GWIKS Travel Grant Research: Benjamin Young

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With the help of the GWIKS summer grant, I conducted dissertation research this
summer in Seoul, South Korea that focused on North Korea’s ties to the Third World.
During the Cold War era, North Korea establish relations with many newly independent
countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as a way to undermine South Korean
legitimacy and gain power in international forums. This diplomatic offensive expanded
North Korean influence in the Third World and popularized North Korean leader Kim Il
Sung’s role as a global revolutionary figure. Using the concept of North Korea as a
“guerilla state,” that is a nation that applies guerilla warfare tactics and principles to its
foreign policy, my research in Seoul explored the multiple ways in which North Korean
became involved in the Third World and saw it as a powerful ideological force in the
Cold War world.
In South Korea, I conducted research at the National Assembly Library, the ROK Foreign
Ministry archives, the University of North Korean Studies Library, and the National
Institute of Korean History. The National Assembly Library (NAL) is an excellent site
for writing and secondary source research. It contains master’s theses and PhD
dissertations from several Korean universities, which can be difficult to find elsewhere,
and they also have a plethora of unique secondary sources. For example, I found a
fascinating book at the NAL detailing the involvement of North Korean students in the

1956 Hungarian Revolution. I most likely would not have found this book, which was
published by a South Korean press, in the United States.
The ROK Foreign Ministry archive, which is not a typical physical archive but
rather a collection of microfilm and DVDs, contains thousands of documents related to
the foreign affairs of the ROK and the DPRK from the end of the Korean War to the mid-
1980s. This proved to be the most useful resource for my dissertation research on North
Korea’s foreign policy. However, the microfilm from pre-1979 was often poor in quality
and extremely difficult to read. The library at the University of North Korean Studies
(UNKS) was also very useful. Located near Gwanghwamun, this graduate school has a
small library that houses both secondary sources related to North Korea and North
Korean propaganda materials. At this library, I found a wide range of North Korean
propaganda materials here, from recent architectural magazines to old newspapers.
Although the National Institute of Korean History (NIKH) is located an hour
away from downtown Seoul, it was well worth the trip. This institute is collecting
archival materials from all around the world related to North and South Korea and is truly
a one-stop shop for researching international histories of postcolonial Korea. The NIKH
possesses copies of archival documents from Germany, France, the U.S, the U.K,
Canada, Russia, India, Canada, Japan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
Outcome and Building for the Future
I was able to gather thousands of documents related to my dissertation and came away
from this experience ready to write my dissertation. My archival research in South Korea
also taught me about the unique bureaucratic rules of South Korean research institutions
and the importance of establishing network-based ties in Seoul with other academics.

This research will help me build a career as an expert on North Korea foreign policy as I
will use these documents for the rest of my career. Thank you for providing me with this
grant, GWIKS.


GWIKS Travel Grant Research: Soo-Jin Kweon

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

As South Korean historical drama films featuring homosexual romance transitioned from its state of underfunded indie obscurity to mainstream recognition, I began to question how queer sexualities and sex acts in these film narratives were conceptualized and interpreted. For example, Yu Ha’s 2008 period drama A Frozen Flower follows the tale of an unnamed king who forces his male lover to impregnate his wife, a story based on the historical figure King Gongmin of the late Goryeo Dynasty. Despite the historical background of the film being set in 14th-century Korea when the modern concept of “homosexuality” did not exist, South Korean moviegoers read the unnamed king’s character as unquestionably “gay”. More unusual was director Yu’s interview statement that King Gongmin was “transgender” because of his love for music, feminine attire and sexual relations with men. With such (mis)conceptions of sexuality and gender present in the growing number of queer Korean period films based not only on the Goryeo Dynasty but also Joseon and early 20th century, my interest in queer Korean film led me to travel back to my home country to conduct research on the ways in which these queer films utilize and reflect the ahistorical, essentialist Westernized concepts of sexualities and identities in contemporary South Korea.

To gain a better understanding of the historical figures and how homoeroticism and queer sexualities were understood during their time, my first visit was to Seoul National University Library in Gwanak-gu, Seoul. Of particular interest was Goryeosajeolyo, the annals of the Goryeo Dynasty, which chronicle the time during King Gongmin’s rule. The introduction to this famous king states that King Gongmin was a well-liked ruler who had the misfortune of falling into hedonism and perversion – namely fornication with his male subjects – following the tragic death of his queen. However, there is no evidence to suggest that homoerotic acts were connected to a sexual identity during the Goryeo Dynasty. Furthermore, although King Gongmin did play instruments, nowhere does it suggest that interest in music was associated with homoeroticism. In fact, scholars suggest that accounts of King Gongmin’s “homosexuality” and hedonism were exaggerated by Joseon historians who had an agenda to discredit the king in order to justify the ascendance of the Joseon Dynasty. In spite of all this, decades of media representation of the infamous King Gongmin portrays him as a noble “heterosexual” ruler who “became homosexual” due to his intense grief at having lost his beloved queen. Flower diverges from this tradition to portray him as a “true homosexual” by providing a scene where, despite the severe political pressure to produce an heir, he adamantly tells his wife that he “cannot lie with women”. In any case, these oversimplified narratives ignore the fact that King Gongmin later had a son by another woman and fail to provide factual basis for the idea that homoeroticism among men was even socially and morally condemned in Goryeo society. However, the film does allow some leeway for diverse interpretations of the characters as modern terms pertaining to sexual identity are excluded from the dialogue of the film.

To my surprise, I found that this absence of terms in the film text itself was also prevalent in contemporary films after analyzing many queer films at the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) located in Mapo-gu, Seoul. Take for example Road Movie (2002) where despite accusatory remarks such as “so you’re one of them?”, the term “gay” or “homosexual” is never brought up. While the main character Dae-shik cannot “get it up” for intercourse with Il-joo, the only woman in their initial road trip trio, it is later revealed that Dae-shik, a masculine man who frequently has sex with other men, has a young son by his ex-wife. Another example is Our Love Story (2016) where two female characters struggle to maintain their secret relationship while enduring the social pressure to find a husband. Once again, the term “lesbian” was omitted from the film. Although not all Korean queer films refrain from using specific terms that refer to sexual identities, many seem to implicitly acknowledge the difficulty of grafting Western labels onto South Korean identities.

To dig deeper into the unique aspects of South Korean queer film, I met with Kim Kyug-Tae, a recent PhD graduate whose dissertation was on the topic of homosexual relationships in contemporary Korean films. At a coffee shop near City Hall Station, Kim shared his thoughts on what sets South Korean films apart from their Western counterparts. He explained that, unlike Western films where coming-out scenes often symbolize independence, coming-out in a Korean film is seen as an act of rejecting and destabilizing the family unit. Because family is an important part of South Korean society, the negativity that stems from coming-out often dominates the narrative rather than grant liberation to the queer character. In the case of Two Sisters on the Road (2008), a film I saw for the first time at the 17th Korea Queer Film Festival in Sinsa-dong, revelations of queer identity were cut out in favor of an emphasis on family-related themes. During the Q&A session that followed the screening, Director Bu Ji-Young confirmed that more explicit scenes related to the mother and her MtF lover’s relationship had been scrapped in part due to concerns of pushback from conservative film market. Before we parted, I asked Kim his opinion on queer historical period films. After some thought, he suggested that the genre might offer up the potential of a new narrative space where contemporary obstacles of family and marriage are alleviated and Koreans films are able to push the boundaries of on-screen homoeroticism.

By the time my research abroad had come to an end, I had learned more about queer Korean film and history – my own culture and history – than I had ever thought possible. I look back on my summer in South Korea with a mixture of gratitude for the wonderful opportunity and excitement for what lies ahead. I plan to incorporate my findings in MA thesis on queer sexuality in South Korean film. I am eternally grateful for the help I received from everyone: Dr. Kim Kyung-Tae and Dr. Sohn Hee Jeong who graciously supported my research project; to Prof. McRuer for encouraging my project from the very beginning; to the lovely filmmakers, festival staff and audience members at the 17th KQFF; to everyone at SNU Library and KOFA; and, finally, to GW Institute for Korean Studies for making my research abroad a reality. Thank you all for an unforgettable summer experience!

GWIKS Travel Grant Research: Kya Palomaki

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Hi, this is Kya Palomaki.  I am in the second year of my master’s at the Elliott School, where I am studying security policy.  In March 2017, I was selected to participate in a fellowship hosted by the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in partnership with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC).  To support this endeavor, I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant from GWIKS.

I came to Korea with the intention to perform work for my upcoming capstone project.  I applied to the NEREC program because it promised to “train and nurture next-generation international leaders in nuclear nonproliferation.”  The program involved a month of lectures, plus field trips to Seoul, Gyeongju, China, and Japan to meet with policy and engineering experts.  We were to learn about nuclear engineering and nuclear security policy as well as nonproliferation, as well as participate in an academic conference and present my own research during a poster session.  My capstone groupmates and I all have interests in East Asia for several different reasons, and mine revolves around a vested interest in nuclear weapons.  I thought I could come to Korea and conduct my own research and interviews with the contacts we met with, as well as US government representatives in the region.  I also figured that I could choose a research topic that was aligned with my capstone topic.

Like most things in life, my plan did not turn out exactly as I envisioned.  A few weeks before the program, I was emailed with a pre-assigned research topic—my partner and I would be looking into the fledgling Polish nuclear power program.  I was disappointed since this topic was not even related to East Asia, which was my region of interest and the whole reason I was going in the first place!

Despite this initial setback, the fellowship ended up being a wonderful experience and I was still able to take back a lot of research for the capstone project.  During the lectures, I gained an engineering background in nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, specifically on reactor types and the front-end and back-end nuclear fuel cycle.  Although I have taken classes at the Elliott School about nuclear security policy, the different types of nuclear reactors and their associated proliferation problems were new to me.  The focus here was centered on the problems that Korea faces regarding spent fuel management, but the US was discussed in depth as not only another country with an extremely high-tech  nuclear industry, but also as an example of a country with extremely stringent safety and security measures and one with creative ways to dispose of and reprocess spent fuel.  Since my capstone will be centered on a US policy problem, the lectures that went over this information was highly useful for me.  I also hope it will aid me in applying for future fellowships.  Namely, I will be applying this year for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) graduate fellowship, which gives preference to applicants with some engineering and science background.  Though I am by no means an expert, this program will give me an edge that I otherwise would never have gotten.

The meetings we had with different Korean government and think thank leaders were also extremely valuable to my capstone project.  We got to hear perspectives that we would not have gotten any other way, especially during our frank discussions with Korean policymakers.  Best of all, we were given the contact information of out presenters at the end and were encouraged to keep in touch and ask any other questions we might think of.  Having high-level Korean contacts that are happy to speak candidly will be an invaluable resource, and I look forward to nurturing these relationships.

We also spent a lot of time talking about Korean domestic politics and public opinion, as well as US-Korea, China-Korea, and Japan-Korea relations.  This was especially eye-opening for me.  For example, I knew that Korea and Japan do not have the friendliest relations, but I had no idea that the Korean public has a more favorable view of Kim Jong-un than it does of Shinzo Abe.  I also was surprised at the relatively blasé attitude Koreans have towards the North Korean threat.  While I was here, there were two North Korean missile tests and as of August 10th, North Korea is threatening a nuclear strike on Guam.  These kinds of statements concerned me a lot when I heard them back home, but over here the attitude is just business-as-usual.  I spoke with many Koreans about this apathetic attitude, from classmates to professors to government officials, and the impression I get is that hostility from North Korea is so common that they just don’t believe it is a serious threat.  People have told me that if they took a North Korean threat of war seriously every time, they would never leave their homes so they just choose to ignore it.  It’s a position I find very stoic and I am trying to do the same thing as I sit here and North Korea threatens war.

Although I was not initially excited about my research topic, I ended up finding the experience extremely valuable and informative.  I was assigned a partner, a nuclear engineer from Korea.  We looked into the reasons that Poland might want to seek nuclear power, and proliferation issues they might face.  The research project ended up being fascinating.  We learned that in some ways, nuclear power is the last resort Poland has in order to lower CO2 emissions while preventing undue Russian influence.  Poland gets the vast majority of its power resources from domestically mined coal, which represents the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  The EU leadership has frequently threatened to fine Poland for its noncompliance with EU emissions standards; one of the simplest and quickest ways that Poland could improve these emissions would be to decrease coal use and replace it with natural gas, which would necessarily be imported from Russia due to existing infrastructure and proximity.  The prospect of increasing its dependence on Russian energy is disturbing to political leaders in Poland, who resent the thought of becoming even more dependent on Russian energy.  In order to maintain an adequate baseline energy supply, appease the demands of EU leaders in Brussels, and maintain its own energy and, by extension, geopolitical independence, Poland’s best option is to introduce plans to build nuclear power plants.  Although the actual groundbreaking date and timeline have been continually pushed back, the mere announcement of its intentions to build a nuclear power plant have, for the moment, been enough to pacify EU leaders who are frustrated with Poland’s high carbon emissions.

We also looked into the idea of nuclear latency as an unstated reason, though a side benefit, of Poland seeking nuclear power.  Poland’s fears of a resurgent Russia and an impotent EU may have left it feeling insecure, that it may soon be the target of Russian aggression with no intervening assistance from the EU.  Poland may hope to use nuclear power to deter a Russian attack by signaling that it has the ability to join the ranks of nuclear armed states.  Indeed, if a conflict with Russia lasted for an extended period of time, a nuclear power-possessing Poland would be able to assemble a rudimentary nuclear arsenal in short order—this is the foundation of nuclear latency.  Poland has not expressed a desire to build its own nuclear weapons, although Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski has espoused an interest in storing US nuclear weapons within its borders to enhance its security.  The Ministry of Defense itself distanced itself from his comments the very next day, saying that his comments “should be seen in the context of recent remarks made by serious Western think tanks, which point to deficits in NATO’s nuclear deterrent capability on its eastern flank.”  Despite the contradiction, these statements show that Poland is acutely aware of the security threats and deterrence gaps it faces vis-à-vis Russia, and suggest that Poland might be looking for alternative ways to deter an emboldened Russia.  The deterrence capability may not have been the primary or the sole reason that the Polish government decided to switch to nuclear power, but the potential positive outcomes for Poland may be an added side benefit of seeking out the technology.

We concluded, then, that Poland’s complex security environment presents challenges to its fledgling nuclear program, and may be fueling Poland’s pursuit of a nuclear power program in the first place.  The myriad technical and geopolitical challenges encountered by Poland have the potential to lead to proliferation, either licitly or illicitly, and the international community should be aware of the reasons Poland might wish to proliferate and methods to prevent it from doing so.  This topic will be useful for my future academic career, as my capstone group and I grapple with problems of nuclear security and regional tensions.  It will also improve my chances of being accepted for the NNSA fellowship, which would be the jumping off point for my career in nuclear security.  The technical knowledge I gained regarding nuclear power and nuclear weapons will be especially useful for the NNSA fellowship, which prefers applicants who already possess some technical knowhow.

GWIKS Travel Grant Research: Huong Dang

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

Industrial Policy and Economic Development: Lessons from South Korea

Hello everyone,

My name is Huong Dang and I am a student in the Doctor of Philosophy program at GW’s Department of Economics. Thanks to the summer fellowship by GW Institute for Korean Studies, I have had the chance to spend this summer in South Korea (hereafter Korea) to conduct field research for my doctoral studies on industrial policy and economic development.

Loyola Library, Sogang University
Research Complex, Sejong City

For this research project, I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to stay on campus of Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea, where I have access to the resources at the university library and the Department of Economics. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my advisor at GW, Professor Roberto Samaniego, and Professor Yoonsoo Lee at the Department of Economics at Sogang University, for their help with these arrangements for my stay in Korea.

During my time in Korea, I have managed to meet with, learn from and exchange ideas with a number of experts and professionals in the field of economics and development in Korea. I also visited the Bank of Korea Money Museum in Seoul and conducted library research to add to my literature review on the topic.

Course on Korea's Economic Development, KDI, Sejong City
Course on Korea’s Economic Development, KDI, Sejong City

Additionally, I made a few trips to Sejong city to audit a seminar series on Korean Economic Development led by Professor Hee-Yhon Song for the MPP program at the KDI School of Public Policy. The research experience was amazing, and I have gained much better insights and understanding of the economic development experiences as well as the current challenges facing the Korean economy than I had expected. New revelations and perspectives have shed light on previous gaps in the literature on Korea’s economic development experience that I had been able to gather.

Specifically, Before I came here, I was focused on the set of policies that the Korean government exercised in the 1970s-1980s that targeted industrial development and were supposed to fuel the country’s phenomenal economic success the followed the period. These policies included export promotion and import restriction, promotion of heavy and chemical industries, promotion of high tech high value industries through the preferential treatment of big firms (the chaebols) e.g. tax rebates, lower interest rates etc.

Research Complex, Sejong City
Loyola Library, Sogang University

During my time in Korea, I learned a few more things that I did not notice before. First of all, Korea had to deal with a lot of macroeconomic problems in the 1980s-1990s that resulted from that set of policies as well as the oil price shock in 1979. Overzealous promotion of heavy and chemical industries resulted in macroeconomic imbalances such as rapid growth of the money supply leading to inflation. Moreover, government interventions in the financial sector (credit rationing, preferential interest rates…) led to heavy burden of nonperforming loans and low financial deepening rate compared to other countries e.g. Japan and Taiwan.

As such, since the 1980s-1990s the Korean government has had to implement a series of trade and financial reforms along with the phasing out of industrial policy to remedy the situation. These policies include exchange rate depreciation, import liberalization, restrictive demand management i.e. restrictive monetary policy (zero-base budgeting system: everything starts from zero base) and tight fiscal policy, implementation of freer external capital flows, industrial restructuring (e.g. reducing number of firms in certain industries such as shipping industry…), privatization and managerial innovation, price stabilization for daily necessities etc.

With this set of stabilization policies, the Korean economy started to stabilize, a recession was avoided and policy credibility of government was improved.

However, there seemed to be certain negative side effects of Korea’s early set of industrial policy that have turned out to be quite problematic. The dominance of large conglomerate firms in both the economic and public policy climate of the country that arose as a result of this set of policies from the mid-1970s resulted in severe advantages for the development of the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector. Korea has become known to be so chaebol-dominated that this feature stands out as a contrast with other Asian tiger economies like Japan and Taiwan where SMEs have been consistently playing a much more important role.

Since the 1980s, the Korean government has implemented a series of efforts to support SMEs, however, there is little evidence whether these policies have been effective. There are some trends in the development process of SMEs in Korea as follows: growing share in employment in the 1950s, which steadily declined from the early 1960s to late 1970s, after which it started to rise again until 1990s. Since the mid-1990s the trend has stalled or even been reversed.

The reason why I mentioned this declining performance in SMEs is that this imbalance between the role and dominance of large chaebols and SMEs is supposed to be one of the factors responsible for the severe situation of youth unemployment in Korea. Through literature review and also informal discussions with people here, I have learned that the quality and competitiveness of SME jobs is a main issue for youth unemployment. Young people with good university education would prefer to find jobs with one of the big companies or with the government, which would promise them better pay and more job security.

Therefore, it seems to me there are things for currently developing countries to learn and unlearn from the lessons of Korea: industrial policy should target the sectors that are highly competitive in order to further promote competition and motivate firms to innovate. By creating monopolies in a wide range of sectors, the Korean government has subsequently limited the space for growth of the SME sector. Industrial policy, if exercised recklessly, can cause serious macroeconomic imbalances, hurt the banking sector and worsen employment situation. This is something I would like to go further into especially for Vietnam.