New professor brings passion for Korean history to ASU

Portrait of ASU Professor Sungik Yang.

Sungik Yang is joining ASU's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies as a professor of history. Photo courtesy Sungik Yang

Sungik Yang hasn’t retired his cheesehead just yet, but we won’t fault him for that. 

A lifelong Wisconsinite and recent graduate of Harvard University, Yang will be a new face on campus joining Arizona State University's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies as an assistant professor of history. 

Yang’s research specialty is in Korean history, and his interest started at a young age in a very personal way. ASU News asked him about his life, work and research. 

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?

Answer: I was born in South Korea but grew up in Wisconsin for most of my childhood. As a result, I’ve been a proud Wisconsinite and have had a lifelong affinity with the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers (I’d call myself a long-suffering fan of those teams, but I don’t think any Arizona sports fans will have much sympathy for me). But because I left Korea when I was young, I’ve always been quite curious about my birthplace, which sparked my interest in learning about it, particularly its history. As I grew older, I began to ask my parents and grandparents, who had grown up on the island of Jeju off the southern coast of Korea, about their life experiences as well, which also fueled my interest in learning more about Korea’s past. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to pursue that interest not only through graduate school, but now at ASU, continuing to pursue it as a job.

Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your research?

A: My current research is broadly on the intellectual and political history of modern Korea, but my research also connects with the global history of fascism — a concept that has once again become very relevant in understanding contemporary politics around the world. I hope to show through the Korean case how fascism must be understood as a phenomenon beyond just the well-known interwar, European context. The active discussion regarding fascism today remains Eurocentric, in my view, and I think adding the lessons from a postcolonial Asian case like Korea will allow us to broaden our perspective on this very important issue.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to study this field? 

A: I’ve always had a vague idea of wanting to study Korean history since I was a kid, but when I wrote my senior thesis in college on Korean history — on the topic of the changing collective memory of a bloody episode in Korean history called the Kwangju Massacre — I realized just how unsettled history really is. Memories of historical events change constantly due to the political and socioeconomic changes in the society that produces those memories.

Shortly afterward, I was conscripted into the South Korean military, where the ideological training that all soldiers undergo reinforced my interest in the politicization of historical memory. I thus decided to focus on the changes in the production and content of political discourses and historiography. Through the military service experience, I also came to understand just how broadly and deeply militaristic attitudes and hierarchies have permeated Korean society and shaped notions of Korean masculinity, which has also informed my interest in investigating the military’s role in Korean history.

Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?

A: I think learning history is intrinsic to improving democracy. Outside of just the knowledge about the past, history is innately about learning about people’s diverse experiences and perspectives. In other words, historical education helps enhance people’s empathy, and this empathy is what allows for civic and collective action that serves as the foundation for democratic government.

Q: What is something you wish more people realized about what you research?

A: While Korea is a relatively small country in terms of geographic size, it’s had an underrated impact on the larger histories of Asia and the world. I hope the recent global fascination with Korean culture will bring greater interest in Korean history as well. The offerings from Korean film, television and music that have enthralled global audiences reflect the rich and complex history of Korea itself. Another way of putting it is that one can enjoy Korean culture even more after learning about Korean history (e.g., the stories of South Korea’s economic collapse and polarization after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the suppression of labor in the 2000s provide important context to — and are directly referenced by — the film "Parasite" and the show "Squid Game").

Q: What brought you to ASU?

A: I was intrigued by ASU’s commitment to maintaining and growing humanities education, especially during a time when it is being less prioritized by universities. Moreover, ASU features a strong and diverse history program at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, and I could see my work connecting with that of so many of the other scholars here that range from topics such as conservative politics, historical memory and education, and nationalism. Finally, ASU has a rapidly expanding Korean studies program, and I’m very excited to contribute to meeting students’ growing interest in Korea.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies?

A: In terms of research, I’m planning to publish a book on Korean fascism in the next few years. I’m also excited to teach courses in Korean and Asian history this upcoming academic year, as well as a course on the global history of fascism in the near future.

Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?

A: In my free time, I try to emulate guitarists like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd without much success. I’m also a huge fan of the Flight of the Conchords, and I hope I can help raise awareness of their comedic genius.

Q: What courses will you be teaching this next year? 

A: I will teach two courses in spring 2024 (both session C): HST 111: Introduction to Asia, and HST 303: Studies in Asian History, with the latter course focusing on modern Korean history through film.” In HST 111, we will be going over the history of Asia from ancient times to the present, while in HST 303, we will be learning modern Korean history through its cinematic representations — and there are a lot of great films about Korean history — while simultaneously interrogating how the medium of film can affect one’s understanding of the past.

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