St Petersburg University has opened an international conference ‘Modernising Korea: Past and Present’. The conference is supported by the Academy of Korean Studies. The event was held online.

The conference brought together experts from leading educational and research centres, including St Petersburg University, the University of Oslo, Chung Ang University, Far Eastern Federal University, Stockholm University, Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, the Military University of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Community Culture Foundation of North-East Asia, and Lomonosov Moscow State University to name but a few.

The event is held within the framework of the grant AKS-2016-OLU-2250002 of the Academy of Korean Studies.

Sergey Andryushin, Deputy Rector of St Petersburg University, addressed his welcoming speech to the participants of the conference. Modernising the countries of the Korean Peninsula is of great interest in terms of the economy, and the social and political life of the countries, he said. ‘Today, we are actively and fruitfully collaborating with our Korean partners. St Petersburg University is the Russian platform of the Russia — Republic of Korea Dialogue. 120 years ago, the University started for the first time to teach the Korean language in Russia and the whole of Europe,’ he added.

Park Zhu Yeng, Deputy Consul General of the Republic of Korea in St Petersburg, also welcomed the participants at the opening ceremony. ‘Last year marked the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Korea. To honour this anniversary, 2020 and 2021 were announced the years of mutual exchange between Russia and Korea. During a relatively short period of time, we have managed to achieve great results. Our turnover and tourist flow increased 25 times. What underpins our bilateral relations is human exchange, including in research. I would like to thank you and the scholars in the Korean studies for your contribution,’ said Park Zhu Yeng.

People-to-people relations are the key to ensuring positive relations between countries, said Kim Hyun Taek, Professor at the Department of Russian Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Director of the Representative Office of St Petersburg University at Hankuk University.

Our most important asset is serious research and sincere dialogue. These are the factors that help us understand who we are to each other, what we have in common and what makes us different, and how we can enrich our cultures and science. In this respect, the conference that focuses on the issues relating to modernisation is an important contribution to the comparative studies of relations between South Korea, Russia and North Korea.

Kim Hyun Taek, Professor at the Department of Russian Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Director of the Representative Office of St Petersburg University at Hankuk University

The first report of the plenary session focused on the issues relating to continuity and gaps in how Korea had been developing. It was presented by Vladimir Tikhonov, Professor at the University of Oslo. He spoke about the ‘roots’ of the modern Korean society, which originated from the era of the Joseon Kingdom (1392–1910). This period was dominated by rational bureaucracy, confessional pluralism, private property, and a sense of individualism. Modernisation in both North Korea and South Korea started almost at the same time, yet they followed different paths, said Professor Tikhonov. North Korea primarily focused on building the sovereign national state, while the Republic of Korea regarded capital accumulation as an intrinsic value. Due to the economic race in South Korea, where the birth rate is so low, the country is facing a serious challenge as to how society will fight what modernisation may result in, the professor said. It is primarily about how to shift to the reflective economic model that is underpinned by personal wellbeing rather than capital accumulation.

The first day

Professor Sergei Kurbanov, Head of the Department of Korean Studies at St Petersburg University, presented a report on modernisation in North Korea. Professor Kurbanov continued the topic of the previous speaker. He focused on what model of modernisation the Korean countries had opted for and how they went through modernisation. Choosing between socialism and free market, North Korea opted for asking for help from the USSR, which became one of the most powerful states after the World War Two. This made modernisation in North Korea more externally oriented. The country had no natural resources and had lost its industry after the colonial period and wars. The USSR’s ideology provided a powerful impetus for the development of North Korea. Yet the internal sources of motivation were rather weak. This and the global crisis of socialism led to a decrease in modernisation. After the collapse of the USSR, North Korea had no exporter of technologies. What is left for North Korea is asking for help from China. Yet North Korea’s nuclear programme prevents it from becoming a full member of the global community, the professor said.

Dmitry Lanko, Associate Professor in the Department of European Studies at St Petersburg University, spoke about the western discourse in the Korean management style. He focused on various approaches that balance modernisation and westernisation. The Korean management style evolved through a successful and rapid process of modernisation of the country. Yet achieving success in the economy revealed some similarities between the Korean and Japanese management models, as some American researchers suppose. If we take a closer look at the problem, we can see many differences between these two Asian models. In particular, the Korean management style is more flexible and open to accept new elements from the European management styles. Westernisation of the Korean management style, as Dmitry Lanko put it, is far from assimilating into the western approach. Quite the opposite. It is primarily about how to adopt to and popularise the Korean management style in the west. This process has gone far beyond management only, the expert said. It has penetrated into culture as well, and the example is the national cuisine.

The second day

The conference had several sections: ‘Historical aspects of Korea’s modernisation’, ‘Reflection of modernisation processes in the Korean classical and modern literature’, ‘Social dynamics of modern Korean society’, ‘Popular culture of modern Korea: cinema, television, advertising’, ‘Modernisation of political institutions in Korea’, ‘Economic aspects of Korea’s modernisation’, and a student meeting ‘The Korean Peninsula: New perspectives’.