A Graduate Student Perspective: Sungik Yang, G4, EALC-HEAL, KI Remote Graduate Summer Research Grant, Summer 2021

September 14, 2021
Sungik Yang

After completing my year of field research abroad in Korea, I returned to Cambridge during this past summer of 2021, and thanks to the generosity of the Korea Institute, I was able to begin the process of writing the dissertation chapters based on the sources I was able to gather while in Korea.

My dissertation topic is broadly on modern Korean political and intellectual history from liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 to the end of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship in 1979; specifically, I examine the content of both state-produced and public discourses and ideologies surrounding the nation, history, democracy, liberty, and anticommunism. I argue that the state and popular discourses greatly converged, in part stemming from their common origins in the postliberation period from 1945 to 1950, which partially explains popular support for the authoritarian regimes of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee from 1948 to 1979.

While in Korea, I was able to access and digitize numerous sources at the Academy of Korean Studies Library as well as the Main Library of Seoul National University, including books, magazines, and military textbooks. With these sources in hand (as well as access to the library collections at Harvard), working on the dissertation remotely when I was back in Cambridge went even more smoothly than I could have hoped for.

During the summer, I concentrated on writing drafts of my first dissertation chapter, which focused on anti-Western liberal discourses circulating in Korea from 1945 to 1960—defining Western liberalism as the confluence of individualism, capitalism, and democracy. There was broad agreement among the Korean populace about the need to prioritize the identities and needs of the collective (society, polity, nation) over those of the individual, disapproval and even explicit rejection of capitalism (despite the advent of the Cold War and an anticommunist hegemony in South Korea) that was even built into the original version of the South Korean Constitution, and skepticism about the applicability of “Western-style” or “American-style” democracy to Korea. I was able to complete a rough draft of the chapter by August.

The last year and a half have been, needless to say, challenging to everyone. I am very fortunate to have had the time and resources to focus on my academic pursuits. I am thus extremely grateful to the Korea Institute for supporting me and my research during these uncertain times (as well as the entirety of my graduate student experience here at Harvard).