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Sunday, October 4, 2015
Five pieces of advice for field researchers
Almost right after my arrival in Seoul, I excitedly called the
Pan-National Committee for Truth Concerning Civilian Massacres Before and After
the Korean War (hereafter the Pan-National Committee), an umbrella organization
that includes most local associations of families of victims. Even though I had
scheduled appointments with multiple experts related to my dissertation topic,
civilian victimization during the Korean War, I still wanted to expand my
network in Korea, and the committee seemed to be an ideal place to start my
data collection. I expected to receive a warm welcome from the committee and
endless support in collecting materials. However, things were slightly
different from my expectations.
When I called the committee for the first time, I met with a
cautious reaction. It took quite a while until this old gentleman picked up the
phone (later, he turned out to be the president of the committee, Pastor Lim
Tae-hwan). I briefly introduced myself and my dissertation project and asked
him if I could schedule an appointment to visit the committee. He sighed. Yes,
he sighed. He then asked me about my personal details including whether or not
I am a South Korean citizen, the undergraduate and master programs from which I
had graduated, the name of my master thesis advisor, and so forth. Being
somewhat annoyed, I asked him why he asked so many personal questions, but he
said he had to know me before letting me visit the committee. After 10 minutes on
the phone, I was finally able to schedule a visit.
Pastor Lim was much friendlier in person than on the phone.
He acknowledged the significance of my research and gave me some booklets
published by the committee. He also gave me names of several researchers who
are still investigating violence during the Korean War. However, it seemed that
this was all he could do to help me. Even though he was the president of the
Pan-National Committee, the organization did not seem to have the economic and
human resources to support an independent researcher.
The moment I entered the committee’s office, I could see how
bad its financial condition was. The office was old and small. There was no
working staff, except for Pastor Lim, and all of the computers looked outdated.
There were no beverages in the refrigerator, so he served me one of the soft
drinks that I had brought there as a gift. Shortly after we started talking,
the pastor’s son arrived. He did not tell me the reason why he asked his son to
join us, but it is likely his son was there as a body guard. It might be unsafe
for an elderly man to meet a complete stranger who is interested in a sensitive
It also seemed that the alliance between victims, advocacy
groups and scholarship, which bolstered the activities of the Pan-National
Committee, had broken down. I heard that there had been conflicts of interest between
the government-established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including
scholars and members of advocacy groups who participated in TRC as
investigators, and victims and their families. While the TRC had to investigate
cases of violence with limited time (5 years) and resources, the demands from
victims’ associations were extensive. There were several local associations of families
of victims, scholars, or NGOs that were
working on human rights violation cases during the Korean War, but there was no
actively working pan-national group.
Situations outside the committee were not much different. I
visited many researchers who published books and articles on atrocities that
occurred during the Korean War, but many of them had moved towards a different research
agenda. The Korean Genocide Research Association, which had served as a regular
avenue for academic discussion on past violence for years, never published its
journal after 2010. The only places that could provide me with fresh materials
were a few local institutes that received especially strong support from local
citizens such as Yeosu Community Research Institute and the Geumjung Cave
Incident Peace Foundation.
Overall, I was able to collect a significant amount of
primary and secondary data, despite the unexpected situation in South Korea. After
realizing that there was not much ongoing investigation on civilian
victimization cases during the Korean War, I turned my focus to published data.
There was considerable knowledge of the Korean War and civilian victimization
that had been accumulated in the 2000s and that had not received attention from
international scholarship. After getting through the long and boring process of
photocopying and scanning at many libraries and archives, I collected more than
200GB of scanned documents, which is a good amount of information to use in my dissertation
However, it is still surprising that there was such a gap
between me at the home institution and in the field, despite my personal
advantages. I didn’t have language or cultural barriers. In addition, I took
advantage of scholarly networks in South Korea as a graduate of a university in
Seoul when preparing for the fieldwork. Moreover, I am living an era of Internet.
I searched through websites and electronic journals in Korea, but still could
not fully understand that the number of scholarly and non-scholarly
investigation pieces on the related topics was decreasing. This suggests how
hard it is to conduct fieldwork, even in this globalized age.
Based on my experience in Korea, my advice for future field
researchers is as follows. First, secure as large a budget possible and allow
for schedule flexibility for the duration of the stay, including a potential
extension of the stay. Even for me, who is a native speaker of Korean and had
some networks with local scholars, it was quite difficult to conduct the
fieldwork as planned. Second, assume a slightly worse situation than situation
you envision at your home institution. Local experts you have talked to via
email and phone are less likely to provide you with up-to-date information
about the field. Even if they genuinely like your project, you are an “interesting
stranger” at best. Who would say to you, a stranger, that investigation in the
field that you are interested in is not going very well? You are more likely to
hear diplomatically positive responses from local people unless you meet them
Third, don’t always go for well-known people. Sometimes in
the field, people you didn’t know show up and help you. Before going to Korea,
I had only contacted several “big shot” scholars in related fields. However, some
of them turned out to be not very helpful. It would be lucky if famous scholars were willing to help you, but more often than not, they are
busy. I personally believe that local doctoral students are the best potential
helpers in creating a win-win relationship with you. Doctoral students are
likely to have both extensive knowledge on your topic and incentive to work
with you since they may consider you, a graduate student from an English-speaking
country, as a potential coauthor in future international scholarship.
not closely related to the main theme of this blog post, but as useful
technical advice, bring a scanner or buy one in the field, especially when you
are collecting primary documents. Papers are heavy. The only possible way to collect
a large amount of data is to produce electronic copies of it, whetherfrom primary or secondary sources. Even in an
advanced country like the US, scanners are not as ubiquitous as photocopiers.
Unless you have your own scanner in your own room, you will need to carry a bunch
of photocopied materials to a scanning station and spend lots of money every
day. Small and effective scanners such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap series might
still be inconvenient to carry, but they will definitely save you a considerable
amount of time and money.
Seung Joon Paik
Ph.D. Political Science 2015
Sigur Center 2015 Field Research Fellow
Seoul, South Korea