July 4th, 2017
Junior Researcher 2016-17
Can you provide a small bio that outlines your hometown and education background?
I grew up in Escondido, California and majored in Art History at UCLA. After a brief stint working in the art world in New York City I came to Incheon to teach English, which is how I became interested in Korean language and history. After two years working in South Korea I completed a masters at Harvard’s Regional Studies East Asia program, and am currently a PhD candidate in the History Department at Stanford University.
Can you briefly tell us about your research?
I look at city growth and social change during the 1960s and 1970s, a time in which South Korea underwent rapid development, shifting from a rural to urban society. My focus is on the history of Seoul, which was the largest center of rural-urban migration and quadrupled in size during these decades. This is an important area to study because we see some of the most contentious questions in South Korea today – such as the relationship between development and inequality, and the relationship of the government to urban voters and urban protest – emerge for the first time in a big way. My dissertation looks at these questions from two main angles: the rise of shantytowns and the political struggles around their existence, and the development of the Gangnam region.
Junior Researcher 2016-’17
Can you provide a small bio that outlines your hometown, education background, and a fun fact?
I was born and raised in Rochester, New York. I went to a public high school and then attended The College at Brockport, State University of New York, which is a small state school located 20 miles outside of Rochester. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SUNY Brockport and I’m now pursuing my PhD at George Washington University in DC. I’m very proud to be from Western New York (which is not New York City!) and I’m still quite close with my high school buddies. One fun fact about myself (more like a weird fact about myself) is that I memorized the nicknames of all Division 1 colleges when I was a kid and, for some odd reason, I still remember them. I could have learned something useful, like Chinese, but instead I memorized nicknames of college sports teams.
Can you provide a brief overview of your research/dissertation?
My dissertation looks at North Korea’s relations with the Global South during the Cold War era. Many people don’t realize that up until about the mid-1970s, North Korea was ahead of South Korea in most indicators of economic output. This had a massive effect on the foreign policies of the two Koreas. During the 1960s and 1970s, there were many newly independent, postcolonial countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which is what I refer to as the Global South. These countries had to choose whether to diplomatically recognize North or South Korea. The choice was not as obvious back then as it might be today. So, for my dissertation, I trace the history of North Korea’s links to Latin America, Africa, and southern Asia. During the Cold War era, North Korea often gave financial and military assistance to many postcolonial countries. The isolated and rogue North Korea, that we know today, is a relatively new phenomenon. I think it is important to historicize North Korea in order to better understand their worldview and policies. Since its inception, North Korea has been a revolutionary country that sees itself as under siege from an aggressive and morally corrupt world. During the Cold War era, this worldview resulted in a proactive foreign policy. Now, North Korea’s foreign policy is reactive.
What inspired you to choose this research? What got you interested in North Korea?
I was very interested in Russian history when I was an undergrad at SUNY Brockport. I took all of the Russian history courses I could at the time. However, I really wanted to study a country that was still communist so I read every book I could on North Korea. I became obsessed with the place. My first trip abroad was actually to North Korea in 2012. Most recent college graduates to Cancun or Paris. I went to Pyongyang. So, that trip just propelled me further into North Korean studies. I still have good friends from that trip to Pyongyang. It was full of interesting characters. As for this specific research topic, I found that most contemporary analyses of North Korea lack historical depth. I think history is very important for understanding such an opaque country. With historical analysis, you can establish patterns in North Korean actions and make their seemingly unpredictability more predictable. Also, the history of North Korea’s foreign policy, specifically its relations with the Global South, is severely under-researched but critically important. Just look at the recent killing of Kim Jong Nam. Where did it happen? It wasn’t in North Korea or China. It was in Malaysia. That did not surprise me. For a long time, North Korea has conducted nefarious activities in Southeast Asia. It’s been a space where the North Korean leadership feels quite comfortable conducting violence against it political rivals.
What do you hope to do with this research? What are some of your future goals?
I hope to turn my dissertation into a book and eventually become a tenured professor at a college/university or work in a Korea-related capacity with the U.S government or a think tank.
What is your experience with Korea? Have you lived in Korea before?
I visited North Korea in 2012, which propelled me into the field of Korean studies. A year later, I taught English at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and then studied the Korean language at a tiny Buddhist school in the South Korean countryside. This is officially my third time living in South Korea and fourth time on the peninsula. I’ve also lived briefly in the ethnic Korean region of northeastern China.
What are your thoughts on the current and future relationship between the Trump administration and North Korea?
Well, it’s frankly worrying. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said that a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea is not out of the question. That would trigger a full-out war and millions in both Koreas would die. I think this administration needs to do more than nothing, which is what Obama did. However, it needs to be well thought out and balanced. The North Koreans are master tacticians and may be able to manipulate the next ROK president (who will probably be a leftist) and the inexperienced Trump administration.
If you had to sum up one fact for people to learn about North Korea, what would it be?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as there is a lot of misinformation out there on North Korea. It’s important to remember that North Koreans are not automatons but people with their own emotions, beliefs, and fears. They will be the agents of change in that country.
What do you do in your spare time in Korea?
I’ve recently become interested in South Korean cinema and watch 1-2 movies per week. In the future, I’d love to teach a course on South Korean cinema. My favorite South Korean movies are The Wailing and Memories of Murder. South Korean cinema is very similar to Russian literature. That might be why I like it so much. If people abroad really want to understand Korean culture, watch South Korean movies.
Do you have any advice for those interested in conducting research in Korea?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Whether it’s a librarian or an establish professor in your area of study, don’t be afraid to shoot them an email or ask them in person. South Koreans will go out of their way to help you once you make the first move. It can be quite nerve-wracking to do so but it’s worth it in the end.
Do you have any tips on learning Korean?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. As someone who had to take weekly speech lessons as a kid, language, let alone a foreign language as difficult as Korean, has never come easy to me. When I initially started studying Korean, I really struggled. However, I kept with it and have improved a lot since I first started. What really helped was a summer studying Korean at Middlebury Language School. Middlebury requires that you speak only in Korean. That really improved my Korean and made me feel more comfortable making mistakes in the language. If you are afraid of making mistakes in Korean, you will never approve. The best people to practice Korean with are taxi cab drivers in Seoul. Most do not know any English and do not slow down their speech for you.
What’s your favorite part about living in Korea?
South Korea is a really safe country. That might seem absurd to some Americans considering the fact that the neighbor up north can cause quite the ruckus from time to time. However, on a local level, this is a safe country and I’ve heard many stories of foreigners accidentally leaving stuff in the Seoul subway and having it be promptly returned to them. In America, that stuff is gone and most likely re-sold on Ebay within a day. Also, South Koreans are active participants in their democracy. They don’t take it for granted. I think many Americans take democracy for granted and forget that democracy is not the norm in much of the world. I will have to say though that I find the excessive consumption and emphasis on beauty in South Korea to be repulsive at times. This almost singular focus on wealth and image creates a rather toxic and stifling atmosphere. I don’t think young South Koreans are very happy and many want to leave South Korea and live abroad. There is too much pressure on young South Koreans to conform to unrealistic standards that South Korean society has placed on them.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I want to thank my family for being so supportive of my Korea-related endeavors. I don’t come from a family of academics but my entire family has been so kind, loving, and supportive of my academic pursuits. I really appreciate that because getting a PhD is not an easy or quick path to take.
Ben Young is a Fulbright Junior Researcher in Seoul (2016-2017), and a PhD candidate in East Asian history at George Washington University.