As a professor who has taught on Korea, Theodore Jun Yoo knew there was a need for a concise, engaging book that distilled contemporary Korea and the very different trajectories of North and South. So, he went on to write The Koreas: The Birth of Two Nations Divided, a fascinating and unique history that explores contemporary North and South Korea through pop culture, key social issues, and the diaspora experience.

Currently, Theodore Jun Yoo is Associate Professor in the Department of Korean Language and Literature at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. He is the author of The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea and It’s Madness.

Yoo joined our Editorial Director, Kim Robinson, for a conversation about what motivated him to write the book, his family’s experiences as part of the Korean diaspora, and what it means to be “Korean.”

Kim Robinson: Thanks for joining us, Theodore. I found The Koreas to be a fascinating, and compelling history that explores the very different trajectories of contemporary North and South Korea. Can you start us off by telling us what motivated you to write this book?

Theodore Jun Yoo: For anyone who has been tasked to teach the “modern” period, the premodern folks usually end their courses in the 16th century and then expect the person who teaches the modern period to cover all the way to the present. I think this kind of chronological format worked perhaps in the 1980s, but “the present period” keeps getting longer.

Imagine you are tasked with teaching a course on Korea. It’s quite daunting trying to offer snapshots of the late 19th century that cover imperialism, Japanese colonialism, the Korean war, national division, three decades of dictatorship (in the south), and then all the events after the fall of the Berlin wall.  Based on my experience, I would be lucky if I made it to 1987 by the end of the semester.

So to answer your question, I felt for a long time that the curriculum needed to changed, to create a new “Contemporary Korea” course that starts with Japanese colonialism and the Korean war and then jumps to the 20th-21st century.  And we need more books or resources that focus on Korea in this time period, in an effective and concise way. When UC Press editor Reed Malcom approached me about this topic, it was something I really wanted to do. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for me was putting the outline for the manuscript together. I was overwhelmed by the number of important events that take place after 2000! Then the Trump and Kim meeting happened, and that was when I started to feel like I better wait and see if something crazy happens after the Singapore summit…

Robinson: You open your book with scenes from the 2018 Olympics, and discussion of the first unified Korean women’s hockey team, which you say provides a “snapshot of the two Koreas today, symbolizing the tragedy of national division and its diasporic population.” Can you tell us more about this example and why it’s so symbolic of how you see the two Koreas?

Yoo: Textbooks on South or North Korea often leave out the diasporic population. One of my objectives in The Koreas was to highlight some of these diasporic communities, such as North Korean refugees, Korean American, Chinese-Korean, zainichi (Japanese Koreans), and recently migrant workers,  while emphasizing that who is called “Korean” is still a very politically charged question that is shaped by nationalist ideals of race, class, and more.  

As I describe in my book, there has been a longing for reunification. But South Koreans, and certainly the North, did not seem to share that kind of emotional “we are one” feeling that was expressed at the 2000 Sydney games when both countries marched together holding hands. In 2018, it seemed much more contrived, especially with the North Korean cheerleaders and Vice President’s Pence’s stare down!

But beyond the optics and fanfare, this example reminded many Koreans around the world that the two Koreas are still divided. To see a women’s hockey team with Korean players featuring an adoptee, a biracial, Korean-American, and an American coach, laid bare issues that needed to be talked about Korea’s diasporic population and relationship with the United States. To me, aside from all the politics, it was really interesting to see these players grow as a team despite all their losses. They came to respect each other as sisters, as team mates, and offer a kind of a lesson to all of us about humanity.

The central focus of my book is to put aside our ideological positions, whatever it means to be left or right, and to come to respect each other as human beings with empathy. When I was writing this book, I felt compelled to reach out to my parents and those of their generation, many of whom came to the south as refugees. Instead of simply brushing off their experiences or taking offense to them calling me a “commie,” I wanted to learn about their experiences and to try to integrate them into the narrative.

I think there was also a need for me to offer a narrative that is not simple and “rosy,” where people from the diaspora are all welcome back to Korea. It’s not that easy once you start to understand the history and analyze class and race dynamics.

As for the North, I think the lesson about the players is key. There is a lot to be said about the ideology and what Kim Jong-eun and his regime do versus the people. To see a team come together under a U.S. coach whom you would think the North would have opposed, does give us some glimmer of hope.

Robinson: Much of the book focuses on the complicated question of what it means to be Korean, while challenging simple ethnoracial categorizations of people. Can you talk about how you do this in the book?

Yoo: I think a good case study is F-visas in South Korea. Why can Japanese or Korean Americans get a long-term overseas Korean visa and not Chinese-Koreans? These are certainly issues I wanted to explore, while also revealing Koreans’ experiences abroad, such as those who became miners or nurses in Germany.  Many of them went experienced racism as immigrants, and yet South Korea today treats its own migrant workers badly instead of learning from its diasporic communities.

With the North, there is much to be said about the closed society of North Korea and their versions of race. Imagine a refugee, another charged term, is admitted to the South and then told they have to become naturalized as a South Korean. What does that mean? In the same way, there is a huge community of North Koreans in the suburbs of London. What does it mean to be a North Korean – Refugee for them? Why are so many of them still working in Korean companies there?

While my book does not address all of these issues in depth, I ask readers to think critically about ethnoracial categories from a diasporic and historical lens, and see how incongruous these categories are and how they are tied to larger nationalist narratives and policies.

Robinson: You take a unique approach to telling this history, by opening each chapter with a feature story drawn from pop culture. What made you take this approach?

Yoo: When I was a graduate student in Chicago, I was exposed to many dense theories which I thought were useful in developing conceptual frameworks. But I really fell in love with micro-history and the works of Carlo Ginsburg, Jonathan Spence, Robert Darton, Clifford Geertz, E.P. Thompson, and Natalie Zemon Davis.

Given that people are so familiar with certain big names or events, I wanted to use people from the diaspora or different social classes or genders to ask “large questions in small places,” as Charles Joyner aptly puts it. It’s quite compelling trying to write a book of this sort because it’s really a matter of the writer deciding on who to include or exclude.  I must confess that was perhaps the most difficult part of writing this text given that there are so many interesting people.

Robinson: You mention that this story has personal resonance for you, because your family crossed to the south during the Korean War. Can you tell us more about how this personal history influenced your book?

Yoo: As a foodie, I collect a lot of cookbooks and came across Judy Joo’s great cookbook. Aside from her recipes, what I found most revealing about her text was her personal story. It almost mirrored mine. Her parents were from the North and they all had to spend some time in Busan and Jeju.

I think what is most telling about my family’s experience is that both my parents and my wife’s parents are from the north, yet their passport states their birth of origin is Seoul. How crazy is that? My grandparents ended up immigrating to the United States, while my father became part of the efforts by the South Korean government to build their presence in Africa. He joined a group of doctors to serve in different countries in Africa where they needed U.N. votes.

I used to think my background was unique, but I have come across so many people who share similar stories. I thought, wow, if I could somehow try to bring out these stories, they could offer new arcs and research agendas for the next generation of historians. There is a lot to be written still about these diasporic communities.

Robinson: You’ve had a very interesting life, living in Ethiopia with Korean parents, attending school in the United States, and working as a professor in Hawaii and now in Seoul. What are your impressions of South Korea, and how does it differ from American culture?

Yoo: I was actually born in Seoul, but departed Seoul for Addis Ababa when I was 3 years old. I have deep connections with Ethiopia today and am building the first pathway program with folks there to bring students in top STEM fields to Korea.

My impressions of South Korea is that it’s really fast-paced. I don’t think most academics in the U.S. could survive here. It’s an ultra-competitive society and I am not a big fan of its educational system. I’ve been here for 5 and a half years, and I still can’t figure out this rote memorization pedagogy. To be perfectly honest, I always tell my colleagues that I feel like I’m on my sabbatical and doing research here.

I feel this desire to return somewhere and I have yet to find that place. That might be a feeling that is representative of my generation of Koreans who have lived in multiple countries and can easily adapt to a place, but still long to move. To answer your question about American culture, I have come to realize that I actually miss certain things that seem so mundane, like being able to throw my trash in a big dumpster, watching football on Sunday, etc. It’s hard to replicate those kinds of things. But at the same time, I’ve been able to sublimate those kinds of longings to build projects here like my pathway program or VR-cloud 5G networked game in Korean language. You could never do these kinds of fun things with digital platforms in the U.S. That is what I feel is the big difference with the U.S. The digital revolution here has really taken off and to be able to make contents with educational value has been something I have come to enjoy.

Robinson: What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from your book?

Yoo: I want people to talk to each other and gain empathy that is lacking in any kind of democratic society, including the U.S..  I think people need to try to hear individual stories and to make sense of their histories and issues. This is what democracy is all about. Such conversations need to start taking place again and that is how we can overcome the prevalence of conspiracy theories. 

The same can be said about the two Koreas. To go back to the question you raised about the Olympic women’s ice hockey team, I want people to unlearn and come to a deeper understanding of how the two Koreas have ended up this way. To be sure, I am hoping that my generation, especially from the diaspora, will be able to see how their stories align together in very unique ways.

Robinson: Thanks for joining us!

Yoo: Thank you!