Campus close-up: Uclan aims to combat media ‘trivialisation’ of North Korea

Course looking at ‘key security issue for East Asia’ part of major University of Central Lancashire investment in Korean studies

August 5, 2015
Female North Korean soldiers, Yalu River, 2010
Source: Reuters
Key security issue: North Korea is ‘at the heart of foreign policy’ globally

When it comes to North Korea “most of what gets published in the media is total rubbish”, according to Hazel Smith, director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire.

Uclan is contributing to serious analysis of the state by creating the UK’s first master’s course on the study of North Korea within the IKSU – indeed it will be the first such course anywhere in the world outside South Korea.

Professor Smith, who lived in North Korea for two years while working for the United Nations World Food Programme and Unicef, said that there is a “mass of data” on conditions inside the country, but “you don’t find people are using it very much…because of the trivialisation of the reporting on North Korea, globally”.

The North Korea MA comes in the context of a long-term commitment to language study and internationalisation by Uclan, said Professor Smith, who joined the university 18 months ago after posts as professor of international security at Cranfield University and professor of international relations at the University of Warwick.

Uclan taught Japanese and Chinese for 20 years within its “huge languages department”, before putting about £1 million of its own resources into setting up Korean studies three years ago, she said.

When it comes to internationalisation through branch campuses, Uclan has had a less than rosy experience owing to its stumbling attempts to set up outposts abroad.

But on languages, Professor Smith said that Uclan had “bucked the trend” for UK universities to cut provision, as part of a programme of internationalisation of curricula started by Malcolm McVicar, the former vice-chancellor.

The work of the IKSU covers fields such as the study of Korean language, culture and politics through research, teaching and public policy activity. Uclan is now “only the third university in the country that offers Korean [language] to degree level for a full degree”, Professor Smith said, the others being the University of Sheffield and Soas, University of London.

She added that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office was “very supportive” of the IKSU “because it sees Korea as increasingly important for the UK overall in trade and economic terms”. The South Korean foreign office is also supportive, as it feels that “Korea doesn’t really get the attention worldwide that it ought to, given its economic weight”.

The number of students wanting to study at the IKSU has “surprised everybody”, said Professor Smith, stating that one factor behind the predominantly British and European young entrants is the increasing worldwide interest “in contemporary Korean culture, particularly K-pop”, as South Korean pop music is termed.

So did the success of Psy’s Gangnam Style lead to a spike in applications? “I don’t want to get technical, but Gangnam Style is not really K-pop,” Professor Smith said.

The North Korea MA, which will launch either this autumn or the next, will be a “rigorous social science-based degree”, she said. The nation is worthy of study not just in itself, she argued, but as “the key security issue for the whole of East Asia…It’s at the heart of foreign policy for Japan, for China, for South Korea, obviously, and for the United States”.

So problematic are the relations between North and South Korea that the demilitarised zone dividing the two was described as the “scariest place on Earth” by former US president Bill Clinton. 

Professor Smith said of coverage of North Korea: “All the jokey stuff in the news and sensationalist stuff might sell newspapers but it doesn’t help policy analysts, whether they are working in international organisations, in governments, or banks…understand both North Korea and the relationships North Korea has…in the region.”

She described North Korea studies as “a big absence actually in academia”, beyond South Korea.

Her own time living in the North “enabled me to start to see where the data was and to realise that it’s a complete myth that there’s no data on North Korea”, she said.

As a result of the presence of international organisations such as Unicef, the World Bank and the World Health Organization since the famine of the 1990s, there are “masses of data on social and economic indicators” such as infant mortality, incidence of immunisation and agriculture, said Professor Smith.

She hoped that Uclan’s MA would “get the students to, first of all know where the knowledge is, so they can go for it; and secondly have the critical skills to be able to analyse it for themselves and to analyse reporting on North Korea for themselves”.

In numbers

£1 million – Uclan’s investment in setting up Korean studies at the institution

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