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A Belgian Holding Court at SNU: The Quest to Find the S(e)oul of Korean Studies

  • December 29, 2008
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A Belgian Holding Court at SNU: The Quest to Find the S(e)oul of Korean Studies
[An Interview with Professor Sem Vermeersch]

Many of the new foreign faculty members finishing up their first terms here at Seoul National University are also newcomers to Korea, and probably have a healthy supply of anecdotes of subway mishaps, miscommunications, and department store adventures. Not so for Professor Sem Vermeersch, recently appointed to the Department of Religious Studies; his arrival at SNU as a professor of Buddhism has been preceded by more than fifteen years of life in Korea, both as a student and teacher.

Rewind back to 1992. Professor Vermeersch had just arrived in Seoul to study Korean at the Jungsin Cultural Research Center (now The Academy of Korean Studies). It was as an undergraduate at the University of Ghent, in his native Belgium, that he was turned on to Chinese Buddhism, and encouraged to study later at Anghwei Normal University, in China. In a quasi-magical turn of events, he was visiting a monastery on Guhwa Mountain (near the university), when a statue of a Bodhisattva (or bosal, in Korean) caught his eye. He later found out that it was a Korean Buddhist saint, a Jijang Bosal, which sparked his curiosity for Korea, and ended up changing his life.

Professor Vermeersch has previously lectured foreign students at SNU on the subject of Korean culture and history, and plans to teach Korean students on writing in English for Korean studies, but has not had any classes this semester. However, his schedule has been anything but laid-back; not only is he busy as associate director at the Center for Korean Studies, he also edits the Seoul Journal of Korean Studies (SJKS), where one of his principle duties is supervising the quality and quantity of English articles in the field of Korean studies. The SJKS is headquartered at the most"Korean" of all of SNU's landmarks, Kyujanggak, which houses an extensive collection of Korean historical documents.

Perhaps one of the reasons why SNU should hire more faculty members like Professor Vermeersch lies in his fluency with both Korean and Western languages and cultures. Although Korea may be considered the"center" of Korean studies in that it is the heart and source of Korean history and culture, the United States is where most of the significant and widely-read work on Korea is published. Like most other major academic fields, the principle language of Korean studies is English. Professor Vermeersch?s position as a dedicated scholar and neutral witness of the flow of Korean studies makes him a valuable asset as an educator and commentator.

When questioned on what he thinks are some of the hurdles that the development of Korean studies, it is soon made clear that this is a topic to which Professor Vermeersch has given much thought and time. His work at the SJKS, for example, reflects his conviction that"The quality of written English is the key to the development of Korean studies on an international level." By this he means not just well-written and grammatically correct articles, but also the need for resolving issues of translation and the romanization of hangeul. For example, hangeul has been accepted and applied haphazardly throughout the world, with both the McCune-Reischauer system (developed in the 1930s) and the recent revision by the Korean government�- the Revised Romanization of 2000�- being used ad hoc. The average Korean (not to mention the average Westerner) does not even realize this, and we are in dire need of figuring out a consistent system. Professor Vermeersch personally prefers the older McCune-Reischauer system, which he finds"more elegant, and closer in 'feeling' to the essence of hangeul," and many foreign scholars also continue use it, as well.

The translation of Korean words that have no exact equivalent in English is also an obstacle to the proper development of Korean studies on an international level. On the one hand, terms like cheongja have well-established and clear translations, like"celadon". But how, for example, should we translate certain traditions exclusive to Korea, like pansori, or samulnori? Professor Vermeersch thinks that words with a particular Korean"essence" to them should not attempt to be translated (or we could end up with words that sound like the English translations of traditional Native American names; think"Song-of-a-place-where-many-people-gather" and pansori will sound and look like a much more appealing option). He hopes that future generations of Korean studies scholars be fluent enough in Korean, written Chinese, and English to help resolve such issues, and encourages students at SNU to study abroad in English-speaking or European countries if they get the chance.

One of Korea's greatest gifts as a nation is its people's pride in their own culture and language. The popularization of Korean culture (or Hanguk allighi) has certainly proved to be effective in encouraging international interest in Korea (as proven by the Japanese tourists who visit in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Yonsama, or the popularity of Korean TV shows on the African continent). While applauding such efforts and successes of Hanguk allighi, Professor Vermeersch warns that exporting Korean music, films, and literature must not be confused with the development of Korean studies."Disseminating knowledge of popular culture on a horizontal level is important, but it is the government's job to do so, through the development of tourism-related infrastructure," he says,"Our job, in academia, is to encourage vertical development through in-depth research into specific topics."

Professor Vermeersch's temperament as a prudent intellectual is best revealed in his stance on the role of Korean studies as an academic discipline:"Politics is always divided into opposed sides, but the truth is always more nuanced, and I believe that the academia should reflect that. After all, the past is not static, but dependant on our view of it. Since our interpretation of the past is constantly changing, Korean studies' view on Korean history should also be flexible." As someone willing to comment candidly on topics ranging from the conflicts between the current administration and the Buddhist community (that the latter's aggressive response reflected poorly on the Korean Buddhist institution, but was entirely understandable, especially considering Christian political leaders' propensity for blurring the boundaries between state and church) to the need for more projects of academic Hanguk allighi with a long-term scope (rather than the preferred ppalli ppalli method), Professor Vermeersch's contribution will surely be of value to the Korean studies community, not least through his education of the future scholars here at SNU.

Dec. 29, 2008
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