By Jeff Lee ’97
For three days in April the campus of Harvard became a mecca for Korean American college students as they gathered for an annual event that has spanned nine years. They came—from California and Texas, from Georgia and Virginia—with an expectation and desire to learn more about their culture, and to discuss what it means to be Korean American today. As members of the 1.5 and 2nd generation, the students met to forge roots for the Korean American community. Over 1000 students from over 100 colleges and universities cross North America came to Boston to attend the Korean American Students Conference, known by many simply as "KASCON IX."
The theme of KASCON IX was decided one year ago; after eight years of discussion, eight years of purposeful charting, the organizers of the ninth KASCON felt that it was time to turn words into deeds and thoughts into actions. Ever since the event was conceived at Princeton University in 1986, the conference sparked discussion and introspection, but little effort towards actively changing the community. KASCON IX attempted to create a new paradigm by establishing small, intensive workshops in addition to large seminar sessions where students would have the opportunity to ask about how they could get involved in the issues facing the Korean American community.
Over sixty speakers contributed substantively to the conference; in the halls of Harvard University and at the Westin Hotel in downtown Boston, twenty-six seminar sessions and over thirty tutorial workshops were offered to students, in topics ranging from "Intergenerational Conflict" to "Korean Americans in the Arts."
With 1995 being the jubilee fiftieth anniversary of Korean liberation from Japanese occupation, the Korean American Students Conference took special note of what it means for Korea and Koreans abroad to reach such a milestone. The new year’s address by President Kim Young Sam espoused "Globalization" for Koreans, and urged Koreans to put the provincialism of the past behind them and to celebrate the positive impact of Korean culture and ethics which has spread across the world on all six inhabited continents. After fifty years of development, South Korea has graduated from third-world-nation status, torn by the Korean conflict, into a full-fledged member of the developed world. At a plenary session on Friday morning at the Westin hotel, three leading figures in the United States and Korea, heeding the call for globalization, gave their thoughts to the second generation as to what the future boded for Koreans across the world.
1995 not only marks fifty years after liberation, but fifty years of division, the only fifty years that Korea has ever been divided. Although the cold war has long since subsided, the tensions between North and South Korea still remain. To Korean Americans, this issue is a touchy, ambiguous one. As members of a third party, that is, the emerging Korean community in America, the second generation wants to get involved in expediating unification, as the wounds of separation affect Koreans everywhere who hear of the conflict and enmity that should not exist amongst brothers and sisters, amongst parents and children. What is it that a Korean American can do to help in the process? The session evoked tears for many as the Reverend Syngman Rhee, a man fortunate enough to have traveled to North Korea, gave his account of the separation that he faced from his parents and his sisters over 45 years ago and the emotion that erupted as he could not recognize his sister when reunited with her in Pyongyang. For others, the session on unification brought questions and frustration as a student from Harvard gave his testimony of the mixed and brusque greeting native Koreans gave him as he, a second generation Korean American, visited his ethnic and cultural nexus. Why should he care about unification, or for that matter, Korean in general, he stated, when those living in Korea treated him as a foreigner? The question is one that is yet unresolved and one that causes conflict for many; is the overused stereotype of "the bridge between two worlds" that is often used to describe Korean Americans a reality or a construction that has no empirical truth?
Some of the featured speakers at the conference included ambassador-at-large Robert Gallucci, who is the chief US negotiator with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the move to persuade the regime of Kim Jong-Il to cease processing of nuclear fuel and to begin opening the country to the rest of the world. Ambassador Gallucci has been received with mixed feelings by the Korean community in recent months because on the one hand he is supposed to help stop nuclear proliferation, but on the other he inadvertently fuels the fire of the totalitarian regime of North Korea with appeasement policies.
This year’s conference ended with a greater awareness among Korean Americans about the issues that are faced by Koreans in Korea, and what Korean Americans can do to help effect change towards a united Korea, towards the global presence of Korean culture, and towards building strong foundations for a Korean community that will be an integral part of American society.
Overall, there was a feeling of definite nationalism at the conference. Although topics such as social stratification in the Korean community and inter-ethnic coalition building were addressed at KASCON IX, many students felt that there was a hegemony of native Korean issues at this year’s conference. The question that KASCON IX’s organizers pose, however, is what comes after the intimate discussions about "Korean American Identity," and reaffirming "Korean Culture"? A dichotomy seems to have been present among many Korean American students who on the one hand pontificated upon the importance of maintaining Korean culture and identity, while on the other hand felt threatened when they were given the opportunity to see what Korea has gone through and to experience Korean culture first hand.
The second generation of Korean Americans, recognizing the need to maintain Korean identity yet feeling alienated by recent events in Korea, must move towards a different track—towards construction and development of a unique Korean American culture. If unification of the South and North is something not pertinent to Korean Americans, what is? If Korean culture is something other than seeing what our generational counterparts are facing in Seoul and Pusan while we face our own trials in Los Angeles and New York, then what are we looking for? After nine years of KASCON, of discussion and self-realization, the second generation has indeed come of age. Those who attended the first KASCON in Princeton have been given their decade to enter the American mainstream and have truly proved what it means to be a Korean American. In partnership with the current generation of Korean students, the agenda of the Korean American community must be forged. At least some of the issues that make their way onto this agenda will hopefully be addressed at next year’s conference in Austin, Texas: KASCON X.