Korea

Organized Panel Session

3 - Science as a Legitimizing Tool: The Political Function of Science for Korean Students in the U.S., 1920s and 30s

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Park Tower 8219, Lobby Level

Physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, nutrients, and the question of whether mercury can turn into gold—These were some of the topics that filled much of a prominent journal written by Koreans studying abroad in the U.S. Categorizing them under the large banner of “science,” the students presented these topics from the mid-1920s onwards as a modern and necessary way to articulate and understand the natural world. The noticeable increase in such discussions by these students begs the question of how we should best understand this body of writing. The students’ writings at this time can be contextualized in several ways and certainly, an important larger context was the intensifying interest in science overall in Korea and its linkage to modernization efforts. However, this presentation pursues a different reading and argues that these discussions on science served a political purpose for this group of students. My presentation locates the students’ writings on science in the larger context of the Korean nationalist movement, the divisions it harbored, and the fierce competition for the right to speak and have a legitimate place in this movement. At a time when the U.S. was largely discredited among Koreans in the aftermath of the Washington Conference, a pro-America stance in the nationalist movement was undermined, and there were rising Anti-American sentiments among Koreans more generally, these students’ emphases on science and American scientific developments offered a way to assert their legitimacy and secure their standing in the nationalist movement even when their affiliation—America—was compromised.

Hanmee N. Kim

Wheaton College, Illinois

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