Arts & Culture

Class, war, and discrimination in 1812 Korea

7 min read

Sun Joo Kim’s scholarship employs a host of primary sources — including her own life

Sun Joo Kim’s laugh is as easy as it is infectious. Her cheery nature no doubt comes in handy when she’s conducting her intensive research in three complex languages.

“Do I have time for fun?” she responded with a hearty chuckle when asked what she does for fun in her spare time. From the looks of the small vaulted room on Divinity Avenue, the answer is a decided “no.” Kim’s new office, with its large, airy window, affords an impressive view of Harvard’s stately Center for European Studies, yet the floor-to-ceiling rows of books in Korean, Japanese, and classical Chinese signal that there’s little idle time to appreciate the landscape. But it’s of no consequence. Kim’s landscape of preference dates back 600 years.

A recently tenured professor of Korean history in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Kim specializes in the Choson Korean period, which stretches from 1392 to 1910 A.D.

Her recent work, “Marginality and Subversion in Korea: The Hong Kyongnae Rebellion of 1812” (University of Washington Press, 2007), received extensive praise for its examination of regional tensions in the northwest section of Korea and was nominated for the Berkshire Conference First Book Prize. Using primary source materials, memoirs, and writings from those directly involved in the conflict, Kim examines the role of the marginalized elite in the area and their reasons for taking part in the uprising. Her work’s central theme of discrimination is a topic that has lasting and intimate relevance to Kim, her life, and her career.

“Personally, I am interested in the issue of discrimination and social differentiation. I am interested in people, how they act, how they react, how they negotiate through various cultures and circumstances and turn oppression into positive actions and forces. It’s just like my own life.”

Kim’s fascination with history began at an early age with a love for memorizing events and dates. Later, in high school and then college in Seoul, South Korea, first-hand experience with her country’s political turmoil cemented her career path.

“The atmosphere at the time in the ’80s in Korea made me think more about the importance of history — how we think about it, how it is relevant to contemporary events. We were living under a dictatorship in Korea. It was a so-called democratic society but what really happened was that military dictators held power then they crushed these peaceful student and labor demonstrations,” said the professor, whose sister, an outspoken activist, was jailed and tortured for her role in local protests.

In her initial examinations of resistance movements from the past, Kim studied the 1812 rebellion but largely from a peasant or “bottom up” perspective. When she began her graduate work, she revisited the conflict and realized its broader historical dimensions. She also began to understand that “history” often reflected the present-day concerns of historians.

“As I started my graduate training I got to learn immediately that history is historiography — and how our contemporary issues affect our understanding of the past. I began to look at primary sources very closely and tried to see whether this rebellion was really a peasant movement or not — who the leaders of the movement were and what their ultimate goals were. [I asked] what other factors — not just political reasons but other economic, social, and cultural things — affected the making of this particular rebellion.”

Ultimately, this more nuanced approach led to her thesis — and her book, which presents a more complex understanding of class and conflict. Kim is currently at work on her second book, about the life and work of Yi Shiang, a scholar, intellectual, and poet from the northwest section of Korea, who, due to his regional background, was unable to excel and gain national recognition or a position of power.

“He is one of first intellectuals from that province to have very high sense of regional identity and to try to advance regional issues at the national level. …I am trying to look at broader issues through this one person.”

Much of her work involves a close examination of primary sources. Reading Japanese and Korean — which, Kim said, are similar enough — helps ease the process. But classical Chinese, which was widely used by the elite during the Choson period, is another story. Its structure and characters are different from contemporary Chinese, making it a challenge even for a native speaker. But the research is critical, said Kim, as the first-hand accounts offer revealing insights into the culture and sentiment of the times.

In addition to South Korea’s political unrest in the ’80s, Kim’s family story also significantly shaped her career. Her father died when she was a young teen and it fell to her mother to raise Kim, her two older sisters, and her older brother.

Despite growing up in a patriarchal society where sons were heavily favored and groomed for success, Kim said she did not feel inferior. Although her mother — a strong, outgoing woman — didn’t offer any kind of official directive or instruction, her message was clear: Being female was not a disadvantage.

“It’s not that she indoctrinated us in any way,” Kim recalled. “[But] the atmosphere at home was that men and women are equal — we have to have equal opportunities, we have the same talent … things like that.”

Kim earned a degree in history from the prestigious Yonsei University in 1984, but an early marriage and a move with her husband to the United States put her plans for further study on hold. It was in California and later in Washington that she had what she calls the “typical immigrant experience.” She worked in a series of manual jobs — at a drycleaner, as a janitor, in a clerical position at a bank, and in a hamburger restaurant — before going back to school for her master’s degree then her Ph.D. at the University of Washington.

The early jobs never discouraged the determined Kim from eventually continuing her studies, something she had always planned to do. Instead, her working life became a type of societal classroom.

“I didn’t resent that I had to work physically with a college degree,” she said, “I guess I was curious and I just wanted to learn in any capacity.”

Nevertheless, living in United States as a South Korean woman with a noticeable accent has inevitably resulted in occasions when she felt stereotyped.

“Some people think, you’re a woman and you’re Asian, and they have a set of assumptions that go with that, like I must be docile or submissive. It’s just very embedded and people do not recognize that they are doing it … and it’s hard to change.”

Kim is hopeful that her work, especially in light of talks about the reunification of North and South Korea, will offer future generations a vision of history that will help them move forward.

“Imagine that when these two countries are unified — given the economic disparity right now — what sort of social division and discrimination would go on. And what kind of historical memory would play a role in the future of Korea when unified? … I think my work could be related to those kinds of issues.”