History

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The Association for Korean Studies in Europe (AKSE) was founded on 30 March 1977 in London by 31 scholars residing in Europe to stimulate and to co-ordinate academic Korean Studies in all countries of Europe. The constitution was amended on April 8, 1988. The Association’s main activities are: organizing academic conferences every two years; publishing a newsletter each year (29 issues); and organizing an Exchange Programme of European Lecturers each year.

Speech on 30 years of AKSE history by Dr. Daniel Bouchez, April 2007

I have been asked by our president to say a few words in his behalf to celebrate this anniversary and to briefly recall the history of our Association. Before coming to life, the AKSE had existed for some time as a hope and a project in a few people’s mind, among which William E. Skillend was probably the most active. Contacts had been made, information gathered from similar associations and even a Constitution roughly drafted. In a preparatory meeting that took place in Seoul in 1976, the organization of the first conference, to be held in London, had been entrusted to Dr Skillend. So we were about thirty or so people to meet at the SOAS in London in April 1977, only a few of us being here today.

To realize or what this meant to us, you have to remember what Korean Studies were at that time on our continent. Isolation, weakness, fragmentation would be the right words to describe it. Almost none of us had previously traveled, as Dr Skillend had done, to meet foreign colleagues. At this first conference, most of the participants were strangers to each other. In our own countries, Korean studies were all at the beginning stage, having started only a few years before. In France, where they were not even ten years old, there were talks almost every year, in higher circles, about doing away with the teaching of Korean language and civilization. Much younger than now, we were all in minor ranks, in no position of exerting any influence, hard-pushed to resist this kind of pressure. The only exception was the late Professor Frits Vos at Leiden in the Netherlands, a japonologist with a strong interest in Korea, who became our first president. I should also mention the support of another famous japanologist, Professor Lewin at Bochum University, who was our vice-president in 1980 and 1981.

Such being the conditions, no wonder that the first AKSE conference and the following ones were great events in our lives, bringing much needed contacts, exchanges, stimulation and encouragement. Solid friendships were born there and are still very much alive today. As you once said, Werner, early AKSE was for us “a bunch of old friends”. Our conferences were even criticized for having become, as some people were saying, “social events”. Social, they surely were, but we all deeply needed that kind of socializing. Besides it went along of course with what is the main interest of this kind of meeting: countless exchanges of scholarly information.

In 1977, Europe and Korea were both divided. Korea still is, Europe fortunately no longer. To our young association, the division of Europe created special restraints and obligations, which made it different from its counterpart in the United States. Present-day politics had to be absolutely avoided, classical and historical studies remained predominant, membership had to be kept confidential. Following the gradual opening of East-West relations, we were happy to see the participation of colleagues from Poland in 1978, from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, if I remember well, in 1983, from Russia and East Germany at Durham in 1984. We had also been keeping contacts with P’yŏngyang, hoping for an eventual participation of scholars from North Korea. It happened at the London conference in April 1989, that is, it is worth noticing, before the fall, in November of that year, of the wall that had been dividing our continent. In the following years, as most of us remember, the AKSE conference had become one of the extremely few places in the world, maybe for some time the unique venue, where scholars from both parts of Korea could meet and talk freely.

I should not be talking only about conferences. The AKSE Newsletter has also proved its great usefulness. Dr Skillend started it right from the first years of AKSE’s existence and set up a model that has been kept ever since, less Dr Skillend’s humorous tone that disappeared after a few issues. Thanks to our Newsletter we are being kept informed about each other’s activities. I shall not be going into the many developments of the present, into what AKSE is doing now. You do not need the help of a veteran like me to tell you what everyone can see, can hear or can read.

Two more words only. Nothing of what the AKSE has been doing would have been done without first the generous aid regularly coming from several Korean foundations, the Korean Traders Scholarship Foundation, the Korea Research Foundation, the Korea Foundation and the Academy of Korean Studies. We will never forget our debt of gratitude towards them. Nothing would have been done either without the continuous and silent devotion of many, some of them dead already: conference organizers, Newsletter’s successive editors, council members and many others. They were, they are and they remain convinced that AKSE is really something worth working for.