When John Duncan announced he was retiring as director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, former students from across the world flew back to Los Angeles to say goodbye.
His impact on UCLA in terms of both academic research and teaching was enormous, said Jennifer Jung-Kim, a professor in the Asian languages and cultures department.
Duncan helped create and shape the Center for Korean Studies when he arrived at UCLA in 1989. He served as its director beginning in 2001 and taught classes in the Asian languages and cultures department until his retirement in June.
Few American universities had programs and classes in universities dedicated specifically to Korean studies when Duncan arrived.
“Back in the ’90s, he was the only historian teaching Korean history initially, mostly in his undergrad classes, mostly (to) Korean Americans,” Jung-Kim said.
Most people tend to consider primarily Chinese or Japanese studies when they imagine an East Asian studies department, Duncan said. But Korean studies is important too, both in its own right and as a different context in which to understand the region.
“Korea has a very rich historical tradition,” Duncan said. “It has … a really impressive record in terms of philosophical and artistic developments, and Korea was probably one of the first countries in the world to emerge as what we would call an early modern state. … And so there’s a lot for people to learn about Korea, historically.”
Duncan’s decision to focus his academic life on the study of Korean history arose while he was stationed there during the Vietnam War, he said.
Duncan attended college in the United States for a few years, but chose to enlist in the Army in 1969 before he was drafted so that he would be sent to an Army-sponsored language school, he said. The Army sent him to Korea, where he worked as a translator on the border between North and South Korea.
“Of course, in those days, it was a very scary place to be,” Duncan said. “But it was also a very interesting place to be, because it was very much unlike anything I experienced growing up in northern Arizona when I was a youth. And I became fascinated by Korean culture.”
He was particularly interested in how Korean culture placed a much stronger emphasis on group and community values, he said. So after he finished serving in Vietnam, he returned for a yearlong Korean language course.
The following year, he became the first foreigner to enroll at the University of South Korea, he said.
Some of his classmates were suspicious of him, Duncan said. Several initially thought he was from the Central Intelligence Agency.
But he soon found friends and support among a group of other students at the university, Duncan said.
“Once they got to know me, they realized that I was really interested in Korea (and) Korean history,” Duncan said.
Although he struggled with the language during his first semester, he found he wasn’t as far behind as he’d expected.
When his professor began lecturing during his first course at the University of South Korea, Duncan said he realized he couldn’t understand the professor at all. He was in big trouble, he thought.
“When I felt that, a student sitting right next to me turned around and asked, ‘What did the teacher say?’” Duncan said. “And then I realized, it wasn’t just me. The teacher had a very strong accent.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree in Korean history, Duncan attended the University of Hawai’i, Honolulu, receiving a master’s in the same subject. He then attended the University of Washington for his doctorate.
He arrived at UCLA in 1989 as the third faculty member hired to start the Korean Studies program in the Asian languages and culture department.
Hyung-Wook Kim, assistant director of the Center for Korean Studies, came to UCLA for graduate school. He said he knew Duncan as his mentor and, ultimately, a close friend.
“Duncan was like a second father here,” Kim said. “Because when I came to UCLA, I’m totally alone, I don’t have any relatives or cousins or friends. It was a new environment. But he is really caring to make sure we don’t feel excluded.”
The first time Duncan taught his course on Korean culture, he said he had 25 students. Twenty of them were Korean American.
“They were there looking for their roots,” Duncan said. “They were interested in the history and the culture of the country their parents came from. So … they were trying to figure out what it meant to be Korean.”
He could tell they were skeptical of a white person teaching a Korean history class, so he decided to address them immediately in Korean, he said.
By the time he retired, Duncan’s class had grown to 250 students before being capped, but only a third of the students in the class were Korean American, Duncan said.
“And so the Korean students are still getting access to information about their parents and grandparents’ culture,” he said. “But students of other ethnicities who had developed an interest in Korea … also had the opportunity to learn about Korea, and in the process see the world from a different perspective.”
Duncan worked to build a community among students and faculty in the Korean studies program, Kim said.
“You know, they used to just invite dozens of people over and Professor Duncan would always make ribs and salmon on the grill,” Kim said. “Mrs. Duncan would make a ton of sides. You know, people just really loved that community building.”
His colleagues highlighted how much they enjoyed their conversations with Duncan.
“He’s very smart, a good listener, and it’s really obvious from talking with him that he loves Korea,” Jung-Kim said.
His research in Korean history was groundbreaking, Jung-Kim said. For example, she said his book on ancient Korean history, “The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty,” deconstructed the conventional understanding of the period.
Duncan said he has a few more projects to complete after his retirement. Once those are finished, he said he wants to return to one of his favorite research topics: identity in nonelite Korean cultures from 1600 to 1800.
“I think it’s really important to appreciate what the Koreans have achieved over the last few years … and to see what kind of lessons the rest of the world can learn from the successes of the Korean people,” Duncan said.