USC introduces Peace Corps Korea archive

According to Joy Kim, the curator for the USC Korean Heritage Library, the USC Peace Corps Korea digital archive contains photographs and diaries from volunteers to record the critical 15-year period. (Photo courtesy of Joonhee Lee).

The USC Korean Heritage Library hosted the Legacy of Peace Corps Korea event at Doheny Memorial Library last Wednesday. The event was held to discuss the creation of the library’s Peace Corps Korea digital archive and current events happening in the region.

Former Peace Corps Korea members, who volunteered from 1966 and 1981, and those of the USC community gathered at the library for lunch, listened to lectures on Korean geopolitics and attended a reception.

Joy Kim, the curator for the USC Korean Heritage Library,  spoke at the event, discussing the role of the American Peace Corps volunteers and how they shaped South Korea into what it is today. Kim also discussed her own experiences with the Peace Corps volunteers from when she was a child growing up in Korea, and how it affected the way she perceived the USC Korean community and culture.

“Between 1966 and 1981, more than 2,000 Americans served in Korea as Peace Corps volunteers,” Kim said. “Living in rural and urban community across the country, they learned the Korean language and participated in Korean life on a broader and deeper level than any other group of Americans before . . .  I am convinced that many of those educated, inspired, and touched by [Peace Corps Korea] volunteers became leaders who shaped the development of Korea into what it is today.”

After Kim gave her introductory speech, USC librarian Rachel Mandell spoke about the process of preserving materials from that historical time period and placing it into a digital format. Ken Klein, the head of the East Asian Library, then presented a lecture on how the materials had been collected, as well as the future development of the Peace Corps Korea digital archive.

Finally, USC Korean Studies Institute Director David Kang discussed the relations between North Korea and South Korea, emphasizing the United States’ historically biased view of the communist country. According to Kang, diplomacy, rather than aggression or economic isolation, remains crucial in North Korea’s reformation.

“North Korea is not a problem to be solved . . . there is no possible combination of sticks and carrots . . . that will make North Korea denuclearize, disarm, become a capitalist economy, stop the human rights abuses and open up the prisons,” Kang said. “That is not happening. North Korea is a country we have to live with.”

Kang argued that North Korea has had a long-term strategy of “slow-motion nuclearization” designed to encourage America to improve its relationship, in exchange for partial denuclearization. According to Kang, China and South Korea are also in favor of pursuing better relations with North Korea through diplomacy.

“Whether you care about North Korea’s security situation, whether you care about the horrific human rights situation or whether you care about opening up the economy to capitalism and the American way, the debate coheres around one key question,” Kang said. “Do we hit them with a stick or do we engage them?”

At the end of his lecture, Kang criticized the American news media’s tendency to evaluate geopolitical events through the lens of their effect on American power, which is how he characterized many of the reactions to the United States-North Korea summit that took place in Singapore in June.

Former Peace Corps Korea volunteers and attendees Michael Travis and Dan Strickland generally agreed with Kang’s arguments.

“I found [Dr. Kang’s talk] to be a very refreshing presentation because that’s not what we hear in the American media,” said Travis, who taught English to middle and high school students in South Korea.

The two former volunteers took a long view of Korean history and were critical of America’s involvement on the Korean Peninsula, citing the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910, which allowed Japan to freely colonize Korea; America’s failure to unify the Koreas after World War II; and the Korean War. However, Strickland is hopeful moving forward.

“The U.S. has a very difficult time accepting a role on the periphery and not being central to what’s going on,” said Strickland, who worked at a Korean health center testing for and treating tuberculosis. “To my mind, the genius of [South Korean] President Moon’s diplomacy is that he has shuffled [United States President] Trump to the side.”

Beyond political discussion, the event served to honor and reunite Peace Corps Korea members. Kim believes that preserving these stories can provide  insight into Korean culture and, specifically the factors that allowed South Korea to develop rapidly in the decades following the Korean War.