you touched on Japan there. Did you wanna talk a bit about Japan’s Japan and Korea’s relationship, where it started and how it’s developed and where it is now and maybe what it’s like going forward?

Eugene Y. Park (21:53): Sure. So Korea holds some dubious distinction as a country that was a colonized by a non-western country, an immediate neighbor. And the Japan govern Korea as a colony from 1910 to 1945. One fundamental difference between how the former colonizers in the West, at least the educated population, the mainstream public, talk about colonialism and how the Japanese leadership or the majority of the Japanese think about talk about Japanese colonialism, is that I think in the West, for most educated westerners and also for mainstream public discourse, nobody’s gonna defend colonialism. It’s just not acceptable, just bad. And also there’s been, not just talk, but the efforts toward the redress Japan’s very different. There’s still, even with the mainstream political leadership the, there’s a lot of the ongoing effort to just cover it up downplayed or even say that the Japanese colonialism did all these wonderful things for South Korean, that South Korean people should be grateful. And so there, there’s a lot of that. And yeah, the common response that one might get from the Japanese politicians, Why are Koreans so just caught up in the past? How many times does Japan to apologize? We’ve apologized many times. Sure they have. But the problem is the day after someone’s quote apology, then another apology would say something that really irks or bothers or pens deeply defense agreed sensibility. So that’s where we are.

Kalani Scarrott (23:41): And I don’t know how much info you have on this, but it’s one thing I’m curious about. So when Korea was colonized by the Japanese, there was obviously Koreans that collaborated with the Japanese during the war and maybe thrived while the rest of normal everyday Koreans suffered. Do you have any insight into how those people fared post colonization, where they shun by the public? I don’t know, it’s just a small slice of life that I’m interested in.

Eugene Y. Park (24:02): Yeah, yeah. Definitely not unique to Korea. That is whether we’re talking colonial, colonial state or any establishment for that matter in order for one to do well, one must be educated and one must accept status quo and one must work with and work within that system. So Colonial Korea’s Koreans were not certainly, were not except exception in that regard, that the more educated they were more likely for them to find positions advancement, opportunity, and ultimately work with the Japanese. And especially in the Southern Korea initially occupied by the American troops in August 19 September, 1945 the American Occupation Authority was keen on working with, well, first of all, those who speak English and the first of all, and also secondly, those were committed to Anglo American style democracy and those who believed in the capitalism free market, and those were staunchly anti communist. So what this meant was that the yes, American occupation authority more or less kept and work with the educated if not the wealthy elites carried over from colonial Korea.

Kalani Scarrott (25:28): Interesting. And before I get into my closing round of questions, is there anything we haven’t talked about today that’s consequential, either about the future of Korea or anything you want to touch on or really hammer down?

Eugene Y. Park (25:38): Well, I start my book with some observations something along this line that is Korea, Korean Peninsula is a historical region with continuous recorded history, stretching back more than 2,300 years. And as such, a Korea is a historical region roughly comparable to Britain in land. Mass Britain, meaning England, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall. So in other words this whole idea, common notion that the Korea is so small, it’s like a shrimp caught between the whales like a big China and Japan, that’s somewhat a misperception. First of all, China is not a normal size country. It’s one of, it’s the third largest country in the world, Japan, in terms of this land mass comparable to Germany. But I think common dominant perception in the West, this whole idea that Japan and China have been two main actors throughout world history, it’s actually, it’s just a perception or understanding that only goes back a little over a hundred years. When in the late 19th century Japan, which was the relatively peripheral player in world history, just dramatically transformed itself as a colonial power ultimately rubbing shoulders with the big boys while China and Korea went down the path of being colonized or becoming a semi colony. So I urged my readers to just reject that notion.

Kalani Scarrott (27:27): And then closing round of questions, is there any undervalued life experiences that you think young people should have? So what do you think is a skill or an experience that maybe you wish you had earlier in life or,

Eugene Y. Park (27:36): Yeah, I regret that I didn’t get to spend, do education abroad that is spending a semester two outside the US when I was in college. But even if you can’t do that for one reason or another, it’d be great if not just the young adults, but just everybody tries to be more aware about what’s going on in the world. And I’m very proud of my children, one in college, but even the younger one in the eighth grader, he just read news throughout the day just so his smartphone is not just for video games or for entertainment, but yeah, read the news. But I suspect that most people don’t do that. I think for dance, smartphone is not for learning. And I mean, forget news. I think for a lot of people, they don’t even look things up. And in the end, people are just happy to be stuck or mired in whatever information sources that they feel comfortable and therefore political polarization in many democracies, including the us. And so, I don’t know my wish for thinking that’d be great if everybody can just pay attention to what’s going on on in the world.

Kalani Scarrott (28:51): And it’s honestly probably the greatest tool we’ve ever had in human history. You can learn languages on it, access to a great podcast videos, but yeah, it’s so easy to get caught up in whatever rabbit hole that takes you to nowhere. So for yourself, you’ve mentioned some of the earlier academic books when you were younger, reading you loved, but have there been any specific books or even people that have been influential in shaping your worldview?

Eugene Y. Park (29:13): Yeah books, Yes. When I was in high school, yeah, when I was in high school, I came across a very thick, perhaps a 600 page book on the book, The History of the Byzantine State by Russian scholar. So it certainly gave me a sense of what an academic book well research work by a professional historian at least looks like. And then I have to admit that I, I would not be where I am today as a professional historian or a university professor. Had I not met this one professor when I was an undergraduate during my junior year I took his introduction to Korean civilization course. Not only did I enjoy the course he gave me really tangible sense of not just the work, but also the life of university professor is like. And so I decided to pursue

Kalani Scarrott (30:22): That. And overall, what is the life of a university professor? Good sides, downsides?

Eugene Y. Park (30:29): The, of course being tenured or not, that makes a difference. Although I have to say that becoming tenured to is becoming investment is coming under a lot of challenge, especially in the US where I think the academia, the institutions, the higher learning in general are losing a lot of support under attack from many political conservatives. I think many institutions are moving away from the traditional tenure system, but to look at it more positively yeah, I mean, I see my job as the one where I get paid to do what I like and then not everyone can say that. Right,

Kalani Scarrott (31:15): A hundred percent. And having now completed the book, what are the plans going forward? What are you most curious about now? Yeah,

Eugene Y. Park (31:23): So I, I’m dealing with somewhat of a writer’s block and that yes, currently there, there’s a couple of book projects underway, but neither one is research monograph. So as far as the research monograph, what I’m pulling with two ideas, One is to provide a offer grand sweeping survey of a Korean families, not in terms how each family or the Kindle operates, but in terms of how certain identities, certain surnames the change over time, or how their understandings of their genealogy ancestry changed over time. So that’s one possibility. Another one is that I’ve become quite fascinated by cats in general, both the domestic cat and the wild cats. And right now in the Korean peninsula well Tigers and leopards that they’re all gone, but the duration links is, and much smaller Lepar cats are still around. And then, so I’m looking through some primary sources and see what I find.

Kalani Scarrott (32:36): No, that’s cool. And lastly, anything else else you’d like to add? Obviously plug your book, but yeah, where can people find you?

Eugene Y. Park (32:44): The people email me from time to time strangers, and I do my best to be helpful. One of my strong interest areas is a genealogy, and so I get inquiries about that quite a lot. I guess I’m, I’m very grateful for this opportunity that is giving a chance to talk about that book my career my life. So yeah, I’d like to wish you the best and I hope there are more podcasts like this.

Kalani Scarrott (33:18): Oh, thanks Gene. That honestly means a lot. And yeah, it’s the reason why I do it. So thank you for coming on today. I appreciate it.

Eugene Y. Park (33:22): My pleasure.