From the interview to The Louis Frieberg Center of East Asian Studies newsletter (October 2020)
Irina, can you please introduce yourself?
It is no coincidence that I became interested in Korea. I am a fifth generation diasporic Korean, born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel 20 years ago. Although I was very eager to study about Korea, the Department of Asian Studies didn’t have a Korean Studies program at that time. As the closest option to area studies, I did my BA at the Hebrew University in Sociology and Anthropology and English Literature. Through my studies, I tried to find and conduct Korea-related research at every opportunity. For example, during my BA I wrote a seminar paper based on a one year ethnography among the Korean community in Jerusalem. I studied how the community is imagined and how its boundaries are guarded by visiting its main sites such as Korean churches, schools, apartments, communal centers, and cultural events.
In my PhD I focused on Israeli-Korean business collaborations, investigating the cultural perceptions of Koreans and Israelis towards each other. Thanks to the Frieberg Center, that supported my field trip to Korea, I was able to interview Korean businessmen, diplomats and officials who work closely with Israel, in order to understand the work of national imagination, the importance of postcolonial imagery, and the lingering presence of Korea’s underdeveloped past despite its developed present. In parallel to my PhD, I took part in a fascinating project on the fandom of Korean popular culture in Israel and the Middle East together witwh colleagues from the faculties of humanities and social sciences. For example, together with Prof. Nissim Otmazgin I studied Israeli and Palestinian K-pop fans and found that they often seemed to escape or take refuge from current events in a marginalized and exoticized fandom while active promotion of Korean popular culture in Israel empowered them.
In your opinion, what is the importance of studying about Korea?
Korea provides a fascinating case study of an economic miracle, through its rapid transition from one of the poorest nations in the world to a developed economy. Studying the Korean economy enables us to ask bigger questions like why there are no other Koreas in the world or why there are still so many poor nations. Studying the Korean cultural miracle challenges the common direction of globalization, from the West to the rest of the world, and makes us wonder if we have finally made it to a truly globalized world. Today I still see a surprised reaction to the success of Korean popular culture, including BTS, Korean TV dramas on Netflix, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” and many others. This surprise implies the partiality, and even a glass ceiling, of Korea’s cultural globalization. The recent fan activism of K-pop fandom is another reason to study Korea – how have fans of a marginalized subculture succeeded in organizing themselves into a political and social power? Finally, the public image of South Korea, that moved from the world’s economic and cultural backstage and today attracts attention not only because of the conflict with North Korea (another good reason to learn about Korea) but as a nation that strives to rebrand itself as a leader in technological innovation, cultural industries, and sports promotion, and as an active participant in world politics.
Congratulations on your new role as the head of the Korean Studies Program. What are the main goals you would like to achieve?
Thank you very much. First of all, I would like to thank Dr. Jooyeon Rhee, who successfully led the Korean Studies Program from its very beginning in 2013. I was fortunate to work with and learn from her. I aim to continue her work on enlarging the scope of our program by bringing in experts on history, literature and arts as well as increasing the number of language hours. Besides the focus on South Korea, we need more courses on the whole peninsula, its relations with its neighbors and the world, and its (dis) connection to the Korean diaspora. For this purpose, I will continue to promote cooperation with the leading universities in Korea and abroad for faculty and students exchange to create new learning and research opportunities.
KOREAN CULTURAL MIRACLE
PhD in Organization Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
KOREAN ECONOMIC MIRACLE
POSTCOLONIAL IMAGINATION, IMAGERY and IMAGES
MA in Organization Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
BA in Sociology and Anthropology and English Literature, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
CRITICAL MANAGEMENT STUDIES