The Korea Institute was established in 1981 under the aegis of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, and in 1993 it became an autonomous institution directly responsible to the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  It is the only organization devoted solely to the support and development of Korean Studies at Harvard.

The late Professor Edward W. Wagner was the Institute’s first director and guided the Institute in its early years. It was during Professor Wagner’s tenure that the Korea Colloquium was inaugurated and the first summer travel grants for students were awarded. Since 1993 the Institute experienced a major expansion under the directorship of Professor Carter J. Eckert. During the eleven years under Professor Eckert’s leadership, many new programs were put into place, including additional student grants and fellowships, postdoctoral fellowships, and graduate student support. In Academic Year 1996-97, Dr. Vincent S.R. (“Vin”) Brandt served as interim director. Professor Eckert also served as interim director in Spring 2008, Fall 2009, Academic Year 2014-15, and Academic Year 2018-19. In 2004, Professor David McCann, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature, became the third director of the Institute, expanding programmatic activities on campus and in Korea, particularly in the areas of undergraduate and graduate student support. In 2011, Professor Sun Joo Kim, Harvard-Yenching Professor of Korean History, began a decade of stability and growth as the Institute's fourth director from its 30th Anniversary Year. In 2021, Professor Nicholas Harkness became the Institute’s fifth director, leading the Institute from its 40th Anniversary into a new decade of exciting global expansion in Korean Studies at Harvard and beyond.

The Korea Institute is an integral and dynamic part of the intellectual life at Harvard.  In addition to the Korea Colloquium, the Institute also supports numerous lectures, workshops, and conferences throughout the year, led by Institute faculty, students, and postdoctoral fellows.  The Institute has a number of visiting scholars, fellows and associates through an affiliated scholars program.  Other activities include faculty research projects, undergraduate and graduate student support, teaching, study and work in Korea programs, Korean film screenings and some cultural events. The Institute has also established a wide-ranging network of collaborative relationships with other centers and departments throughout the University and with colleagues and institutions throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.