John Duncan, who helped build Korean studies into a thriving field, both at UCLA and around the world, is retiring. Duncan joined the UCLA faculty in 1989, and during the next 30 years, became a recognized scholar of the Chosŏn dynasty and pre-modern Korea.
At UCLA, Duncan served as chair and director of graduate studies in the department of Asian languages and cultures. He also was a study center director of the University of California Education Abroad Program at Korea University for four years.
Duncan’s biography is well known in the Korean Studies field. When lack of funds caused him to drop out of college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea at the height of the Vietnam War. He spent two tours there, during which he worked to improve his Korean language skills. After finishing his military service, Duncan stayed in Korea and spent another year doing intensive language study, eventually enrolling in Korea University, where he earned his undergraduate degree.
“I have to have had one of the world's best jobs, there’s no way to get around it,” Duncan said. “I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been here at UCLA, in part because of its location in Los Angeles. There is a very large Korean presence here, with many Korean American students and many non-Korean students interested in Korea.”
Colleagues, former students and staff speak of Duncan with great respect and affection.
“It is John, more than anyone, who helped shape Korean Studies at UCLA into the premier program in the United States,” said Robert Buswell, founding director of the Center for Korean Studies. Until the early 1990s, the study of Korea in North America had been limited largely to pre-modern history and modern Korean politics. Duncan and his colleagues seized the opportunity to build Korean Studies at UCLA, increasing total enrollment and the number of disciplines covered in the program.
In honor of his retirement at the end of June, Duncan’s immense contributions to the field as a scholar and educator is being celebrated today at the “Workshop on Korean History, Culture and Society” in Charles E. Young Research Library.