Gi-Wook Shin: Focusing on the future of Korea

Jan. 31, 2012, 3:02 a.m.
Gi-Wook Shin: Focusing on the future of Korea
(Courtesy of Gi-Wook Shin)

In sociology professor Gi-Wook Shin’s sunny room in Encina Hall, a black and white drawing of Seoul, circa 1965, hangs next to the door and golden statuettes from Korea perch on smaller shelves. Shin’s book collection of Korean documents and his own writings, expansive and neatly organized, spans most of his office wall. As the director of Stanford’s Korean Studies Program (KSP), Shin’s interest in Korean studies is vast.


Shin left UC-Los Angeles for Stanford in 2001 to create Stanford’s Korean Studies Program. He wanted to carve out a niche for a program that would focus specifically on Korea’s current issues. As director, Shin’s mission would focus on social science, contemporary issues and policy implementation.


Despite its relatively young age–the KSP celebrated its tenth birthday in 2011 — the program has experienced marked success, Shin said. It has acquired significant funding and increased its faculty base, serving the niche Shin had hoped.


Four years ago, Stanford’s program led the New Beginnings Project, in which 10 American experts on Korea drafted policy recommendations concerning U.S.-Korean affairs, which were sent to the Obama Administration. The KSP has also started a semi-annual dialogue between American and Korean experts, in which they discuss the South Korea-U.S. alliance and shared concerns of both countries.


The Korean Studies Program has been particularly active since former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s recent death. On Jan. 18, they organized the panel discussion “The Korean Peninsula After Kim Jong-Il: Challenges and Opportunities,” featuring Shin alongside Katharina Zellweger, the Asia-Pacific Research Center’s (APARC) Pantech Fellow; former Korean Ambassador to the European Union Park Joon-woo, APARC’s Koret Fellow; David Straub, the associate director of the KSP; and Daniel Sneider, associate director of research for APARC. The panelists discussed a variety of North Korean affairs, including its future relationship with the U.S.


At the discussion, Shin said that he didn’t expect there to be any major changes this year. However, he anticipated a shifting relationship between North and South Korea next year, especially if the Progressive Party comes into power.


He also speculated that South Korea “might pursue a very aggressive policy engagement with North Korea.”


Zellweger agreed.


“I don’t think that in the short- or medium-term there will be political change,” she said. “As far as the economy is concerned, [there will probably be] more experimenting rather than major economic reform…The new situation could also be an opportunity for renewed dialogue for those countries with an interest for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”


Shin’s work with KSP focuses on the bridge between the U.S. and Korea.


“As a Korean-American scholar, I have a sense of mission to accomplish: improving the relations of the two countries to which I am most attached,” he said.


Since childhood, Shin possessed a deeply ingrained sense of purpose. His father, a church minister, often worked with impoverished men and women. Shin said that he hopes to bring about positive social change like his father.


In 1979, when Shin was a freshman at Yonsei University in South Korea, Korean president Park Chung-hee was assassinated. The death of the long-time authoritarian leader prompted a student-led initiative between Shin and his peers at South Korea’s elite universities. This catalyzed Shin’s existing interest in Korean social movements.


When asked about his motivation to choose his particular field, Shin mentioned the influence of South Korean culture on social works.


“In Confucian culture, you become [an] elite to serve the state,” he said. “If you see social injustice, then you are supposed to speak out. So there’s a sense of mission. So if you go to an elite school, you have to do something against the social injustice.”


As a professor, Shin hopes to extend his sense of mission and purpose to his students.


“I try to make them understand Korea,” he said.

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