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The development of Korean Studies in Argentina:
Public Outreach Centers or Academic Programs?

Maria Del Pilar Alvarez
Maria Del Pilar Alvarez
Director of the Korean Studies Program, Del Salvador University
According to specialized literature, the development of Asian Studies displays two central tendencies. The first, area studies, evolved primarily in US universities. The second, post-colonial studies, evolved primarily in European universities. More recent research on Asian Studies in the United States suggests a new tendency, namely the creation of research and public outreach centers rather than academic study programs.

In Latin America, Asian Studies emerged somewhat later, influenced by both area studies and postcolonial studies. In Argentina, the first undergraduate major in Oriental Studies was created in 1967 (at the Universidad del Salvador), within the framework of a UNESCO project. Following this, several other Asian Studies programs emerged at different public and private universities. In the past decade, for the first time ever, several graduate programs focusing on Asia Pacific or China have appeared. Notwithstanding the recent "boom" in Asian Studies, Korean Studies still remains quite marginal.

Why hasn't Korean Studies taken root? What attempts have been made and why have they failed? This article analyzes the evolution of Korean Studies in Argentina from their origins to the present date. It argues that one of the principle obstacles to the development of Korean Studies in Argentina has been the creation of centers without academic programs of study and the dependence on external funding which makes projects unsustainable in the long run.


The Orient has been an object of interest in Western universities for a millennium. As early as the 14th Century, on the request of the Council of Vienne, the first professorships of Asian languages were established at important European universities. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Oriental Studies took shape as a field, generating specialized knowledge about the Near East, India, and the Far East. At first, this knowledge was linked to colonialism. After World War II and the vicissitudes of the Cold War, it shifted towards decolonization processes.

Powerful challenges to the Eurocentric paradigm later gave rise to two disciplinary currents that would redefine this field of study: post-colonial studies and area studies. Subaltern or post-colonial studies arose primarily in Europe, reflecting decolonization processes. This field of studies aimed to construct new frameworks of knowledge based on the critical redefinition of history, pathways to modernity, varieties of capitalism, and national identities. It did so mainly by shedding light on testimonies and memories which had previously been invisibilized. In the European and US academy the integration of migrants from colonized countries and their descendents enriched debates about the vestiges of colonialism in the West and in former colonies (Alvarez and Forni, 2018). Authors of particular note in this vein include Franz Fanon, Partha Chatterjee, Homi Bhabha, and Edward Said.

At the same time, so-called area studies was gaining strength in the US academy. In the context of the Cold War, there was both a need and an interest in learning about other cultures and regions, especially Asia. Szanton (2002) indicates that before the 1940's universities in the United States had produced less than 60 PhDs in areas studies from non-Western countries. Throughout the 1950's and '60's, the number of area studies departments and centers grew significantly at major US universities, such as Columbia, Michigan, Cornell, Pennsylvania, Yale, Chicago, Princeton, California-Berkeley, Harvard, etc. Initially, their programs of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels were focused on language, literature, history and religion. But, beginning in the 1960's and '70's, area studies experts began teaching courses in mainstream social science and humanities disciplines, such as Art History, Anthropology, Political Science, and International Relations. At the same time, many country specialists with knowledge of Asia became advisors to the US government during the Cold War.

These currents were complimentary, rather than contradictory. Both can be seen as part of the same process of revisionism and repositioning of Oriental or Asian Studies (the latter is more common in the US). Research in this field has enriched the humanities – with which area studies has always maintained strong dialogue – as well as social sciences, generating valuable inputs for International Relations, Comparative Politics, and others.

Oriental Studies grew and acquired scholarly autonomy more slowly in Latin America, including Argentina. The first Asian Studies programs in the region emerged in the 1960's, in the framework of UNESCO's Major Project on the Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Western Cultural Values. In Argentina, this period saw the emergence of the Institute for Ancient Eastern History (IHAO, for its acronym in Spanish), at the University of Buenos Aires, and the only undergraduate program, created by Jesuit Father Ismael Quiles, at the University del Salvador. From the creation of this first program to the present date, Asian Studies has grown significantly in the Argentine academy. Several different universities have created Asian Studies centers and, in the past few decades, the first graduate programs focusing on Asia Pacific and China have appeared. Notwithstanding this recent "boom" in Asian Studies, Korean Studies still remains quite marginal. Why hasn't Korean Studies taken root? What attempts have been made and why have they failed? This article analyzes the evolution of Korean Studies in Argentina from their origins to the present date. It argues that one of the principle obstacles to the development of Korean Studies in Argentina has been the creation of centers without academic study programs and the dependence on external funding which makes projects unsustainable in the long run.

Asian Studies in Latin America

UNESCO's "Major Project on the Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Western Cultural Values," better known as the "Major East-West Project," provided the first impetus for Asian Studies in Latin America. In the Regional Conference of National Commissions for UNESCO in Asia, held in Tokyo in 1955, a call was put out to the Agency for Education, Science, and Culture for mutual cultural understanding between East and West. In December of the following year, the 9th Session of the UNESCO General Conference announced that comprehension among peoples was a necessary condition for peaceful relations and that this could only be achieved on the basis of deep, reciprocal understanding among different cultures. The Conference highlighted the urgency of building mutual appreciation of cultural values between East and West. The major project arose in 1957, with the primary objective of increasing understanding about the characteristics of life and culture among the peoples of East and West.

After several meetings and debates, which served to deepen conversations, establish shared definitions of East and West, and materialize the ideals expressed, the last session of the Project occurred in 1966. Colonial legacies shaped these meetings. Participants reflected on the role of the West in shaping economic and political development since the 15th century and particularly throughout the 19th century, attempting to create mutual positive appreciation. They also highlighted the danger of depicting cultural values as distinct to foreign audiences and emphasizing tolerance and respect rather than building a community of human values.

The proposed work plan called for the development of study programs at universities and education, more generally, as well as the organization of colloquiums and expert meetings (with a strong regional emphasis), the establishment of funding for research and travel, translations, documentary film showings, informational pamphlets, exchange of scholarly texts, and other cultural activities. In Latin America, the impact of the project was immediate. The Colloquium on Eastern Studies was held at the Mar del Plata Provincial Hotel from September 19th - 24th, 1966. The colloquium attracted 32 delegates from 16 countries throughout Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Representatives from 10 Latin American universities attended: the University of Buenos Aires and the University Del Salvador, in Argentina; the Universidad de Bahía, in Brazil; the Javeriana University, in Colombia; the University of Chile, in Chile; the College of Mexico and the Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico; San Marcos University, in Peru; and the University of the Republic of Uruguay, in Uruguay. The event was widely covered in the media and became a cornerstone for the development of Asian Studies in the region.

UNESCO committed to providing further economic assistance by selecting a small number of Latin American universities well-positioned to carry forth the objectives of the project. To this end, participating universities attended international meetings in June of 1968 and November of 1969, in order to share experiences and evaluate the current status of Oriental Studies. In these meetings, university representatives exchanged ideas about programs of study and research projects and, at the same time, each university outlined the type of assistance it needed from UNESCO. By the time international funding came to an end, two accredited academic programs had been created: the undergraduate major in Oriental Studies at the University Del Salvador and the Master's program in Asian and African Studies at the College of Mexico. The rest of the countries maintained centers and outreach activities, but did not create any academic programs.

Interestingly, archives from the 1980's show that the Embassy of Korea and the Korea Foundation began to connect with Asian Studies centers in Latin America, inviting professors and promoting cultural activities. Indeed, this is how the USAL program came to incorporate classes about Korean history and COLMEX came to approve an orientation in Korean studies within its Master's program. At the USAL, the founder of the School of Oriental Studies, Father Quiles, also wrote the first academic book about Korea in Argentina and in Spanish. This 1987 book was entitled The Soul of Korea and was the product of research carried out in South Korea thanks to visits carried out within this framework.

USAL and COLMEX had the only Asian Studies programs in Latin America for several decades. However, in the past few decades, various other undergraduate and graduate programs in Asian Studies, Chinese Studies, and Korean Studies have been created. Despite the lack of specialized professors in this area, the growth of Asian Studies has encouraged many young people to apply for scholarships, especially in China, Japan, and South Korea. This expansion has repositioned Korean Studies in Latin America.

Korean Studies in Latin America

There are several Korean Studies initiatives at universities throughout the region, some of which are funded by the Academy of Korean Studies and/or the Korea Foundation. Currently, there are centers or departments of Korean Studies in Colombia, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico, and Costa Rica. There are four Korea-focused degree programs in the region, including a Master's in Korean Studies at the Central University of Chile, an undergraduate program in Korean language at the Dr. Raúl Peña Institute of Higher Education in Paraguay, and an undergraduate program in Korean Studies in Nayarit (Mexico). A Master's program in Korean Studies is currently being developed in Costa Rica. The remaining countries (including Argentina) do not have Korean Studies programs. Therefore, the majority of Korean Studies centers are dedicated to outreach activities such as cultural events and talks for the general public. Generally, these activities are not very academic and are closely associated with the Korean Embassy in their respective countries.

The region has also seen an expansion in networking among different Korean Studies programs and centers. Since 2003, the Korea Foundation has funded the Latin American Korean Studies conference. This conference is carried out every two years in different countries and helps reinforce relationships among specialists in the region. Papers presented at the conference are also published as a book, contributing to the still-limited pool of academic work on Korea in Spanish. One of the main weaknesses of this conference is that it tends to get very little press and has few new participants. Another weakness is that most participants do not speak Korean and lack solid training in Korean Studies.

In addition to these conferences, several Latin American countries have Korean Studies associations. These associations tend to be linked to the Korean Embassy in their respective countries. Their main objective is to showcase Korean specialists at the national level through conferences and other academic activities. The same people who participate in the Latin American Korean Studies conference also tend to participate in these associations.

The Korea Foundation has also funded other initiatives to promote Korean Studies in the Latin American region. About a decade ago, it tried to promote Korean Studies through a research and scholarship program administered by the Center for Korean Studies at UCLA. This enabled several students and professors to take courses at UCLA. The UCLA center had difficulty relating to universities in the region and the program was further challenged by the lack of incentives for generating Spanish-language materials related to Korean Studies. For these reasons, the Korean Foundation decided to transfer the headquarters of the Latin American E-School to the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, in Mexico. This program offers courses in the following universities:

Scholarships offered by the Korean Government's NIIED have also played a key role in cultivating human resources. For example, people who studied in South Korea thanks to this scholarship program currently hold professorships in Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and Brazil. This has enriched the field of Korean Studies in Latin America and made it more competitive. Finally, it is also important to highlight the importance of the three Korean Cultural Centers in the region (Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil) and the expansion of the Sejong Institute in several countries. Both of these organizations have contributed not only to the diffusion of Korean culture and language, but to the visibility of Korea in Latin America.

Korean Studies in Argentina

Unlike Chinese Studies and Japanese Studies, the field of Korean Studies remains poorly developed in Latin America. In Argentina, Korean Studies is a highly underdeveloped field. In fact, there are no undergraduate or graduate programs focused specifically on Korea.

Between 2005 and 2012 there was a Korean Studies center at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) funded by the Korea Foundation. However, when the Korea Foundation stopped funding it, this center closed. The UBA now has a Center for Chinese Studies and an East Asian Studies Group. Activities related to Korea have practically disappeared, and there are no courses on Korea or Korean language courses.

There are only two official Korean Studies Centers in Argentina. The first, founded in 1995, is housed at the National University of La Plata (UNLP), in the Province of Buenos Aires. This active center offers language classes and online courses about Korea for its students through the Korea Foundation's E-School. It also promotes research. The second center was created by the University Del Salvador (USAL) in 2018 with a grant from the Academy of Korean Studies. It is the only Korean Studies center in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capitol and the second most important city in South America. Buenos Aires has almost 3 million residents and another 6 million people commute into the city every day for work. For this reason, the USAL's Korean Studies Center has had an extremely positive impact, not only in terms of the institutionalization of Korean Studies at the USAL, but also, importantly, for the growth of Korean Studies in Buenos Aires.

While they do not specialize in Korean Studies, there are several other centers and research clusters dedicated to Asia Pacific throughout Argentina, in various public and private universities. Among them, some of the most well known include the Tres de Febrero University's Center for Asia Pacific Studies and its Master's program in Business with Asia; the National University of Lanus' Center for Chinese Studies and its graduate program in Chinese Studies; the Catholic University of Argentina's China extension program; the National University of Tucuman's Center for Asian and African Studies; the National University of Cordoba's center for Asian Studies and graduate degree in its Business with Asia; the Open Interamerican University of Rosario's research cluster on Asia Pacific and diploma in Business in Asia; and the National University of La Plata's graduate program in Chinese Studies, together with the Confucian Institute.

Despite the expansion of academic centers and working groups dedicated to Asia Pacific and the recent explosion of Chinese Studies programs, Korean Studies continues to occupy a marginal position in the local academy. With the goal of changing this situation, the University Del Salvador, with support from the Seed Program for Korean Studies of the Academy of Korean Studies, will open the first program in Korean Studies in 2020.

This one-year program, a Degree in Korean Studies, will be offered online and in a traditional, in-person format. This dual modality will allow the program to reach a wide array of students with interest in Korea, including residents of Buenos Aires and residents of other provinces around the country. The degree will target members of the general public interested in deepening their knowledge of Korea, particularly contemporary issues and relations with Asia Pacific. In order to promote the degree among public and private-sector entities who work with Korea, we will generate cooperative agreements with the Asia departments of government agencies, business associations, and thinks tanks. We will also promote it on the USAL's social media accounts and on different local websites related to Asia.

The degree program will be housed in the USAL's Department of Social Sciences. Students from the School of Oriental Studies will have a special discount on enrollment fees and tuition for the degree. The degree will be offered online and in a traditional, in-person format. This distance-based (online) learning will allow us to reach students interested in Korean Studies who reside in other parts of the country or the region, with the same level of excellence as the in-person degree. The online version of the Degree in Korean Studies will have the same content as the in-person option and will utilize Blackboard platform of the USAL's virtual campus (http://pad.usal.edu.ar/). Thus, through the use of information technology and by building on the USAL's experience with virtual graduate programs, it will strengthen Korean Studies in Argentina. Given the needs of contemporary life and worldwide changes in education, the online degree will be a unique and privileged space for knowledge construction about Korea. To further strengthen the program, special conferences about Korea will be organized at the USAL's different campuses: in the province of Corrientes, Pilar, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

This unique degree program will be promoted through local Korean Studies networks and the Korean Cultural Center of Buenos Aires. In Argentina, there is also an alumni association for former NIIED (KGSP) scholars, a Friends of Korea Association, and a Korean Studies Association. Korean Studies conferences are held every two years at different universities in different Argentine cities, as a way to incentivize more young people to learn and do research about Korea.

The network of local universities that make up the Korean Studies Association will also be important for the expansion of the Online Degree in Korean Studies, as will the other universities with which the USAL cooperates. The USAL has more international cooperation agreements than any other private university. The alumni recommended by both of these networks will be able to apply for scholarships.


Since the creation of the first Asian Studies programs in the 1960's until the present day, Latin America has had few academic programs focusing on Asia. The tendency has been to privilege centers or research groups over educational programs. In the same vein, the last 20 years has seen an expansion in the number of Korean Studies centers in the region. One interesting aspect of this expansion is that, unlike the first study programs, which emerged out of the Humanities, these Centers for Korean Studies have tended to be rooted in the Social Sciences, especially International Relations. In Argentina, recent growth in the number of Asian Studies centers reflects this tendency. Yet, unlike in other countries, growth has been limited to centers and research clusters focusing on Asia Pacific and China. Members of the Korean Studies Association have not seen it as necessary to build Korean Studies programs in their universities and have, instead, chosen situate research on Korea within the broader framework of Asian Studies. In fact, at the majority of these centers and research groups, the same individuals who are specialists on Korea also specialize in China, Japan, etc. That is, the majority of directors of the Argentine Korean Studies Association also present themselves as specialists on China and other countries in Asia.

As noted previously, there are only two Korean Studies centers in Argentina, one at the National University of La Plata, in the city of La Plata, and the other at the University Del Salvador, in the capitol city of Buenos Aires. Both centers are very active and have numerous specialists in Korean Studies. They organize cultural outreach activities and academic talks and carry out research and publish in Spanish on topics related to the Korean Peninsula. For example, in 2019, the USAL published the book Korea and a New Dawn for Peace and, in 2018, the book Hallyu or Cultural Diplomacy?: Korea through its cultural products. In 2017, the UNLP published a book entitled Essays on Korea. These books have contributed to the still-scant body of Spanish-language publications on Korea and helped consolidate Korean Studies in Argentina.

The development of Korean Studies in Argentina faces several challenges. The first is the tendency to open centers rather than developing academic programs. While these centers constitute an important first step in furthering the field of study, it is also important to open academic programs in order to consolidate Korean Studies in the country. A second challenge is the tendency to open centers focusing on Asia Pacific to the detriment of Korean Studies centers. This phenomenon prevents Korean Studies from attaining autonomy and identity in university settings, thereby preventing its consolidation. A third challenge is related to the development of programs based on experiences in central countries (the United States and Europe) without adapting them to local realities and needs. Importing models of Korean Studies from central countries to Argentina may, ultimately, lead local programs to fail. For example, the Korea Foundation's E-School was offered at UBA and UAI-Rosario, as well as UNC and UNLP; at UBA and UAI-Rosario it failed, and at UNC there are problems related to the program's lack of adaptation to local needs and perspectives.

These challenges have informed the University Del Salvador's decision to create Argentina's first locally-designed academic program in Korean Studies. The Diploma in Korean Studies is a university degree, backed by the USAL and the Argentina Ministry of Education. By giving students the option of affordable online courses, this academic program will encourage further consolidation of Korean Studies in Argentina.


- Alvarez and Forni (2018). "Orientalismo Conciliar: el Padre Quiles y la creación de la Escuela de Estudios Orientales de la Universidad del Salvador" Revista de Estudios de Asia y África, Colegio de México, México, N 166, Vol 53 (2), Mayo-Agosto 2018, pp 441-468.
- Szanton, David (2002). The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines, California, California University Press.
- UNESCO/CUA/108, Report of the Advisory Committee for the Major Project on Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Western Cultural Values, 22 of September of 1961.
- UNESCO/CLT/130, Records of the General Conference – Fourteen Session, 1966.

[ Announcement of "2019 AKS International Conference on Korean Studies" ]

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