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Perspectives on Contemporary Korea

This annual conference series is intended to encourage and disseminate scholarship emphasizing contemporary issues in Korean Studies. Each conference revolves around a different theme critical to contemporary Korea, and invites scholars--in training as graduate students, at the beginning of their careers, or well-established--to submit work from any discipline or methodology that considers the case of Korea relevant to the theme.

Korea Around the Table: Food, Culture, and Mobility | November 2022

November 3 & 4, 2022

Food exposes the intricacies and complexities of Korean culture and history. Food is quick and slow, tradition and innovation, codification and creativity, quintessentially local and a booming global industry. Food is social, whether served at a formal banquet or eaten on the street with friends. Food is lauded for its authenticity but is endlessly crossing borders and taking on new lives. Jjajangmyeon is Chinese food in Korea and Korean food abroad. One can eat sundubu jjigae in Seoul without realizing it was popularized in southern California. A bowl of budae jjigae remembers conflict but offers comfort. 

Korea Around the Table: Food, Culture, and Mobility

Reclaiming the City | November 2021

April 12-16, 2021

Who owns the city?

Who produces the city?

Who has the right to the city today?

How do we practice the city?

These are the driving questions that frame our 11th conference in the Perspectives on Contemporary Korea series at the Nam Center for Korean Studies at the University of Michigan. Thinking about various modes of spatial practices, this conference will probe the contemporary conditions of the city in a country that has undergone exponential growth and is in constant metamorphosis.

The starting point of our conversation is an acknowledgement that modern and contemporary cities are byproducts of power, be it a developmentalist state, technocratic urban management, or privatization of society. With that critical understanding, the conference focuses on the questions of spatial and social justice. The conference’s aim is not to confine itself to the question of accessibility but to broadly explore the role of the collective and the creative exercise of its power.

Reclaiming the City | Perspectives on Contemporary Korea Conference 2021-22

The South Korean Film Industry | April 2021

April 12-16, 2021 | Virtual Conference

The South Korean Film Industry

Three || Eight: Korean Literature and the Division System | November 2019

This year’s gathering focuses on the culture of division. The recent, highly publicized crossings of the Thirty-Eighth Parallel by Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in, and Donald Trump have dramatized the possible dissolution in the foreseeable future of what South Korean critic Paik Nak-chung has called the “division system”: the interdependence of seemingly hostile actors borne of and sustained by the partition of the Korean peninsula. As a defining feature of Northeast Asian geopolitics since the second half of the twentieth century, the division system gave rise to extreme and violent forms of physical, linguistic, and cultural territorializations even as it conditioned diasporic Korean communities in Northeast Asia and authored vectors of unexpected movement. Reflecting on the historical complexities of the division system as it faces its potential demise, the conference seeks to shed light on the varied literary and cultural experiences that were mediated by the Korean language under the condition of division by considering together the literatures of the two Koreas, as well as Korean-language writings produced in Japan and Northeast China. How did the division system shape literature in these regions? How did literature and film challenge this system from within and across national boundaries? And how might the concept and practice of Korean literature change in a post-division era within a rapidly changing mediascape?

Three || Eight: Korean Literature and the Division System

Religion, Politics and Happiness in Korea | October 2018

The preamble to Korea’s founding constitution of 1948 made the solemn promise to provide freedom, happiness, and the steady improvement of the quality of life for all citizens. This promise proved to be difficult to keep under decades of authoritarian rule and rapid industrialization. As part of Korea’s effort to successfully transition to democracy, the revised constitution of 1987 tried to grant fresh life and legal weight to this promise in its new tenth article, which underscored human worth and dignity and defined the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental and inviolable human right.

Religion, Politics and Happiness in Korea

The Future is Now: Mapping Social Change in Contemporary South Korea | November 2017

In recognition of the Nam Center's 10th anniversary, the 7th Perspectives conference will showcase a series of innovative, border-crossing and pragmatic conversations about the past, present and future of South Korean society across the domains of education, politics, economy, culture, regional relationships, and law.

The Future is Now: Mapping Social Change in Contemporary South Korea

Korean Families in Economic and Demographic Transitions | November 2016

South Korean families with children have changed significantly during the last few decades in composition, structure, and function. Major demographic changes, including the rise of divorce, and increase of marriage between Koreans and foreigners, have diversified Korean families. Moreover, the recent trends of rising economic inequality and deteriorating job security have posed serious challenges to many families, particularly at the lower end of socioeconomic hierarchy. How do Korean parents and children cope with the economic and demographic challenges? How do the economic and demographic trends in Korea contribute to widening disparities in family environments? When families struggle with economic strain and family instability, how do extended family networks work to provide economic, social, and emotional support to vulnerable family members? These questions of how families fare at the crossroads of economic and demographic changes, and whether families can rely on family ties in navigating the crossroads, are particularly important in Korea that has traditionally weak public welfare.

This conference, Korean Families in Economic and Demographic Transitions, the sixth in Perspectives on Contemporary Korea series, aims to bring scholars together to discuss how recent economic and demographic changes have affected parents and children in Korea, and at the same time how changing family structure and arrangements have also contributed to recent economic and social inequality.

Digital Korea | November 2015

One of the hallmarks of contemporary Korea is the incredible rate of development, adoption, and integration of new communication technologies. With this access to new communication technologies now part of the very fabric of Korean society, it becomes important to examine the history, use, and effects of Korean digital media – the internet, social media, mobile phones, etc. How has Korea’s particular history shaped the development of new communication technologies and new media use in the country? What sectors of Korean society are using new media and in what ways? How do values, norms, and personal attributes interplay with individual’s use of digital media? How does new media use and adoption play out between generations? What has been the impact of digital media in politics and society as well as everyday life?

Digital Korea: History, Use, and Effects of New Communication Technologies aims to showcase innovative scholarly work examining various subjects concerning the role of social media, mobile phones, and other new communication technologies in in the case of Korea. The conference will be open to all methodological and disciplinary traditions. Theory-driven research and innovative methodological approaches are particularly welcome.

Cultures of Yushin | Fall 2014

While understanding the workings of political economy is essential to studies of the
Yushin era, it is important to expand our examination of the period to encompass the question of culture, broadly conceived. Recent scholarship in Korea has begun to examine the dimension of “desire” in addition to the dimension of “repression” inherent in the creation of individual subjectivities as well as in the rise of mass society in the 1970s, interrogating in the process the lasting impact of the period on shaping modern Korean society. In the field of literature, for example, the 1970s was a time during which major literary historical categories surrounding national and class identities were forged in the context of explicit contestation with the authoritarian government. At the same time, the period witnessed the growth of overtly commercial literature that reflected the rise of the market as a vehicle of accommodation to political authority. Rather than subscribe to binary views of the relationship between art and politics, this conference will explore the complexities of this relationship from a number of different perspectives. Building on such new research trends, the Cultures of Yushin conference will bring together scholars from major sites of Korean Studies research in the Anglophone world (including Canada, U.S., U.K., and Australia) with scholars from Korea for an interdisciplinary dialogue on the diversity and complexity of Yushin culture. The scholars’ expertise will range across disciplines of art history, architecture, literature, history, film studies, media studies, musicology, sociology, and women’s studies, reflecting the broad scope of the Yushin framework in the way it authorized, constrained, and otherwise impacted productions in all three realms of high-, middle-, and low-brow cultures.

(Re)-Discovering Sport in Korea: Guts, Glory and Geurimja | October 2013

Sport is a multifaceted phenomenon that is often utilized as a powerful agent for social and economic development. Individuals, institutions, businesses, and governments have actively leveraged sport to drive significant impact and development in a variety of social, economic, and political contexts in Korea and of Korean sports abroad. Although emphasis on the elite sport system and hosting mega events (e.g., 1988 Seoul Olympics, 2002 FIFA World Cup, and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics) may have contributed to gain significant international recognition and national pride, much less has been scrutinized or documented about the fundamental values, social implications, and complex dynamics of sport in the context of contemporary Korea. How do media representations of sport contribute to Korean nationalistic sentiments? How are sport articulated in cultural products (such as Hallyu)? How does Korea fit into the global promotion—and the reception of that promotion—of martial arts such as Taekwondo? How does/whether policy-setting around mega events widen the disparity between elite and amateur sport? What are the challenges for sport properties and facilities to become more financially viable? What is the current state of players’ association in Korean professional sport industry? What are the effects of scandals such as sport betting and match-fixing on not only the sport industry in Korea, but also on Korea’s national self-image? What important challenges and issues remain for exploration to understand sport’s full potential in making positive and sustainable economic impact and social utilities in Korea?

Taking a multidisciplinary approach, the international conference, (Re)-Discovering Sport in Korea: Guts, Glory, and Geurimja hopes to bring together scholars from across disciplines to address any and all aspects of the phenomenon of sport and the physical culture in contemporary Korea. This conference, sponsored by the University of Michigan Nam Center for Korean Studies, School of Kinesiology, and the Academy of Korean Studies, is not only the first conference to contemplate Korea in the context of sports, but also will be the largest academic gathering in the United States dedicated to various themes around Korean sports. We hope to channel the integrative and cohesive characteristics inherent in sport into this conference to discover—or re-discover—the role of sport in Korea. The goal of this conference is to encourage, support, and showcase research that examines the role of sport in Korea from a multitude of perspectives.

Transgression as a Secular Value: Korea in Transition? | October 2012

Crossing over limits, infringing the law, and ignoring convention are often cited as examples of transgression. In traditional Korea where religion played a vital role in demarcating social and personal boundaries, transgressive acts (e.g. engaging in illicit sexual behavior, challenging gender norms, defying social hierarchies, defacing icons and symbols, using excessive violence, etc.) often served as a critical means for testing these boundaries of social acceptability, identity, power, and truth. But what happens to these transgressive acts after the “demystification” and “secularization” of society? Do they become obsolete? If they still test boundaries, then whose boundaries do these transgressive acts test?

Taking cue from the proliferation of successful Korean films that take transgression as their central theme, the international conference, Transgression as a Secular Value: Korea in Transition? hopes to bring together scholars from both the social sciences and humanities to address these and other similar questions about the significance of transgression in modern and pre-modern Korea. The chief objective of this conference is to investigate the possibility of reading the surging interest in transgression, which has arguably attained an air of sacredness in mainstream culture, as an instance of a search for a “secular” value. The conference will therefore encourage its participants to ask, when and how did transgression become so desirable and consumer friendly (and not just possible) in Korea? And, should we associate this attitude towards transgression with “the secular”?

The conference will explore the notion of transgression as a “secular” value from a comparative perspective—both temporal and spatial—to underscore and contribute to the growing debate on the heterogeneous nature of secularity as a way of life.

Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media | April 2012

Hallyu (the Korean Wave), a term coined to describe the widespread popularity and regional/trans-regional influence of Korean cultural products, has recently come into its own as a subject of academic inquiry and broad intellectual interest. However, while much attention has been paid to the impact of the Korean Wave on Korea’s national image or domestic economy, as well as its implications for transnational cultural flow, there has been little discussion about the impact of new communication technologies, such as social media.

Hallyu is indeed entering the new age of social media. For the last few years, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Cyworld, and myriad social networking websites have boosted the dissemination of Korea’s popular media contents to regions where the traditional media-- theatrical distributions, TV networks, and DVD/VCD sales-- had never reached before. Korean films, TV dramas and variety shows, online games, comics, and popular songs are now being shared, distributed and consumed in cyberspace at an unprecedented pace.

Hallyu 2.0: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media conference sought to comprehend and interpret the meaning of this new and powerful cultural industry. The conference staged interdisciplinary dialogues among scholars of cinema, media, and visual studies, and of area studies and communication studies, by implicating multiple approaches in deciphering the intricate web of contemporary media ecosystems.

For other conferences organized by the center, please visit