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Touring academic South Korea

November 22, 2013

This week I have spent in South Korea visiting several universities and research institutes. In Seoul I had agreed with historian of science Sungook Hong at Seoul National University to give a seminar on “The ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ in Historical Perspective” (an updated verison of a talk with the same title that I gave last spring in Taipei) at SNU’s Program in History and Philosophy of Science. The program is very dynamic and Sungook (who is also very active in the US-centered Society for the History of Technology) and his colleagues have impressive track records of publishing their research with leading English-language journals and presses (in marked contrast to the Chinese academic tradition in my field, see my latest post!). A problem, however, seems to be that the scholars in the program are interlinked only through the PHPS program, while having their offices in a variety of different schools (not unlike the Taiwanese STS/history of science scholars at National Taiwan University).

I was also happy to meet in Seoul my old friend Seong-Jun Kim, a graduate from Sungook’s program and a specialist on South Korea’s early nuclear energy history. He is now a curator at the newly established National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, a career move that has placed him at the center of bitter controversies over conflicting interpretations of Korea’s twentieth-century history. As a state museum his institution enjoys generous financial support from the government, which, however, would also like to take an influence on the museum’s displays. Academic historians have fiercely criticized the museum ever since it opened last year.

An institution of a totally different kind is the nominally independent Korean Institute of Energy Economics (KEEI). Located in one of Seoul’s large satellite cities, it provides the government and a few other “customers” with research reports on present-day energy trends. One of their divisions, led by Yongduk Pak, deals specifically with international cooperation in the energy field. At a meeting at the institute that I found extremely rewarding, I presented some of my research on the history of international European energy systems. This produced a remarkably lively discussion on the prospects for analogous cross-border electricity and natural gas interconnections in the East Asian region. South Korea is centrally placed here, but the Cold War with North Korea and the tense relations between China and Japan make Pak and his colleagues pessimistic, at least for the moment, about the possible creation of pan-East Asian energy grids.

Apart from Seoul, the much smaller city of Daejeon, 150 km to the south, also enjoys the reputation of a research mecca. Several leading universities are located there, including the young Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), sometimes dubbed “South Korea’s MIT”, set up in 1990. Even younger is KAIST’s Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, which exists only since 2004. I visited the school lecturing on the history of nuclear power and enjoying a few hours of truly inspiring informal conversations with several of the school’s faculty and doctoral students. It will be interesting to see how the school develops in the future.

Apart from its universities, Daejeon is home to a number of government research institutes, and I was excited about getting the opportunity to visit and lecture at the legendary Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). It’s a huge nuclear research complex where all sorts of novel reactor and nuclear fuel technologies are researched and experimented with. For a European historian of technology, visiting KAERI is almost like experiencing the golden era of atomic energy research in the 1950s and 1960s. While taking quite a critical stance to some of KAERI’s ongoing efforts, I was grateful for nuclear policy research director Maeng-Ho Yang’s generous invitation, which allowed me to discuss trends in spent nuclear fuel management directly with KAERI’s experts in this field – an invaluable experience.

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