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Viewing modern Korea through ancient Greece

Mar 11,2017
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Professor Kim Seung-jung credits her father with helping her broaden her studies. [TONGNAMU PUBLISHING]
Xenophon, Aristotle, Plato and Epictetus are familiar names to those who studied Greek philosophy, but the scope of Greek civilization is larger than the words of a handful of philosophers.

Kim Seung-jung, professor of ancient Greek art and archaeology at Canada’s Toronto University, is researching Greek civilization through the medium of mythology. Rather than confronting history directly, she views the traces of it left in mythology. Her new book, “Greek Civilization Dug Up by a Korean,” was published last week.

“Researching ancient Greece, the foundation of Western culture, was difficult as an Asian, but that unfamiliarity was the base of my exploration,” said Kim. “I could use an unconventional perspective that Western academics take for granted.”

Kim added, “If President Park Geun-hye lived in ancient Greece, instead of considering erecting a commemorative bronze statue of her father Park Chung Hee, she would have left an abstract mythological symbol to honor him.”

Kim’s background is unusual. Her father is Kim Yong-ok (pen name Do-ol), a chair-professor at Hanshin University. Her mother, Choi Young-ae, is a former professor of Chinese language and literature at Yonsei University. Kim gained her bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Seoul National University and received her doctorate in astrophysical science at Princeton University. After her post-doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, she changed her field in 2003 and went to the University of Virginia to study art history.

“After gazing only at the stars, one feels the void,” said Kim. “Now I want to study art history, this soil’s history,” adding, “Astronomy deals with distant objects and archaeology is a similar field in the sense that the analysis and research is concerned with observing and gathering data on temporally distant objects.”

She added, “When I told my parents I was going back to school, they were happy and encouraged me without protest or reproach. I learned from my father the scholarly attitude of not remaining content within a familiar field and learning an entirely new one.”

Her father received a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, and in 1990, he entered Wonkwang University to study oriental medicine. In the epilogue of Kim’s book, he wrote, “Seung-jung’s book enabled me to ditch my narrow philosophical perspective in understanding civil Greek history, and understand it more comprehensively.”

She received her second doctorate from Columbia University in 2014, researching the concept of time during ancient Greece, and before the completion of her doctoral dissertation, was appointed as a professor at Toronto University.

Kim has referred to many similarities with ancient Greek civilization and contemporary Korean society. “The traditions of polytheism, the customs of the importance of hospitality, the fervor for education, the elites’ conventions of impromptu verses and a taste for the refined and high regard of one’s expectation being regarded above all, are definitely reminiscent,” she says.

She also sensed the resonance of ancient Greece’s direct democracy every Saturday at the protests calling for President Park’s impeachment in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul.

“Since the establishment of modern democracy with the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, [the square] is the first site of direct democracy in the international community,” she said. “The protests go beyond the value of any existing revolution’s values in that it is done within an orderly legal framework.”

BY LEE JI-YOUNG [hwang.hosub@joongang.co.kr]