"Bridging the Divide": An Interview with Dr. Annika A. Culver

Thu, 12/14/23
Culver photo

Dr. Annika Culver, Professor of East Asian history, embarked on a study trip to South Korea last summer as part of the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future program, funded by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington D.C. This program was designed to connect academics with the foreign policy world, enabling them to gain insights into international relations and equip them with the knowledge to provide media interviews and consultations.

The program, aptly named "Bridging the Divide," aimed to expand the horizons of scholars who often focus on Japan or China and provide them with a broad-brush overview of the key issues that South Korea is currently facing. Dr. Culver is a scholar of imperial Japan and Manchuria/ Manchukuo with a focus on propaganda and advertising. Recently, her focus shifted to research on the growth of Japanese consumer capitalism and transnational Japanese-American history. Dr. Culver is one of the few people in the United States offering lecture courses on the histories of both North and South Korea.

During her week-long visit to South Korea, Dr. Culver and her group had a tightly packed itinerary, with most of their activities generously funded by the Korea Foundation. Their primary destinations included Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a heavily fortified area that separates North and South Korea.

The visit to the DMZ was a particularly intriguing experience for Dr. Culver. As a scholar whose research includes the history of North and South Korea, this journey gave her the opportunity to gain a firsthand perspective on the region she had studied for so long. Although the binoculars at the DMZ offered limited visibility and didn't allow for a close look at ordinary people's lives in North Korea, it did provide a glimpse of the buildings and mountainous terrain, giving Dr. Culver a sense of the region's significance.

Dr. Culver shared her impressions of the DMZ, noting the surprising presence of numerous gift shops, restaurants, and even a funicular to observe the area. Despite its status as one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, the DMZ had become an ecologically important area for wildlife. However, Dr. Culver mentioned that it also bore a tragic legacy, made visible by reports of three-legged boars and deer that had fallen victim to landmines—starkly revealing what could happen to humans who crossed.

In addition to her exploration of the DMZ, Dr. Culver and her group delved into the commercialization of the conflict between North and South Korea. The abundance of merchandise related to the DMZ and the geopolitical tensions in the region highlighted the profound impact of politics on local economies and tourism.

Their journey also included meetings with various individuals and groups in Seoul, offering valuable insights into South Korean society and its approach to international relations. They visited the National Assembly, which closely parallels the United States Congress, and had the privilege of meeting the speaker, who generously dedicated an hour of his time to them. This rare level of engagement, along with the presentation of gifts, reflected the host's appreciation for the American academics' potential to raise South Korea's profile internationally.

Dr. Culver's group also had the chance to explore the field of military intelligence. They were welcomed by a group of cyber security experts tasked with defending South Korea against cyber-attacks, often originating from North Korea and Russia. The group received insights into the sophisticated world of cyber warfare and the challenges South Korea faces. The exchange included gifts such as a hard hat and a thermos, which served as tokens of the cyber security experts' desire to share their concerns with the visiting academics.

Further interactions with journalists from the Korean bureaus of important publications like The Economist and The Wall Street Journal provided Dr. Culver with diverse perspectives on the Korean geopolitical landscape. These discussions enriched her understanding of the region and its complex challenges. The group's visit extended to various think tanks, where they were treated as honored guests. The integration of scholars with journalists and think tank researchers was a deliberate effort to enhance South Korea's international relationships.

South Korea and the United States have longstanding and important relations. Dr. Culver’s visit, in the context of the Bridging the Divide program, is an important part of consolidating that historic relationship.