Course opens new Korea path

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am


In 2005, lunchtime crowds in many local malls were transfixed by events unfolding on large television screens. They weren't watching a world-changing incident but the scenes from a Korean drama, Dae Jang Geum (The Jewel in the Palace), broadcast by TVB's Jade channel.

The series' popularity is an indicator of the 'Korean wave', as the booming interest in South Korean culture across Asia has become known. From pop acts and soap operas to food and fashion, the Korea Creative Content Agency estimates cultural exports may bring in up to US$3.8 billion this year.

Spurred by young people's enormous interest in all things Korean, the University of Hong Kong's Arts Faculty is gearing up to be the first to offer a major in Korean studies this year. The idea is to provide undergraduates with a programme that recognises the significant economic and political role that South Korea plays in Asia.

Some students are eager for it to start. 'I started listening to K-pop and really liked the look of the people, their clothing and the fast pace of the music,' says Jeffery Cheung, a first-year student.

'As my interest grew, I wanted to know more about the lyrics. I started studying Korean [language] on my own, and now I plan to enrol in the new Korean studies major at HKU.'

Many senior secondary students may well sign up for the programme if the level of interest shown the university's information day in October is any guide.

'Considering that Korean is not taught in any local schools, I was really surprised at how many secondary students came up to me and started conversations with me in Korean,' says Kangsoon Lee, the Korean programme director at HKU. 'There is obviously a lot of interest in Korean pop culture among young people in Hong Kong.'

Since establishing a Korean language minor in the 2008, Lee and Professor Louise Edwards of the school of modern languages and cultures, along with the support of the Korea Foundation, have developed a Korean studies major that will include courses on literature, history and culture, international relations and language proficiency. By the third and fourth year, their aim is to offer students summertime, six-month and one-year exchange programmes to the top five universities in South Korea.

'Young people are very good at picking up on where change is happening in popular culture and the speed of that change,' Edwards says. 'They have recognised the changes that have been occurring in Korean culture through their interest and love of Korean music, fashion and television dramas. They know where the development is happening in the Asian region and that there are opportunities there to tap into these developments.'

Although some people may view television dramas as superficial, Edwards points out that there is nothing superficial about the rapid development of South Korea or its increasing presence on the international stage.

'Korea has gone through an incredible process of industrialisation and democratisation,' she says. 'Its government has placed a lot of emphasis on education, nation building and supporting cultural industries. Korea's international profile has increased significantly with Ban Ki-moon's appointment to the position of secretary-general of the United Nations and the country's participation in international peace-keeping efforts and other UN bodies such as the World Health Organisation.

'The country's evolution from a low-end manufacturer to a hi-tech economy has happened in a very short time. It is marketing itself as a hi-tech nation, and when we entered Korean classrooms during our visits to some of their universities, we were amazed at how hi-tech they really are.'

Lee says that the Korean studies major will initially cater for students without knowledge of Korean language and provide students with a relaxed but interactive environment in which to enjoy learning the language. In the second year, students will study Korean society and contemporary issues such as the impact of rapid economic development on traditional values and customs, the role of hi-tech industries in transforming South Korea's national identity and its relationship with North Korea.

In the third and fourth years, students will be expected to debate these contemporary issues.

Over the next two or three years, the university plans to develop language-immersion opportunities for more students that will serve to deepen their knowledge and understanding of Korean culture. To do this, it will tap into its business links with the Korea Foundation.

'We plan to offer a course in Korean popular culture, which will focus on the business side of the 'Korean wave' phenomenon as it has developed into a global product. Through our company relationships, we feel we can learn a lot more about commercial engagement,' says Edwards.

The medium-term plan also includes establishing research-based master's and PhD programmes so that students such as Lavina Luk can further develop their academic studies.

The final-year BA student signed up for the Korean studies minor and participated in an exchange programme during the summer to get to know more about the daily lives of South Koreans and immerse herself in the language. She now hopes to complete a master's in Korean studies.