Q1. You have broadened the scope of your research across a variety of topics, from the colonial era to the East Asian Cold War and Post-Cold War eras, all while maintaining a fixed focus on the East Asian Cold War and Division system. We think the keyword that shared among all these topics is "peace". Could you tell us what originally piqued your interest in these issues and what factors are important motivators driving you to continue your research?
Ever since I attended the second International Conference for Peace and Human Rights in East Asia held on Jeju Island in 1998, I have had an interest in these issues. It was a conference held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Jeju Uprising. At the time, Korean society was seeing the emergence of a public consensus regarding the need to uncover the truth of the Jeju Uprising and restore the victims' honor. At the conference, I learned a lot about various instances of national violence against the citizens of East Asian countries, as well as the Jeju Uprising. Since then, the conference was held for five or six consecutive years - Okinawa in 1999, in Gwangju in 2000, Jeonju in 2001, in Kyoto in 2002, and in Yeosu and Suncheon. I was then serving as the Secretary General of the Korean Committee to the conference. As I grew more interested in various areas surrounding the Korean Peninsula, namely Japan, Taiwan, Okinawa, and China's coastal areas, I realized that Korean issues should not be approached as issues confined to Korea.
More specifically, I realized that it is necessary to consider Korean issues from a holistic East Asian perspective, while also adhering to the perspectives of different regions within Korea in order to correctly understand the country’s issues.
In terms of theoretical insights, I applied Baek Nak-cheong's "Division System" theory and Lee Sam-seong's "East Asian Division System" theory, which I consider very useful in explaining changes in Korean society in a more dynamic way.
Afterwards, I studied the issues of Okinawa, Kinmen Island in Taiwan, the Liaodong Peninsula, Dalian and Lushun in China, and the Shandong Peninsula. These studies gave me the insight that all these issues are historical events that have greatly affected Korea and the experiences shared among Korean people have also had an impact on these regions.
Recently, I have been studying the Hong Kong issue in line with this insight. Hong Kong has a very unique historical experience as a Chinese and non-Chinese territory. In this context, I came to realize that peace is a critical social value that penetrates the colonial system, the East Asian Cold War system, and the East Asian Post-Cold War system, serving as an important clue for understanding social changes in East Asia and Korea.
In other words, I thought that we need research that considers Korean society in a multi-dimensional way, that is, research approached from the perspectives of East Asia, North and South Korea, and also from individual regions.
2. In your research, "memory," "perception," and "representation" seem to form an important analytical framework. Did this framework help you in your pioneering of trans-boundary research between history and sociology? Could you please share with us more about your analytical framework?
Representations and memories are, in sociological research, important theoretical topics addressed by Emile Durkheim. I was introduced to the topics while studying Durkheim's theories, but more fundamentally, I started to truly delve into the concepts while I was teaching students in Gwangju in 1985 and examining the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement. I led a project recording the experiences of many of the citizens who participated in the movement. While organizing, observing, and participating in a festival to commemorate the May 18 Democratic Movement in 1989 and 1990, I began to seek answers to these questions: How does the way people remember history affect people? How do memories affect the reconstruction of the society? And, more deeply, how do the symbols that these people represent function? Whether it was a festival or a symbol, I began to conduct research into understanding these important mechanisms for social integration.
After that, I studied various types of monuments and the rituals performed on them and I began to feel that these monuments could be important subjects of sociological and historical study. I realized that the issues of monuments, memories, representations, and collective consciousness need to be studied at the juncture where historical and sociological insight converges.
In this regard, one of interesting research subject is the Soviet military monuments. I was initially interested in the Liberation Monument in North Korea. Then, I carried out a study on Soviet military monuments found in China, Dalian and Lushun in particular, and in Berlin, Germany. Expanding this study, I comparatively analyzed Soviet military monuments erected in the Baltic States and Eastern European countries such as Poland and Bulgaria. At that time, the issue started to draw theoretical attention from around the world. So, I was able to study how historical events in 1945 restructured the world and how memories of the past changed in the Post-Cold War era. I think that this study on Soviet military monuments opened, for me, a door to approach a single subject of study from a global perspective and, of course, it was my interest in the Liberation Monument in Pyeongyang, North Korea that started it all. From this context, I explored the issue of perception.
Another important subject of my research was memories of the Korean War. As I studied not only the memories of victory but also the suffering experienced by victims due to national violence. I sought answers to how the painful wounds from the past- traumas - define the present state of humanity. I also looked at how the truth of the past is revealed and expressed in the public sphere. I can say that the traditional sociological insight on past eras were very helpful in carrying out these studies.
3. Please tell us your goals and plans for the East Asian University Camp for Peace and Human Rights.
(As I said earlier,) I participated in the International Conference for Peace and Human Rights in East Asia from 1998 to 2002. Since 2002, I was interested in how I could help university students develop an East Asian perspective and a sensitivity to human rights and peace. So, I networked with several universities across Korea and Japan and started a camp where Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese students from affiliated universities can visit various East Asian regions twice a year, during summer and winter vacations, to discuss East Asian issues, identify regional problems, and establish plans to move forward together. This camp has now turned 20 years old and been held 40 times so far. In February this year, Korean and Japanese students will visit Tsushima Island, Japan and learn how the island worked as a bridge between the two countries in the past, amid the recently deepening conflict between the two countries over their shared histories. The island reminds Korean people of many people including Choi Ik-hyeon, who was exiled to the island. So, I am planning a study on how the historical wounds of Korea are etched on this island.
Because the students of Seoul National University have led this camp many times, the East Asian Peace and Human Rights Camp is organized and funded by students and I provide them only a little support. It has already been 20 years since students from at least four or five universities in Korea and two or three universities in Japan first met for regular exchanges. The camp can be considered a forum with a long history for academic exchange and training to bring peace to East Asia for university students.
4. You have given academic attention to isolated and marginalized minority groups, such as sufferers of Hansen's disease and North Korean defectors. We wonder what message you ultimately want to share with the public through these studies.
My interest in social minorities started with my studies on islands that began around 1991. I learned that islanders have a different worldview and different temporal and spatial sense those from the mainland and capital region. In 1994, I started my research on sufferers of Hansen's disease. When I was in the US, I met with children of those who carried out missionary work in Korea during the Japanese occupation era to help sufferers of leprosy and I investigated the work they did in the past. After returning to Korea, I began to study the history of Hansen's disease in Korea.
In the process, I became interested in the perspective of social minorities and the healing of their traumas. Problems related to social minorities, especially those suffering from leprosy, began to emerge during the Japanese colonial period. I studied the differences between the Hansen's disease policies of Korea and Japan and found that problems related to the disease have also been present in the histories of Taiwan, the Philippines, and even Malaysia.
Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have introduced Japanese policy systems for managing Hansen's disease, while the Philippines implemented the American system, and Malaysia adopted the British system. Approaches to the same illness and similar social minorities varied considerably depending on the cultural context. I further extended my research and learned that this issue is related to social minority problems, not only in Korean society, but at an international level. I have been meeting with sufferers of Hansen's disease in Korea since 1994, and in 2001, staying in Japan for a year, I visited nursing homes for leprosy patients throughout Japan. At that time, I also visited similar facilities in Taiwan. Recently, I visited large nursing homes for leprosy patients in the Philippines and Malaysia. By exploring these facilities, I examined the characteristics of Hansen's disease-related problems in Korea and the various points of similarity and difference when compared with countries. Carrying out these studies, I have urged for increased social attention for those with Hansen's disease in Korean society and sought ways to ensure their human rights are protected and their wounds healed.
In conclusion, I think that the Department of Sociology at Seoul National University has generated discourses that integrate the important traditions of "historical insight" and "sociological imagination" in addition to quantitative research based on big data. I believe that the department has fulfilled the role of scholars and intellectuals more faithfully than any of the other departments. One of the most important traditions of the department is that it delivers significant social messages (though it is relatively small in size compared with the Departments of Political Science and International Relations and Economics) and has produced leaders of society based on social imagination. I hope that this academic tradition of responding to the needs of society, caring for the needy, and providing practical help to solve social problems will continue based on past achievements. I hope that the Department will continue to function as an important social institution leading sociological studies in Asia, addressing not only South Korean issues but also those of North Korea, Korea-Japan relations, Korea-China relations, or more regional issues like Okinawa and Taiwanese.