Institute for Korean Studies to Focus on Research

Assistant Prof. Sheena Greitens
Assistant Prof. Harrison Kim

Sheena Greitens, an assistant prof. of political science, and Harrison Kim, an assistant prof. of history, are co-directors of the Institute for Korean Studies

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Political Science

The University of Missouri has faculty members spread across the Columbia campus who study various aspects of the Korean peninsula. Until now, MU has lacked a central location where these scholars of Korea can discuss their work, collaborate on research projects, and find new research opportunities. The Institute for Korean Studies (IKS), which opens Feb. 9, will serve as a focal point for research about the Korean peninsula.

Harrison Kim, IKS co-director and an assistant professor of history, says the institute is more than just an expansion of the Korean Studies Program in the Department of German and Russian Studies.  “The Korean studies minor is an important teaching unit at the undergraduate level,” Kim says. “The IKS is primarily research focused, to support new research and highlight ongoing research that faculty members have done. Faculty are doing research in many aspects of Korea—economics, political science, history, management, and such across campus, and the IKS brings all of that together.”

A Meeting of the Minds

Kim and fellow co-director Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an assistant professor of political science, both joined the MU faculty a couple years ago.  Greitens says as they got to know each other, they realized there were a number of Korean studies scholars on campus whose interests were broadly social–scientific rather than simply geared toward literature, language, and culture.

“We also realized that these faculty were coming to a place that has some real comparative advantages,” Greitens says. “If you want to do field research in Korea, we’ve got an incredible community of alumni that can help you access data and research materials. We have the Truman Library in Independence, which has a great documentary collection related to the Korean War. We have a lot of unique resources. IKS is intended to be a place where our research faculty can come to take advantage of those resources, and that can highlight the work our faculty are doing in this field.”

For now, the IKS will share space at the Asian Affairs Center in Memorial Union, although both Kim and Greitens say the long-term goal is an actual physical space on campus. Kim says the Asian Affairs Center is not always visible on campus, but he says hundreds of scholars and students are engaged in exchange programs at the center each year. He says there are more than two thousand MU alumni in Korea today.

“One of the strongest ties the U.S. has in Asia is with South Korea,” Kim says. He says there are still close to 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and adds that the U.S. has a great trading relationship with South Korea, importing Kia and Hyundai automobiles and Samsung electronics, among other products. North Korea, however, presents a different set of challenges.

map of Korean peninsula

A Glimpse inside the North

Greitens has been doing research on North Korea since 2004, and visited the country in 2012 on a research trip when she was a graduate student at Harvard. Her first book, Dictators and Their Secret Police, included discussions of both North and South Korea.

“Working on North Korea is a challenge because materials and access are certainly limited,” she says. “There are some good historical documents available from countries that had diplomatic relations with North Korea during the Cold War – China, Eastern Europe, etc. – and many of those collections are now declassified. We can learn what North Korea was talking about because we have a record of the other side of conversations: diplomats from Bucharest or Budapest would take notes in Pyongyang and send them back home.”

Greitens says another way to glean the inner workings of North Korea is to put together new data sets. For example, she has created a data set tracking North Korea’s involvement in illicit activities such as counterfeiting and drug smuggling. “You can do some creative sleuthing to put together quantitative data sets that answer important questions about North Korea,” she says. Greitens also says there are now nearly 30,000 North Korean defectors and refugees living in South Korea who can tell researchers about everyday life in the north.

Kim, who is set to publish a book on the labor history of North Korea, says North Korea can no longer be considered an isolated country.

“That’s due in part to its relationship with China, but it has always had relationships with other countries,” he says. “It is no longer possible to see North Korea as an isolated, closed-off country—it wants to engage with the outside, and it is a changing place.”

Ready to Launch

The IKS will be housed in the College of Arts and Science and is currently under the auspices of the Vice Provost for International Programs. The institute is a collaboration of the departments of history and political science and the Asian Affairs Center. Both Greitens and Kim say their goal is to make MU a major research center for Korean studies that is recognized nationally and internationally.

“The two Koreas hold all of the problems and changes that are happening in the world in a microcosm, and that includes the problems that we Americans face here at home—economic problems, class problems, problems with central power, problems with the military, warfare, and of course, global relations,” Kim says.

The Feb. 9 launch of the IKS will feature a screening of the award-winning documentary I Am Grace, the story of North Korean refugee Grace Jo, who will discuss her journey to becoming an American citizen following the screening at 3 p.m. in Jesse Wrench Auditorium, Memorial Union South.  

Grace Jo flier


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