Sung-Joo Han Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Diplomacy and International Politics: Conversation with Sung-Joo Han, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea; October 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Seoul; I was raised in Seoul. I am one of the few people in Korea who are genuine Seoulites. My family has been living there for generations, hundreds of years.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

I was born about five years before the liberation from the Japanese. I don't remember very much except to see the B-29s flying over at the end of the Second World War. But, of course, I didn't know the significance of the whole thing. Then in five years' time, in 1950, the Korean War broke out, and that war was, of course, a major event for me. I was wounded, although I was not in the service. I was too young. But I still carry a small piece of shrapnel in my back.

Was this just a fluke accident?

No, it happened during the recapture of Seoul, after General MacArthur landed in Inchon, in September of 1950. The U.N. forces, led by the U.S. and South Korean forces, came near Seoul, and there was some bombardment and I was hit by the shrapnel.

Then I went to college. I had the chance to study in the United States. I spent much of my student time at Berkeley. I taught here, went back to Korea. I had the good fortune of both teaching at a university and having an experience in government.

Let's go back a minute. Talk a little about your parents. How did they help you understand all these events that you've just described? Was there much talk of politics around the dinner table?

Not much. My father was a businessman, and my mother always told me not to become a businessman because it's not an easy job to do. My mother wanted me to be either a medical doctor or a lawyer. For some reason I didn't end up at either one of those. But my mother, who didn't get a higher education, left a tremendous impression on me because she is the model of what you would call the "mother of Mencius." Mencius was Chinese, but the idea being that his mother moved home three times so that her son would get a good education.

I see, yes.

And so I dedicated my first book to her.

She pushed you to get an education. So what did she think when you said, "I'm going to become a political scientist?"

She probably didn't understand what being a political scientist meant. She probably thought that even being a political scientist, I could still become a lawyer.

That's right. What led you to want to be a political scientist, to study politics and international affairs?

The Korean War ended in 1953, and I entered college in 1958, so it was only five years after the end of the Korean War. Then we had a problem with our politics. We had a dictatorship going, and it was a choice between sociology and political science. At that time it looked like politics was the thing to study, whether I wanted to understand international relations or domestic politics.

What is it like growing up with war around you, and then a country divided by the Cold War, other than shaping the kinds of subjects you would be interested in? What other kinds of impacts were there on you?

Everybody is politically more conscious, and they have views about politics. When I first came to the United States, and that was in 1962, I went to the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, to do my Masters work. That was before coming to Berkeley. I wrote an article for a Korean magazine saying, "I find American college students so apolitical. They're only interested in the parties, dancing, studying, and drinking beer." That was before I came to Berkeley in 1964.

I see. And before the Student Movement, too.

That's right.

What was your major within political science? Was it Asian politics and international relations that you focused on in graduate school?

Yes, I did both. It was known as comparative politics and international relations.

And you studied under Robert Scalapino here?

I studied under Robert Scalapino, Professor Ernst Haas. There was also Professor Chalmers Johnson, who has since left Berkeley. And a whole lot of others, most of whom are not here.

Chalmers is coming back and will be on the show in a few months, actually.*

Oh, please give my regards to him.

Yes, I will do that.

Next page: South Korean Politics

* Note: See the Chalmers Johnson interview (2004), Militarism and the American Empire

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