• Interview
  • Interview with Professor Robert Greenburg, Dean of the Faculty at the University of Auckland

Interview with Professor Robert Greenburg,
Dean of the Faculty at the University of Auckland

In this edition, the KF speaks with Professor Robert Greenburg, Dean of the Faculty at the University of Auckland. The University of Auckland is home to New Zealand’s sole Korean Studies Center. Since being appointed in 2013, Professor Greenburg has displayed considerable interest in Korean Studies and has spared no efforts to help the field progress.

Tell us about the mission of the University of Auckland's Korean Studies Center?

We started with a Korea Foundation grant back in the 1990s with the desire to grow the relationships between Korea and New Zealand and to build capacity in Korean studies: language, culture, history, politics, all those things. We were very fortunate to get that original funding and we think we invested it wisely to increase awareness about Korea in Auckland — not just at the university, but to the public with films, special lectures, and conferences. It's a small center, but we have at least five or six core academics who contribute to Korean studies, ranging from language to anthropology to politics to culture.

You have a background in Slavic languages and cultures. What sparked your interest in Korea?

I came to Korea for the first time in 2008 when my 16-year-old son was invited to Korea. He's a composer, and his piece was commissioned by the Sejong Soloists and performed in Pyeongchang. In preparation, I thought it would be a great father-son bonding exercise to study Korean together in New York. Having a Korean Studies Center with a strong language program has increased my interest since then, no question.

Does Auckland have much of awareness of Korea, outside the University?

It does, especially on Lawrence Street right downtown, which has lots of Asian restaurants and shops—there's a very good Korean restaurant right there — and the Korean community concentrated on the North Shore has also been influential. We can go to outdoor markets on the weekend with all the foods for Korean cooking.

What research projects are currently ongoing at the Korean Studies Center?

We're quite strong on the Korean diaspora, with courses and research projects that look at how Koreans have integrated into New Zealand society, their contributions to New Zealand society, and the challenges facing immigrants when they come. And of course, the geopolitical situation is very much on everybody's mind these days: our politics professor will be looking at northeast Asia's security issues and the North-South Korea divide.

Tell us about your experience visiting on the KF Invitation program.

It's a wonderful program that brings eighteen international visitors together to learn about Korea: the society, the culture, the politics, the traditions. It's tailored to individual interests; it's not like all eighteen of us go to exactly the same places. I went to the Hangul Museum, and I found that very much up my alley. I learned about King Sejong, the invention of the writing system, and how important that is for Korean identity and history. Because I happen to be blind, I was able to go to the National Library of the Disabled, a resource that does not exist in most countries I've been to. Tonight some of us will go to a concert of Korean traditional performance. It's an intensive course on Korea for all of us, so we can go home and feel better informed. Now, when I talk to alumni or do fundraising overseas, I can actually speak in a much more informed way about the importance of what we offer. It's about more than just languages; it's about actually helping New Zealand and Korea build relationships between our societies.

What would you like to see the Korean Studies Center do in the future?

I would like to see more student exchanges, to open up the opportunity for Korean students who want to come to New Zealand. That's one area we could do better in. We could think about study tours for alumni or other interested citizens, since we have the expertise.

Do you regard the Korean Studies Center as a vehicle for public diplomacy?

Absolutely. We try to highlight Korean culture through films, lectures, symposia, things like that, showcasing Korea to a broader community that would otherwise not be exposed to it. We now have a course about Korean culture through dramas, K-pop, and all that. It's extremely popular among students who were otherwise not drawn to Korean. It's a bright spot in our enrollments.

How is Korea's culture different from the Slavic cultures you've studied?

There are ancient traditions here. I get the sense a continuous and deeply rooted culture. There aren't many Slavic countries with a history as long as Korea's. I often travel to countries that have relatively new identities, like Macedonia, Bosnia, or Slovakia. Here you have a unique combination of the new and the old, and also an incredible spirit of innovation and enterprise.

What can New Zealand and Korea learn from each other?

On our first day here, we learned of this idea of bbali bbali. In New Zealand, there's a tendency to be relaxed and laid-back; learning a little bbali bbali wouldn't be such a bad thing. Korea finished the highway between Seoul and Busan in about year and half. In New Zealand, for a year or two or three they've been building an extension of the motorway to the airport, and it's still not ready. But how do you not lose quality of life? New Zealanders are quite good at enjoying life; Koreans can learn a bit about slowing down from them.

How have you observed New Zealand's interest in Korea change over the years?

There's a growing interest among students; word got out that it's great to learn Korean in the last three to five years. Within New Zealand society more broadly, I'm trying to push the idea of making our citizens more globally aware. New Zealanders love to travel, and many of them will come to Korea. I'm hoping that, for our program's public diplomacy face, we can be the go-to place to learn about the country before you visit. It's a big world, and New Zealand is quite small. We could do better at getting that broader awareness beyond the walls of the university.

What about Korea do you want to be further researched?

The importance of maintaining local culture while living in a globalized world. How to keep that balance. What to look at in order to preserve what we have, to let it evolve but not lose it. How to portray your image overseas. A lot of different nations have a similar challenge to Korea: “How do we get noticed?” In this global world, it's hard. Macedonia certainly has this problem, and New Zealand too: even when I go back to the United States, people still think I live in Australia!

Written by Colin Marshall