Professor Woo Jo Kim is head of the department of Indian Studies in Hankuk University in Seoul, Korea. She has a Ph.D. in Hindi literature from Visva Bharati University in West Bengal, India. Considered to be one of the most versatile scholars of Indian studies in Korea, Professor Woo is the author of many books, with some of her most famous works including ‘Korean Hindi Dictionary’ (2008), ‘Communalism in India’ (2006) and ‘Indian Women: Myth and Reality’ (2004).
With a career spanning more than 30 years Prof. Woo commands respect and authority matched by very few among Korean scholars on Indian studies. In an exclusive interview with Dr. Lakhvinder Singh she gives her view on a wide range of issues facing India-Korea relations. Here are some excerpts of the interview.
Thank you for your time. First of all, we’d like to know about your association with the university. When did you start here? How long is your experience and how do you feel about your job?
I was one of the first students who started studying the Hindi language in South Korea. It was back in 1972. Our Hindi department was established at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 1971. I studied a four year BA program there and then went to India, where I studied for two years at a central institute for Hindi, followed by two years at Jawaharlal Nehru University and then five or six years in Visva Bharati University. My Ph.D. dissertation was on Chhayavaad Hindi romanticism, and during my research work, I started teaching Hindi and Indian literature and Indian culture in this university from 1981 onward. So it’s been more than 30 years.
So, you have never been to any other places for work? After graduation, you immediately came here?
Yes, that’s right. I was the president of the Korean Association for Indian Studies and director of the Institute of Indian Studies of our university, which was established in 1995.
So is there any Indian Studies Association of Korea now?
Yes, there are several, such as the Korean Association for Indian Studies, or the Society of Indian Philosophy.
When did this association start?
It started in 1995. This association for Indian studies publishes a biannual Journal of Indian Studies and the Institute of Indian studies also publishes the Journal of South Asian Studies three times a year
How many students do you have?
We have two campuses. One is in Seoul and the other is in Yong-in. Each one has
thirty students for each year, so all together there are around two hundred students.
As you know, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of India- Korea diplomatic ties. How do you look at the past 40 years of the India-Korea relationship from your perspective?
It has improved a lot. The nature of Indian studies in Korea has continued to deepen and widen as time has passed
During the first 30 years, the relationship was quite ‘slow’. It is only over the past 10 years or so that we have seen some real progress. So what’s your perspective? Over the entire past 40 years, if we had given proper attention to each other, couldn’t we have reached much higher?
Maybe not. I think only from an economic perspective, the last ten years have seen real progress. But in another fields such as culture and religion the relationship was flourishing. So, no regrets.
Then you are happy?
It’s not about happiness. I mean, it’s just fine. We have had a progressively deeper relationship with India for the 30 years prior to this recent economic engagement. In the past 10 years, the economic relationship has been growing faster but the other fields are still ‘okay’. However, I think that those other fields have now been relegated to incidental factors now that both countries are concentrating only on this economic relationship.
Then what do you think of the further relationship between both countries in the future?
I think it’s very hopeful and positive.
For a long time, most Korean students liked to go to the USA or Europe to study, but recently many have started going to China. Even though India has very good education curriculum, it hasn’t been able to attract as many students as it could. I’d like to know your view on the education preferences of Korean students. More and more students are going to China and not the USA. What should we do to attract more Korean students to India?
I don’t think Korean students want to go only to China. They still want to go to the USA as well. India could certainly garner more attention in this regard in the foreseeable future, but because I studied Indian literature in India because that was the only
to study it, honestly I haven’t thought much about this matter. I don’t think many Korean students want to study there, but they do want to go and see India.
Why do you think so?
I think the education system is not really suited for us. Perhaps it is not globalized enough. But many Korean students want to see and experience India culturally.
Given your understanding of the Indian education sector, what are the possibilities of cooperation between India and Korea?
Two things which come to my mind are English and Indian philosophy. I think we have to learn how to accept diversities from India since Korea is now also becoming a multi-cultural country.
Most universities in Europe or the US have Indian studies departments. But in Korea, very few universities do. What is the primary reason for this?
I think it is because we started very late. Our relationship is improving though!
Admittedly, Indian studies are still very poor in Korea, but the relationship between both countries is growing, isn’t it?
I don’t think it’s very poor. Our department was established in 1972, which was just 40 years ago! In contrast, Western countries have had a long history of Indian studies.
Yes, general universities in Europe and the USA have proper Indian studies rather than foreign language universities exclusively. But in Korea, general universities don’t have Indian studies.
But there are some Asian studies departments and they do include Indian studies.
Yes, but I feel Indian studies in universities are not improving as much as the growth of relationship between the both countries. My concern is that we should improve it more. So what do you think the India government should do to promote Indian studies in Korea?
If the Indian government can organize some global associations for Indian studies or invite many scholars from the world to be sponsors for these associations, it will be helpful. We need some exchange with foreigners studying Indian studies in other countries, but as yet we have very few chances to exchange with other scholars from other countries.
So you mean that the India government should specifically make a globalized association for Indian studies, so that scholars from all over the world could have a chance to exchange on a common platform?
It’s a very good and attractive idea. Especially for Hindi language and literature, because we who study it are not many, so we need to exchange and connect with other people from other countries,
What should the Indian government do then to promote Indian studies in Korea?
Give more chairs to the universities because there are so many researchers or students who want to study about India, but there are no jobs waiting for them. Actually, I’ve not thought about it seriously. I have only 6 years left until my retirement from the university, so I’m just busy with my work.
What type of work are you doing currently?
I have done some Korean-to-Hindi dictionary work. I have a dream to write the history of Indian literature from Vedic literature with a historical background, and I am also preparing an anthology of Indian poetry.
Please tell us more about this anthology.
It’s an anthology of Indian poetry of Mirza Ghalib, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian romantic poets, progressive poets, modern poets, Dalit and feminist poets. It’s to be published in Korean along with the original text of poems.
Please tell us more about your dictionary project. I think you are the first one who has done this work in Korea. When did you start it and when did it publish?
I was the chief editor of this work. We were able to start in 1994 with a grant from the Ministry of Education of Korean Government and it was published in 2008. The ministry of Foreign Affairs, India, gave some financial help.
We have another Hindi-Korean dictionary as well which was published in 1995.
I think the Korean-Hindi dictionary is excellent work. If we would like to get a copy of this, where can we get it? Is it easily available?
Yes. It is. You can buy it from every major bookstore here in Korea
Actually there is a problem. Such a good work has been done, but because of the lack of communication, we don’t know about it.
Yes, we are just doing our work on a scholarly basis, and we don’t have good connections with people at the Indian embassy. But if they want to get to know our work, they can do so. Maybe we have to ‘propagandize’ ourselves, but we just do our work on our own.
No, I can say that the embassy officials have certainly noticed your work.
You know what, actually I felt very bad to learn that the Indian ambassador visited our university and met only our president but did not visit our department. I think the ambassador should have visited our department also. Yes, sometimes they noticed our work, but perhaps the Indian government doesn’t properly respect us.
Your point is well taken. I just want to tell you that we do understand and appreciate your work. That’s why we are here. This is an effort to recognize the work done by Koreans such as yourself.
Thank you. I’d like to show you more about my work.
Okay, by the way, what’s your future plan?
Well, I’ve worked on this dictionary for ten years. I did some broadcasting on EBS last year. I made this textbook for the education of Hindi. It’s in Korean. This year my Hindi class will be opened to the public under the OCW scheme of our university. I have the desire to introduce Hindi language and Indian culture to the Korean public after my retirement.
Please tell us about how many students are studying here and what kind of job they can do after graduation? What’s the future of students studying at the Hindi department in this school?
There are thirty students for a year, so there are around 100 students for four year programs in this campus. Also, we have another campus in Yong-in and the same number of students study there. Most of our students get good jobs in companies. Some are doing work in relation with India as they expected and others are hoping to do work related with India someday.
What do you think the primary motivation of Korean students to study in the Hindi department is?
I think that primarily they have an interest in emerging countries like India, so they want to study specifically about India.
Is the Institute of Indian Studies different than the Hindi department, or are they the same?
No, they are quite different.
Then how many professors do you have in the Institute of Indian Studies?
The institute has six professors, and there are also researchers working there.
What kinds of work are done at the Institute of Indian Studies then?
Mostly it is research work. We are focusing on all kinds of Indian studies. These days, for example, we are doing some Manu Smriti
Are you interested in social work?
Yes, after retirement! For improving Indians’ life, if possible.
Almost 40 years ago India was not so important. Why did you study about India? What was the motivation?
Because there was nobody studying about India. I’m the first one in Korea who actually studied about it. It’s the only reason. I thought it was very good to have a
Are you happy that you did it?
Yes, I’m happy with my work because India has a very rich culture, history and of course literature as well. There are so many things to do and that’s why I’m happy with it.
Nowadays there are many Indian people in Korea and a lot of Korean people go to India. How do you feel about the relationship between both counties, not only in the educational field but also from a social perspective?
I think more relationship needs to be established. Because I don’t think Korean people really know about India. I think we need more exchange and understanding about each other.
Do you have an interest in Indian poetry also?
Of course. I have done my Ph.D. in Chhayavaad, which is Hindi romanticism.
How do you think of the economic relationship between our two countries?
I think it is certainly going to grow more in the future.
So you think India is going to provide Korean people more and more economic opportunities?
Yes, I think so.
Two years ago, CEPA was signed. What do you think about this agreement?
Well, it’s not in my field, but I think it’s a good aspect of the relationship between two countries.
But many Indians were complaining that CEPA is helping only Koreans.
Yes, then maybe that’s why I feel very happy (laughs).
Is there anything more you would like to talk about on this 40th year relationship between Korea and India?
I want to have better relationship and exchange more people in various fields as well.
It seems you have a very good relationship with the Indian people.
They are always so kind to me and my Guru-ji (Professor Ram Singh Tomar) was just like my father. So, I’m very grateful to India and Indians for all the love and respect they have shown to me.
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