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Kangnam Style: South Korea’s Soft Power Empire

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Program Quick Facts

General Description

South Korea has become a driver of pop culture and art. The musical/audio-visual genre known as K-pop has become globally mainstream, Korean dramas reach viewers around the globe, the K-beauty routine is championed by online influencers, and Korean fine arts dominate in the international arena. In this seminar, students will become familiar with South Korea’s economic, social, and political history that enabled these astonishing developments. Through field trips we will explore the following questions: Who are the people driving Korea’s “K-” industries? How can we understand its sustained success? At what cost has Korea achieved dominance in this field? Students will visit the centers of South Korea’s art establishment and entertainment industries, and will meet executives, performers, and contemporary artists. Students will contemplate the relationship between history and culture, and will interrogate the boundaries between the authentic and artificial.

Learning Objectives

  • Gain a general grasp of major historical shifts in Korea’s modern history
  • Become familiar with foundational concepts from cultural studies, and apply critical analysis to cultural texts
  • Interrogate boundaries separating art, popular culture, and technology
  • Engage critically with social and economic fallouts related to South Korea’s cultural industries.

The weekly onsite program will generally include

  • ~12 weekly hours of lectures and discussion
  • Daily field trips to museums and centers of Korean popular culture
  • Meetings with artists and entertainers
  • Engagement with Korean students studying media and culture


The seminar will take place mostly in Seoul. 

Living and Travel Conditions

Students should understand that the conditions in certain locations can present difficulties and challenges not encountered here at Stanford University. Students should be prepared for a varying level of lodging, lack of amenities, new climate, new foods, and having less privacy and personal space than they are used to at the home campus.

Seoul is a vibrant, loud, crowded city, and students should be prepared to be overwhelmed by sights, sounds, and smells. The country is fast-paced, and the seminar will reflect that. Students will be expected to arrive with plenty of energy and stamina. The culinary scene in Korea is one of the best in the world–food is abundant and food options are diverse. At the same time, vegan and vegetarian options may sometimes be limited. Kosher and Halal food is nearly impossible to guarantee.  

Students who have concerns about the specific living and traveling conditions should consult with the Bing Overseas Studies Program before submitting their application.


Marci Kwon

A scholar of American Art, Kwon's research and teaching interests include the intersection of fine art and vernacular practice, theories of modernism, cultural exchange between Asia and the Americas, critical race theory, and "folk" and "self-taught" art.  She is the co-director of the Cantor Arts Center's Asian American Art Initiative.  Her book Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism (Princeton University Press, 2021) explores Cornell’s attempts to figure enchantment—an ephemeral force that exceeds rational explanation—in his box constructions, assemblages, and cinematic experiments.  More broadly, this project uses Cornell’s artistic career and wide circle of acquaintances, which included artists, poets, writers, and filmmakers, as a lens through which to understand enchantment’s centrality to midcentury conversations about art’s relationship to the public, popular culture, and potential for moral authority.  This wide-ranging, interdisciplinary study explores Cornell’s engagement with a number of key episodes in American modernism, including the transatlantic migration of Symbolism, Surrealism, and ballet to the United States; the efflorescence of “folk” art in the 1930s; Abstract Expressionism; and the emergence of New York School poetry and experimental cinema.   

Kwon is the recipient of the University of Pennsylvania's 2016 Zuckerman Prize, awarded to the best dissertation in American art/culture and history, and her research has been supported by grants from the ACLS/Luce Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Mellon Foundation, the Terra Foundation, the Hellman Fellows Fund, Clayman Institute of Gender Research, Yale's Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion, and the Stanford Humanities Center.   She has also held positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.   At Stanford, Kwon is a faculty affiliate of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Asian American Studies, American Studies, the Center for East Asia, and Feminist and Gender Studies, and serves on the steering committee of Modern Thought and Literature.  She is the recipient of the Asian American Studies Faculty Prize, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity Teaching Award, the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award, and the Faculty Women's Forum's Inspiring Early Career Academic Award. 

Dafna Zur

Dafna Zur is an Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University, and is the current Director of the Center for East Asian Studies. At Stanford she teaches courses on Korean literature, cinema, and popular culture, as well as the core course of the MA program on East Asian Studies. Her first book, Figuring Korean Futures: Children’s Literature in Modern Korea (Stanford University Press, 2017), interrogates the contradictory political and social visions made possible by children’s literature in colonial and postcolonial Korea. She is working on a new project on narrative that brings together music, science, space, and self-writing in Korea. She has published articles on North Korean popular science and science fiction, North Korean translations, the Korean War in North and South Korean children’s literature, childhood in cinema, and Korean popular music and dramas. Her translations of Korean fiction have appeared in, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Short Stories, and the Asia Literary Review

In the summer, Dr. Zur directs the immersion camp known as The Korean Language Village, and is always looking to recruit college students who are interested in language education and leadership opportunities. Under her leadership, the program has grown past its current capacity, and will someday move into its permanent home on Turtle River Lake near Bemidji. 

Prerequisites and Expectations 

The seminar will be open to all Stanford undergraduate students without prerequisites. Preference will be given to students who have not spent significant time in South Korea. 

Grading Basis

Satisfactory/no credit