The Academic Affairs office has been spotlighting some of the College’s new courses. Here’s one on Dr. Oppenheim’s new course!
by Grace Tan
It is almost impossible nowadays to touch upon the subject of North Korea without mentioning hot button issues such as famine, nuclear breakout, and human rights violations. If so, is it even possible to have a course purely based on the art, literature, film, everyday life, and selfhood of the private citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea?
The answer is yes.
The University of Texas at Austin has always offered a wide array of unique classes, and ANS 361: Self and Culture in North Korea may be the first of its kind to be taught. I recently sat down with Professor Robert Oppenheim to discuss this fascinating course, along with toilet paper, cats, and Gangnam Style.
Self described as “a social scientist by training,” Dr. Oppenheim is interested in critical social scientific work in relation with Korea. An internship abroad and some difficult experiences in “going and buying toilet paper with only hand signals” at the local convenience stores in Korea spurred on his interest in learning the language and culture. He has been teaching at UT Austin for more than ten years since receiving his M.A. and PhD in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Kyongju Things: Assembling Place, and just finished drafting his second book on the American anthropology of Korea. His research interests involve the impact of Korean globalism, such as the Hallyu wave, and its intersection with many other disciplines.
When I asked Dr. Oppenheim to describe his course, he posed a very interesting question:
“How often do you think of North Korea as an actual country, rather than a problem?”
We oftentimes think of North Korea as a chronic problem, only to later realize that it is very much still a country. The DPRK is characterized by its horrors in the Western media; so much that cultural aspects of the nation are disregarded and dismissed. While Dr. Oppenheim does not want to completely ignore these issues, he aims to focus on the citizens of North Korea and their relationships with the public state, their leader, and their private lives. The course is meant to facilitate a paradigm shift and examine the development of culture and self through literature, performances, films, artwork, mass games, etc. Documentaries, movies (such as the North Korean version of Godzilla, or “Pulgasari”), graphic novels, and texts will be part of the syllabus to allow a more intimate look at the nation.
It is finally possible to teach a course on society and culture in North Korea, and there is much to be examined and many questions to be asked. Simply saying that the Kim family and the elite class lounge around drinking expensive cognac while the masses are thirsting to overthrow the regime may be too simplistic. Dr. Oppenheim notes: “Just because people are forced to wear lapel pins with Kim il Sung [on it] doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe it, and also doesn’t mean that it’s a fact of life.” What we think we know may not be the entire truth, and the goal of the course is to achieve a deeper understanding of North Korea beyond its failings.
When asked about himself, Dr. Oppenheim was quite reserved, “There’s nothing really interesting about me…but there is a crazy cat that rules my life.” I must disagree. His passion for his research and zeal for this course was infectious, and I found myself wanting to learn more about this subject. Regardless if you are an Asian studies major, ANS 361: Self and Culture in North Korea is definitely a class worth putting on your schedule.
To find out more about Asian Studies, check out the department’s website: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/asianstudies/