AKS Home | CEFIA Home |  Korean homepage


Challenges and Future of Graduate Level
Korean Studies in Chile

Jinok Choi
Jinok Choi
Director, Korean Studies Program, Central University of Chile
This paper aims to review the current status and pending challenges in relation to the master's degree program on Korean studies provided by the Central University of Chile, the only such program available in Latin America where Korean studies is relatively lagging behind. First, we will look at the current curricular operation of this program to identify the difficulties that arise in operating graduate courses on Korean studies in the region. This would be followed by the illustration on how curriculum reorganization could promote the sustainability of graduate schools of Korean studies. In so doing, I would like to highlight the need for 'small yet strong' Korean studies that reflects local educational conditions in Latin America.

1. Current State of Graduate Level Korean Studies in Latin America

1) Weak Area for Korean Studies
Latin America has long been considered a "weak area" for Korean Studies. To begin with, it is geographically distant from Korea and Korea's economic and political influence in the region is relatively low. Because of these factors, human interaction between Korea and Latin America is below average. These are a reasons why research on Korea is not actively done and that Korean Studies hasn't grown as much as in Asia or North America.

The Academy for Korean Studies, the Korea Foundation, and other Korean Studies funding organizations examine the level of degrees available at overseas university when evaluating their status. It is also important to establish an undergraduate or graduate degree program when establishing an academic discipline. However, among the more than 30 Latin American countries, the only current undergraduate degree programs in Korean studies are the Korean studies degree at the Autonomous University of Nayarit (Mexico), the Korean literature degree at the University of São Paulo (Brazil), and Korean language education at Paraguay National University of Education (Paraguay). These programs are struggling to maintain their statuses due to difficulties such as securing faculty members.

In other words, most of the actual Korea-related activities at universities in Latin America are focused on cultural events or seminars. Some universities offer Korea-related courses, but not many of these courses count as credit towards general education or minor requirements.

2) Latin America's Only MA in Korean Studies
Currently, the Central University of Chile (UCEN) is the only university in Latin America which offers a master's degree program in Korean studies (Magíster en Estudios Coreanos). COLMEX (El Colegio de México)'s Centre of Asian and African Studies previously offered a Korean Studies MA, but the program has since been cancelled.

UCEN began preparations for its MA in Korean Studies along with a plan to strengthen its graduate studies programs in 2016, and the university was awarded a grant from the Academy for Korean Studies' Seed Program for Korean Studies ("Building an MA Program in Korean Studies and Establishing an Institute for Comparative Korean Studies") in June 2017. This gave the university a solid human and financial foundation. After two years of preparation, the MA program in Korean Studies opened in April 2018, and eight students (including one international student from Mexico) were enrolled. Five additional students were selected in 2019, but only three enrolled. (One Columbian student had visa issues, and one student was unable to enroll due to a sudden job loss.) Currently, two fulltime Korean professors and five outside lecturers teach courses. The program includes five semesters of work. With a three-semester school year, the university plans to award the first MA degrees in Korean Studies at the end of this year.

UCEN is a non-profit, private university founded in 1982 and is one of the three oldest private universities in Chile. It is 12th in terms of student population. The university has campuses in the capital of Santiago and the Coquimbo Region. The university has 5 faculties with 32 majors. Around 14,000 students (including 13,000 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students) are currently enrolled. The university initially focused on undergraduate education, but it is currently expanding its emphasis on research.

3) Establishing an MA in Korean Studies
In general, it would make sense to establish an undergraduate program before establishing the graduate program. However, it is not easy to create an undergraduate program in Chile because of the need for new students and faculty members. Every year, each undergraduate program needs at least 20-30 new students, and careers for graduating students must be guaranteed. The job market for Korean Studies majors in Chile is very small. On the other hand, a graduate program can be operated with relatively fewer students and fewer courses due to the shorter time required to complete the degree. In addition, because most MA students in Chile are already employed, most student's don't complete MA degrees as a means to get a job. Rather, the MA program is used as a way to strengthen their area of expertise and expand their expertise in related fields. These are the reasons that UCEN started with the MA program as a realistic way to develop Korean studies. The number of college graduates in Chile is increasing, causing the number of college graduates who can't find work to increase as well. All this has caused a growing number of students to complete graduate school to improve their expertise and competitiveness. Therefore, establishing a graduate program in Korean studies without an undergraduate program actually is a strategic approach to match the realities of Chile's education and job markets.

UCEN has grown to be the best Korean language institute in Chile. Korean language courses for general learners were first offered in August 2014, and the cumulative number of Korean language learners since then has exceeded 800 students. In April 2018, an additional short-term course was established as a graduate, non-degree program to teach beginning Korean for 10 months (Diplomado), and 37 students enrolled in the course. Due to increased demand, an intermediate course was added in 2019, and a total of 43 students enrolled in beginner and intermediate Korean. Additionally, the university was chosen as the Santiago King Sejong Institute in November 2018, raising the credibility of the university's Korean studies educational programs. A way for Korean language education to be incorporated in the university's education system is now possible following the inclusion of "Beginning Korean 1" as a required credit course beginning in the second semester of 2019.

This expansion of Korean language education over many years shows that interest in Korean language and Korean studies in general in growing. Outside of Korean language courses, a non-credit course titled "Understanding Korean Society and Culture" was offered in 2016, and the course through the KF Global e-School for Korean Studies in Latin America has been offered every semester starting in 2018. UCEN is the only university in Chile to participate in this program. In particular, high interest in Korean language and Korean studies courses has caused the university to give its full support, and this was an integral reason we were able to establish the MA program in Korean studies.

2. Current State of the MA Program in Korean Studies at UCEN

First, I will describe the current state of affairs of UCEN's Korean studies MA program since it opened in April 2018, focusing especially on the difficulties it faces in it's curriculum. While this describes the case at UCEN, it can show the challenges any institution might face while trying to operate such a program in a region weak in Korean studies.

The current curriculum was created to foster regional experts who can comprehensively understand the basics of Korea's politics, economy, society and culture from an area studies approach. Therefore, the first three semesters were composed of courses based on society and culture, economics, and politics. In other words, the first semester was focused on society and culture, the second semester was focused on economy, and the third was focused on politics and policies. The fourth and fifth semesters were based on dissertation research and Korea-Latin America comparative research courses. Elective courses were based on improving Korean language skills. We had ambitious goals as the only Korean studies MA program in Latin America, and the curriculum was designed to satiate a variety of interests.

In fact, we tried to create a curriculum that would be similar to those in Korean universities or large international universities. Because we needed courses in politics, economics, and society and culture, we faced difficulties in growing the number of faculty. Our current professors hold degrees in Korean studies and sociology, so they are able to teach a wide variety of courses. However, there is a limit to the quality of lectures when they teach courses outside their areas of expertise.

As an alternative, the "Korean Economic Development" course was taught by a visiting professor from Korea who specializes in economics in 2018 during the vacation period in Korea. However, this model is not sustainable because it depends on the availability of the professor in Korea and the expenses related to travel and lodging are very high. Even if these problems are solved, it is not easy to find a long-term professor who can speak Spanish. In 2019, we tried a new format. A professor of Korean economy in Mexico gave a lecture over teleconferencing technology, and an MBA student from Korea led the second half of the class in an in-person discussion with the students. However, online instruction presents its own unique challenges, so it is unclear whether this format will be useful in the long term.

Because we focused the curriculum on area studies, we had to lower the proportion of Korean language courses. This has become a barrier to the students' Korean language ability. We originally planned to include Korean language courses in each semester of the program, but we were only able to include one course because we needed to increase the proportion of the various Korean studies subjects. However, the students' Korean language skills are too low for them to become experts in Korean studies. We can't just force the students to improve their Korean language skills on their own without providing required courses. So as a measure for our current students, Korean language courses were designed for their fourth and fifth semester elective courses, and we provide extra language courses just for MA students. However, these courses aren't prioritized by the students because they are not required. Because of a lack of Korean studies material translated into Spanish, we have to rely on English articles and books, and this also presents challenges to understanding Korea.

In addition, students have some difficulties during their studies due to the fact that the program is a combination of area studies and the school system. In Chile, there is little opportunity to take major courses in other departments during undergraduate study because a majority of their courses are in their own major. Because we accept students from many different backgrounds in the Korean studies MA program, a majority of the students find area studies unfamiliar or difficult to digest. For example, one student who majored in the IT field wanted to integrate his major by researching the Korean e-government system. This student, however, found it difficult to research and write papers on humanities or social science topics such as Korea's culture or North-South relations.

Amongst all these difficulties, the most important thing for the continuation of this Korean studies MA program in Latin America is to secure and expand the number of new students coming in. This is because the demand for Korean language courses is not driven by combined national interests as in Southeast Asian countries. In addition, while the number of students taking Korean language courses continues to grow, interest in Korea as an academic subject taught in our MA program remains relatively low. Furthermore, only a small number of students interested in Korean studies actually enter the MA program.

Also, considering that the vast majority of Korean language learners are women, we have learned through our 18-month experience that it is necessary to connect academic learning to their interests. In other words, in order to secure the continuity of the MA program, it is necessary to reorganize the curriculum to attract the attention of Korean language learners. In addition, the Chilean job market is changing, and more and more opportunities for Korean speakers are arising. So our curriculum which focuses on creating the "next generation of comprehensive Korean studies scholars with a systematic understanding of Korea" but with low Korean language abilities might not be the best fit for the needs of today's students and society.

3. Ways to Sustain the Korean Studies MA Program

UCEN's Korean studies MA program strove to follow the model of area studies to provide a wide range of Korean studies education. However, as explored above, many difficulties have arisen. The following changes will be made to the curriculum starting in 2020, the third year of this program, to address these difficulties. The goal of these changes is to create a sustainable Korean MA program and include: 1) strengthening Korean language education, 2) transitioning to a lower cost structure using available human resources, 3) creating a complementary structure through intensive lectures and special lecture-oriented academic events, and 4) establishing an "interactive" Korean studies system through the Institute for Comparative Korean Studies.

1) Strengthening Korean Language Education
Strengthening Korean language education has the strategic aspect of realizing the demand for Korean language learning in Latin America, where Korean studies has been weak, to attract the largest number of new students to the MA program. This biggest change to the curriculum is that we will build a structure that targets women in their 20s and 30s who are currently learning Korean in Chile. We will then connect their interests in Korean to Korean studies after the beginner Korean course. We found that by increasing the number of Korean language courses in the MA program, students will be attracted to studying Korean language and Korean studies at the same time. In addition to securing new students, we will be able to increase the quality of Korean language learning if students who have already studied Korean enter the MA program. Although it is difficult to secure faculty members to teach politics or economics, it is much easier to find Korean language instructors in Chile.

Also as mentioned earlier, UCEN was designated as Chile's only King Sejong Institute at the end of 2018. This naturally has laid the foundation for a more active Korean language and culture education throughout the school. This move also increased the credibility of Korean studies education at UCEN. In the near future, UCEN's Korean language program will grow from a lone structure that is difficult to expand to a structure that gains synergy through collaboration and cooperation with partner institutions. Additionally, Korean language courses were newly established as one of the required liberal arts courses for undergraduate students starting in the second semester of 2019. This will expose more undergraduate students at UCEN to Korean language and Korean studies, and we expect many of these students will consider applying for the MA program in Korean studies.

2) Transition to a Low-Cost Structure: Choice and Concentration
UCEN's MA program in Korean studies is the only in Latin America which has two Korean faculty members participating in the program. One of these faculty members received a PhD in Korean studies, and the other received a PhD in sociology. Therefore, we plan on lowering the number of courses in economics, politics, and international relations. Instead, we will increase courses in history, culture, and society to take advantage of these two experts. This will allow us to solve the problems of finding qualified instructors for these courses and financial issues due to teaching fees. It will also allow the faculty to focus on their specialized topics rather than teaching courses outside of their major field. University administrators agree that increasing the number of courses taught by professors already employed by the university will lower the financial burden of hiring new teachers. This means that even if we have a small number of students, the program will be sustainable because of low operating costs.

In addition, UCEN is the only university in Chile to participate in the KF Global e-School for Korean Studies in Latin America program since 2018. As part of this program, Korean studies experts in Latin America teach courses on Korean studies in Spanish, so there are no problems with language. The courses meet three hours per week for 16 weeks, so they can be recognized by the university and the students can receive credit for them. Accordingly, UCEN is in the process of recognizing the KF Global e-School course as an elective credit course for the MA program starting next year. This structure will simultaneously solve the problem of instructor shortage and offer a wide range of courses to the students.

3) Complementary Structure through Intensive Lectures and Special Lecture-Oriented Academic Events
The academic topics for the courses which will be reduced in accordance with the curriculum restructuring will be supplemented and complemented by additional academic events such as occasional intensive lectures and special lectures by visiting scholars. In this way, we will be able to continue to have the area studies model of Korean studies that we had originally planned. For example, we held the "1st Latin American Korean Studies Academy" in 2019, a lecture series of invited scholars on the topic of "The Cold War and Reconciliation: The New Korean Peninsula." This is to compensate for the shortening of the sessions when courses on the North-South relationship and politics were combined. In this way, we are striving to create a structure that fills any deficiency of the reorganized curriculum by operating special programs in areas where it is difficult for our limited faculty to teach.

4) Establishing an "Interactive" Korean Studies System through the Institute for Comparative Korean Studies and Expanding Research on Korea
As part of creating a sustainable system, we will also actively promote comparative research. In order for Korean studies to take root in Chilean academia, it is necessary to establish an "interactive" Korean studies system that draws wide academic interest and cooperates with local academic fields. Chile does not have an active academic community which researches Asia, and there is not much interdisciplinary research. All of these make it difficult for Korean studies to arise as an independent and isolated form of research. With the recent approval of the Institute for Comparative Korean Studies, we are consciously working to promote collaboration and comparative research with other faculties in the university. Now, as the MA program and research in Korean studies are interlocked, our MA students will be given the opportunity to participate in research while completing their studies. Additionally, this will resolve the shortage of researchers in Korean studies while expanding the topics being researched.

4. Growing into Latin America's "Small but Strong Korean Studies"

So far I have explained the difficulties and improvements and internal reorganizations we have made in running an MA program in Korean studies at UCEN. Outside of the things discussed here, the only MA program in Korean studies includes securing scholarships, strengthening exchange with Korea, introducing a joint degree program (3 semesters + 2 semesters), expanding employment channels, and translating and publishing Spanish textbooks. It is also important for us to prepare countermeasures for when the Academy for Korean Studies' Seed Program for Korean Studies ends in May 2020. We therefore must operate the MA program according to the local conditions. Building on UCEN's experience over the past 18 months, we are creating a model that is sustainable in the mid to long term. The restructuring of our MA program is focused on creating a sustainable structure.

Because Korean studies is historically weak in Latin America, the top priority for Korean studies is to make it sustainable. Like strategies of "small but strong" countries, we need a "small but strong Korean studies" model in this region. This model will experience many difficulties as it begins to take root to sustain itself. The MA in Korean studies at UCEN is an opportunity for the expansion of Korean studies in Latin America. Continued interest and support are essential for UCEN to grow into a hub of Korean studies in Latin America.

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

Go to top