November 7, 2013—After a 14-hour flight that took them across Canada and up and over the Bering Sea and Russia, the Georgetown University men’s basketball team arrived in Seoul, South Korea, for their season opener Friday against the Oregon Ducks. It’s not the first time the team has ventured to Asia. In 2011, the team traveled to China to play a series of exhibition games. While China might seem like a natural destination for a basketball team, given that it produced former NBA superstar Yao Ming, South Korea seems like a less obvious choice.
But, says Visiting Assistant Professor Min Koo Choi, Koreans love basketball. Choi, who teaches Korean in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, grew up in a rural area outside of Seoul. There, he says, basketball was hugely popular. Not only does South Korea have its own professional basketball league, but basketball is also prevalent in high schools and universities.
“When I was in high school, everyone played basketball,” Choi recalled.
According to Choi, basketball has seeped into Korean popular culture. This fall, a show called Basketball—a period drama set based around the 1948 Korean Olympic basketball team—debuted on South Korean television.
It’s not surprising, he says, that sports like basketball have such a prominent place in contemporary Korean culture. The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul focused the world’s attention on a country that for years had been mired in conflict and hardship. In 1948, the nation of Korea split into North and South. Then in the early 1950s, North and South fought each other over ideological and political differences. The impact of the conflict was devastating on both sides.
Yet, in the years between the Korean Armistice Agreement and the Olympic Games, South Korea rebounded—politically, economically, and civically, Choi says. The games were a chance to prove to the world that South Korea was a major power, and they offered the Korean people something to rally around.
“The Olympic Games proved that South Korea was developed enough to host them,” he continued. “Showing Korea’s greatness was very important and Koreans took a lot of pride in showing that they could host the games.”
After the Olympics, Choi says, South Korea “vibrated.” A whole new audience had seen South Korea’s mettle, and the nation benefited from an influx of foreign investment. Foreign companies set up shop in the nation of 50 million people, and the economy became one of the fastest growing in the world.
Not only did the Olympics open the country up to globalization, but they also spurred a more democratic movement in the country. “People started talking about welfare and equality and the democratization of Korea,” he said.
South Korea is now the 12th largest world economy by gross domestic product and as such, is a member of the powerful G-20. During the global financial crisis, South Korea was able to avoid plummeting into a recession because of its low debt and high fiscal reserves, as well as its robust tech sector.
The country’s rapid ascendance is one of the reasons the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures pushed to offer a minor in Korean. The new offering focuses on Korean language, as well as Korean literature, culture and civilization, and linguistics. The minor also takes a critical look at North Korean geopolitics.
Choi says young people today in South Korea want to engage on the issue of North Korea and unification. Because they are less burdened by history than previous generations, they tend to think change can happen and that it’s only a matter of time before the two countries become one again.
Because of South Korea’s role on the global economic and political stages, Korean is an important area of study. The U.S. government as well as many foreign companies that do business with South Korea need Korean experts.
“Oftentimes, Korea gets neglected,” he explained. “But you can’t understand East Asia without first understanding Korea.”