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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center fellow Dafna Zur


Humanities Center fellow, Dafna Zur, (above left) examines such science fiction books as "The Stars Will Return," by North Korean writer Pak Chong Ryŏl (above right).
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo; Book cover courtesy of Dafna Zur.

Dafna Zur, assistant professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford, has published on North Korean science fiction, the Korean War in children’s literature, and childhood in Korean cinema. Her first book Figuring Korean Futures: Children’s Literature in Modern Korea (Stanford University Press, 2017) demonstrates the contribution of children’s literature to colonial Korea’s literary and visual landscape.

Zur is hard at work on her next project on science and fiction in North and South Korea. She attempts to trace how creative writing and morality education both influenced and were transformed by scientific discourses that circulated after World War II, in the intensive nation-building period of North and South Korea. Her goal is to understand what counted as science at a time when labeling something as “scientific” was politically and ideologically motivated, and how popular and educational texts and images built scientific knowledge as a part of a broader project of moral engineering. 

Recently she answered some questions about her work at the Stanford Humanities Center where she has spent the academic year as an internal faculty fellow.
What is the focus of your current research?

My research focuses on literary and scientific education in postwar North and South Korea. It emerges out of the last chapter of my first book, Figuring Korean Futures: Children’s Literature in Modern Korea. In it, I investigated North and South Korean children’s literary responses to national division, the Korean War, and the nuclear arms and space race. I argued that the turn to science in the postwar Koreas—in the form of scientific content in literary magazines, science fiction, and popular science—signified the break of the bond between child and nature that had been the foundation of children’s literature in Korea for four decades. 

In my latest project, I am thinking more deeply and comprehensively about how science became an intellectual field (with its accompanying repertoire of soft and hard data), and how science became a way of viewing the world within two distinctly different ethical frames. In other words, I’m looking for clues in my scientific and literary content for young people that articulate a clear investment in diverging ethical views of the world, one guided by uncompromising anti-Communism and the other by an international, anti-Imperialist Communism. 

I am fascinated by the idea of holding up North and South Korea as mirror images of each other in the postwar moment—a moment of such utopian promise!—and I am convinced that science and literature offer insights into the broader story of postwar formation of national identity.  
What drew you to the topic of science and ethics and literature in postwar North Korea?

I have been increasingly drawn to questions of ethics and morality since I came to Stanford. I wanted to teach a Korean film class when I first arrived in 2012, and I realized that my favorite films were those that haunted me for the discomforting way in which they challenged my own beliefs about my moral compass. I developed a course titled “Doing the Right Thing: Ethical Dilemmas in Korean Cinema,” and with the support provided me by the Stanford Ethics Faculty Fellowship, I was able to learn how to better incorporate readings into my teaching and framing of the cultural aspects of moral behavior as manifest in Korean film. 

At the same time, as a mother of two pre-teen boys, I have become more interested in how young people learn about the world and what it means to be good and do good. It struck me that my interest in literature for children, which led to my first book, was driven by the question of how adult authors “translate” the world on behalf of young readers, and what that meant for writers to do this in Korea as it underwent colonization by Japan followed by national division and a devastating war. 

My question seems to have shifted now, and I am asking rather what it means to be good and do good in the world within a strictly anti-communist / anti-imperialist agenda. I am interested in how the purportedly value-free and apolitical field of science in young reader magazines and school textbooks, so critical to the postwar development of North and South Korea, was mobilized for the ethical projects in the period of nation building.
How do you conduct your research? 

The research is the fun part! On my desk at the moment are: children’s science magazines from North and South Korea from the 1950s and 1960s; two North Korean dictionaries from the 1960s, one philosophical and one scientific; a book on the formation of North Korean science and technology; and science and morality textbooks from South Korea from the 1950s and 60s. I collected my primary sources with the help of Stanford's Korean librarian Kyungmi Chun and through repeated trips to the Library of Congress and a recent visit to the amazing Costen Children’s Library in Princeton. I am planning a trip to Japan and Moscow to collect more materials. The research is a slow process of reading, making “dots” in places that strike me as interesting, and then connecting the dots into a coherent story of how science was drawn into the anti-communist and anti-imperialist agendas of South and North Korea, and by doing so also created two distinct ethical worldviews.  
What would people be surprised to learn about Korean literature?

Korean literature is a product of a long and rich cultural history, which includes more recently its 35-year experience as a Japanese colony, a dual occupation (Soviet and American), a devastating civil war, and a post Korea War era of intense development. Korean literature provides a counterpoint to Korean history that, rather than reinforcing the official historical narrative, often diverges from it. As for North Korea, even when one expects blatant propaganda there is space for exploration of the role of the individual and the family that is surprising and intimate. For connoisseurs of fine literature, Korean writer Han Kang’s reception of the Booker Prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian is evidence that Korea is home to some of the world’s edgiest voices. 

Korea has also been a leading producer of popular culture in the last two decades, and has garnered particular attention with the viral outbreak of Psy’s “Kangnam Style” music video in July of 2012. Many of the students who take Korea-related classes at Stanford had their interest sparked by K-pop, Taekwondo, or another form of Korean soft power. In the news, hardly a day goes by without some reference to the North Korean nuclear issue, and the insularity of that nation makes it an easy target for endless speculation. A deeper understanding of Korean history and literature can dispel many of misconceptions about North Korea, and also can provide a more nuanced understanding of what is behind the sparkling façade of Korean popular culture. 
Why is it valuable to study this topic?

I think that material for children is generally devalued—that children’s literature and culture tends to be viewed as marginal, not “serious” or highbrow, not worthy of scholarly attention. But as anyone who studies literature for children knows, children’s books and magazines can often reveal those stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we are headed. I would also wager that a majority of people reading the words I am writing right now have been deeply affected by books from their childhood – perhaps they can even attribute their life trajectory to what they read or viewed as children. What could be more important than the intellectual and cultural investments we make in young people?