• Interview
  • Interview with Jisoo M. Kim, Director, George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies

Interview with Jisoo M. Kim, Director, George Washington
University Institute for Korean Studies

For this issue, the KF paid a visit to George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies (GWIKS), the only institution in Washington, D.C., devoted to Korean Studies, and interviewed Director Jisoo M. Kim to hear about her book that recently won her the James D. Palais Book Prize and the present state of Korean Studies abroad and its future prospects.

First of all, congratulations on winning the James D. Palais Book Prize at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Annual Conference in March for The Emotions of Justice: Gender, Status, and Legal Performance in Choson Korea. Would you brief us on your book?

By analyzing soji petitions through which Joseon people appealed to the state for any injustice or unfairness they suffered, the book illuminates how women, as legal subjects, expressed their won (冤), their sense of being wrongfully judged, and what they meant by so doing, how the state reacted to appease their demand, and how such a process influenced the development of the petition system and the formation of the legal culture overall.

What made you take a special scholarly interest in the gender and legal issues of the Joseon era?

While I was doing my doctoral course, I came across the petitions of Joseon women in which they pleaded their cases to the state. I was surprised that those women, nobles and slaves alike, made for themselves independent legal voices regardless of their social backgrounds. I was drawn to the documents as they revealed the lives of the underprivileged people. It was particularly intriguing that the petitions offered a glimpse into the history of women’s emotions.

By winning the James D. Palais Book Prize, your approach to the gender issues of the Joseon Dynasty has been recognized as significant research among US academic circles. Would you tell us what particular aspects of your study led to such recognition?

The book was highly acclaimed not only because it deals with a topic that easily arouses empathy transcending time and line of study but also because its message, though originating from the Joseon Dynasty, still remains true through pre-modern and modern times. In addition, the book seemed to earn positive evaluation by raising discussions about the topic in the universal context of world history by comparing specific characteristics of Joseon Dynasty’s history with the histories of East Asia and the West, and by adopting a new approach to the “history of emotion.”

To promote overseas academic discussion on pre-modern history of Korea and major subjects of Korean Studies, what aspect would you think needs to be strengthened?

To promote the status of Korean Studies, high quality research should be conducted in great numbers. Good research projects have been carried out increasingly of late but more efforts are needed to draw the attention of academic circles and to contribute to academia in general. Such efforts will add to the call for Korean Studies among more foreign institutes of higher learning.

How would you evaluate students’ demand for Korean Studies at George Washington University and other foreign institutes? What are the future prospects?

Last August, I attended the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) Core University Program for Korean Studies Directors’ Meeting in Tübingen, Germany, and learned that the number of students studying the subject was increasing considerably in Europe and Oceania as well as in the United States. At George Washington University, Hallyu, or the Korean wave, is not the only thing that attracts students who are just as much interested in the politics and international relations of Korea. Lectures and seminars held on Korean Studies are focused particularly on modern times. As students’ demand grows in the world, the supply of Korean Studies professors should be increased, too.

The Institute for Korean Studies opened at George Washington University last January. Please tell us about major activities of the institute and its future direction.

I think each curriculum needs to be tailored to reflect the local demand and peculiarities. There are institutions on the East and West Coasts that are well equipped with Korean Studies programs that span through graduate courses. They need to focus on producing doctorate holders and work hard training younger scholars.
  GWIKS is the only Korean Studies institute in Washington, D.C., the capital and political center of the United States. It was established with the aim of promoting Korean humanities in a broad sense, including social sciences, in the region. We think an accurate knowledge about Korea is vital to map out the right policies on Korea and so we are working to spread a deeper and comprehensive understanding of Korea among government officials and the policy-related community here. We also sponsor meetings for scholars of varying careers and mentoring sessions for newcomer academics. We also seek to develop Korean Studies in a way that best suits the local need by holding workshops for scholars in the area.
  For better teaching and learning, we are expanding both the professor posts and Korean Studies classes with the KF and other supporters. For undergraduate and graduate students who have keen interest in Korea, we offer the two-week Summer Study Abroad Program to visit Korea for varied on-site experiences. This summer, the program was themed “Two Koreas: Identities, Division, Reunification, and Economic Differences,” and the students visited Korean institutions related to inter-Korean relations, reunification, and human rights in North Korea. For scholars, we have launched the Soh Jaipil Circle that brings together experts in diverse policy groups, and for students we are making outreach efforts by giving lectures and encouraging exchange.

Is there anything you want the KF and other supporters of overseas Korean Studies to do for the promotion of the subject abroad? Do you have any advice for us?

There seems to be a worrisome trend among Korean Studies promoters of concentrating their support on certain institutes. This results in repeat backing and prevents effective assistance for Korean Studies majors and colleges and universities that offer classes on the subject. I hope support will be rendered in a more flexible, adaptable manner to meet targets and goals and bring forth substantial outcomes.

KF Washington, D.C. Office