Interview with Prof. Oh Eun-kyung, a main author of “Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanitis”

It covers all humanities subjects of the Turkic belt countries.

By Diplomacy Journal Lee Kap-soo


“Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities” is the result of a research project of the Institute for Eurasian Turkic Countries under the Dongduk Women’s University (Republic of Korea). The project was implemented during 2018-2023 with financial support from the National Research Foundation of Korea. This dictionary, in which 21 authors participated, was personally supervised by Director of Institute for Eurasian Turkic Studies Professor Oh Eunkyung. She is also representative from the Republic of Korea in the Coordinating Bureau of the Silk Roads Living Heritage Network, which was established by the International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region under the auspices of UNESCO (ICHCAP) in collaboration with IICAS in 2021. “Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities” covers all humanities subjects from language, literature, history, art, geography, folklore, and religion of the Turkic belt countries (Türkiye, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as the Russian Federation’s Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Altai, Khakassia, Tuva and Sakha Republic, as well as Xinjiang Uighur of China). The publication, prepared in Korean language, consisting of 8 volumes with over 2,000 headwords and a total of 4,500 pages.



The managing editor of "Diplomacy Journal" Lee Kap-soo talked with the author of the book Director of Institute for Eurasian Turkic Studies Professor Oh Eun-kyung about the creation of this book.


1. Please tell me your personal biography
Eunkyung Oh is a professor at Dongduk Women's University, director of the institute for Eurasian Turkic Studies, editor-in-chief of the English-language journal of Turkic Studies, consultant of center for intangible cultural heritage of Asia-Pacific under the auspices of UNESCO(2016-2018), member of the Uzbek Turan Academy of Sciences, honorary member of the Writers' Union of Azerbaijan, Seoul City Diplomacy Advisory Committee, Seoul City Multicultural Expert Committee, Ministry of Justice Refugee Committee of Korea and ministerial adviser to the Korean president. 

She earned a Ph. D. in Turkish Literature and Comparative Literature from Hacettepe National University in Ankara, Turkey (1999) and also got a degree of Doctor of Science and professorship in Uzbekistan, Tashkent, the Academy of Science (2014). 

To date, she has published more than 150 research papers and 40 books on Turkology issues in various languages. The published scientific researches of the author, "Korean War in Turkish Literature" (Turkish, English), "Women in XX Century Turkish and Korean Literature" (Turkish, Azerbaijani, English), "Comparative Analysis of Turkish and Korean Heroic Epics" (Uzbek and Russian), “Living as women in Islam”(Korean)”, “Women and Islam in Veils”(Korean) have a special place in Academic world. 

She published Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities with 21 authors in Korean prepared under her leadership oas a  research and project director.


2. Why did you major in Turkish literature and Turkic studies?
I became interested in Turkic studies when I was in high school. At the time, I was a girl who read a lot and loved literature. On the weekends, we organized a ‘Reading Discussion Club’ and had discussions. To prepare for discussions, I often visited a large library in Seoul. However, it was the 1980s, and Korea was closed and not globalized. As for literary works, only American, British, French, and some Russian classics were introduced, and it was difficult to obtain any information about the Turkic countries. This was before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I thought that Korea and the Turkic countries were worth studying and were very important because of their cultural similarities and historical affinity.

I decided that I would study Turkic studies when I went to college. At that time, there was only one university in Korea that had a Turkish language department. I entered the Turkish language department and wanted to study abroad for a master's degree, but at the time, Korea was a very conservative society. It was not easy for a woman to study abroad alone. Of course my parents and all the professors in the department stopped me. But my desire was too strong at the time. In the end, I left behind the people who tried to dissuade me and was invited to Turkey as a I completed my MA and Ph.D in Turkish Literature and Comparative Literature at Hacettepe University, Turkey, and worked as a foreign professor at National Ankara University. During my stay in Turkey, I was the first Korean to promote Turkey as a “correspondent” on public TV and radio station MBC. At the time, Turkey was barely known in Korea, so the response was very good.

It had only been a few years since the Department of Korean Language and Literature was established at Ankara University, and I worked as a full-time foreign professor at the Department of Korean Language and Literature at Ankara University for three years from 1994 to 1997. After returning from completing my doctoral degree in Turkey in 1999, I began working as a professor at Dongduk Women's University in March 2002.
3. I heard that even though you have a doctorate, you went to Uzbekistan to get your doctorate again. Why?
Although I returned home after completing my master's and doctoral degrees in Turkey, I always had a desire to expand my field of “Turkic studies” by going to Uzbekistan. But actually, I didn't have the courage. I have to relearn the language, I have to raise the money on my own, and honestly, it's not easy to teach Uzbek literature at a Korean university even if I come back after completing my degree in Uzbekistan. Considering these realistic conditions, it is right to give up. But as I got older and near the end of my life, I decided I had to go to Uzbekistan before I regretted it. I cleaned up my house, threw away all my belongings, and applied for a leave of absence from Dongduk Women's University. I think it was a difficult decision.

It had been about 15 years since I worked at Dongduk Women's University. At that time, the academic field of “Turkish studies” was virtually unknown in Korea. Since I didn't know much about Uzbekistan, I decided to go to Uzbekistan. It was a very difficult decision because I had to learn Uzbek and Russian from the alphabet to write my thesis. At that time, I was already 43 years old. At the age of 43, I started learning Uzbek, wrote my doctoral thesis (Doctor of Science), and received my doctorate. In fact, this is a degree that only exists in the former Soviet Union and Europe, and can be considered a full professor qualification degree. I am the first foreigner in Uzbekistan to receive a Doctor of Science degree, and I consider this a great honor.
4. I heard that Dongduk Women's University is a women's university and that it has a historical background. Could you please explain?
 First of all, you may think that Dongduk Women’s University is unique in that it is a “women’s” university. First of all, the students are all “female.” However, for master's, doctoral and exchange students, we only accept men. Our university is one of the few universities in Korea with a long history and tradition. Established in 1908, the school celebrates its 116th anniversary this year. Let me briefly explain the background of how the university was founded. At that time, Korea was under the Joseon Dynasty, but its national power was greatly weakened and it came under the threat of Japanese imperialism. Ultimately, it experienced Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. In 1908, pioneers of the nation, or patriots, became aware of the need for education for the future of the nation, and felt that women's education was more urgent than anything else, so they established a women's university. There is a saying, “It is better to teach one woman than to teach a hundred men.” This spirit continues to this day, and there are five women's universities in Korea, including Dongduk Women's University.


5. I heard that you created the ‘Institute for Eurasian Turkic Studies’ on your own at Dongduk Women’s University, a wasteland of Turkic studies with no connection to Turkic studies. Why?
I currently work at Dongduk Women's University and serve as the director of Institute for the Eurasian Turkic Studies. After I returned home from Uzbekistan with my second doctoral degree(professorship), I thought of establishing a “Turkic Studies Institute” in Korea. Although I received two doctoral degrees in Turkey and Uzbekistan, there was no Department of Turkic Studies or Institute of Turkic Studies in Korea. After going through a very difficult process, I established the “Institute for Eurasian Turkic Studies” under Dongduk Women’s University in February 2016. I am the founder, and it is the only research institute in Korea that conducts research and academic activities in Turkic studies. This is a place to conduct research on Turkic countries such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan etc. 

We hold Turkish and Uzbek language classes twice a year, and once a month we host a colloquium with professors in Korea who conduct research on topics related to Turkic countries. We sometimes invite companies and former diplomats to give expert lectures, and we also hold academic conferences jointly with foreign universities or embassies.

This kind of activity was possible because after establishing the Eurasian Turkic Research Center at Dongduk Women's University, I received funds from the National Research Foundation of Korea for the <Building a Turkic Studies Humanities Encyclopedia DB> project. Therefore, various research and academic activities were possible. Although there are not many younger students studying Turkic studies in Korea, many of them give up after completing their studies because they realize that there is no suitable place to find a job. In some cases, you have no choice but to leave academia after receiving your doctorate. I, too, am a person who came this far by struggling to survive in such a dire situation. So I feel very rewarded in that I have laid a foundation for younger students. Moreover, this institute is the first and only “Turkic studies” institute in the country. There is great interest from scholars at home and abroad. People from all walks of life came to the colloquium from all over the country, including Jeonju, Busan, and Daegu. Graduate students who had been hiding and conducting lonely research on Turkic people came and gathered there. I find it very rewarding to be a home for master's and doctoral students who have nowhere else to go, and to be able to network and network with people who are interested. I put in a lot of hard work and effort during the process of establishing the research institute and receiving funding, but I am glad that the Institute of Turkic Studies exists in Korea and can play a necessary role both at home and abroad. Before I retire, I hope to be able to pass on my experiences and accumulated research results to students in Korea and foster future generations.

However, the problem is that the <Building a Turkic Studies Humanities Encyclopedia DB> project has ended, and now there is no budget at all. So there is no activity and everything is halted. It is not easy to win a project related to Turkic studies in Korea. Therefore, we tried to receive funding from the International Turkic Academy or Azerbaijan, but failed.

If we do not receive funding from somewhere in the future, it will be difficult to resume our reaerch institute's activities. This is because the university does not provide any budget support at all.


6. You recently published <Encyclopedia of Turkic Studies and Humanities>. What kind of dictionary is it?
<Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities> is a dictionary that organizes and compiles major concepts in all areas of humanities necessary for understanding Turkology. <Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities> is the result of a basic research project conducted by the Institute for Eurasian Turkic Studies of Dongduk Women's University over the past five years (August 2018 to June 2023) with support from the National Research Foundation of Korea. The areas of Turkic humanities covered in this dictionary are diverse, ranging from language, literature, history, art, geography, folklore, and religion. This dictionary, which is published and distributed as a paper book and PDF e-book, contains as many as 8 volumes with over 2,000 entries. It is a huge volume of material consisting of a total of 4,500 pages.


7. I understand that you did not receive the contract to make a dictionary. How was this possible?

The project I received as a research director was ‘Building a Turkic Humanities Encyclopedia DB’. To carry out this research project, I mobilized all domestic Turkic studies researchers and received help from foreign researchers with a network. We built the DB with great effort. This process itself was not that easy. This is because there were quite a few gaps in information and research on Turkic humanities, and the barriers of prejudice and lack of awareness that Turkic studies researchers had to overcome were also high. After overcoming various problems and completing the DB construction, I realized that such a wasteful result could not be confined to the DB level. So, I decided to save the budget and make the database into a dictionary so that anyone could use it. The process of turning DB into a dictionary was like the alchemy of turning a rough stone into a gem, and it required a lot of hard work. Although it was painful, I endured the hardships with the expectation and belief that this dictionary, however weak, could fill the information gap in domestic Turkic studies and become a medium that connects our society and the Turkic nation.


8. Publishing a dictionary is not an easy task, but was the <Encyclopedia of Turkic Studies and Humanities> really necessary for Korean society to the extent that you had to endure such difficulties to create it?
The humanities of the ‘Turkish Belt’ countries are important not only in terms of academic value, but also geopolitically and geoeconomically. However, in our country, it is still difficult for the general public to even acquire basic knowledge about Turkic countries. In order to improve this situation, I think that, above all, we need a ‘Turkish studies’ humanities dictionary that is accessible to Turkic studies and related humanities fields.


9. Is there a humanistic significance that Korea should pay attention to in the Turkic countries?
South Korea is closer to the Turkic Belt countries in linguistic and cultural coordinates than any other ethnic group. It is based on so-called affinity. Therefore, it is essential to expand and strengthen humanities research in this region in order to expand the consensus of mutual understanding by identifying cultural interconnections and linguistic and cultural affinity with the Turkic countries of Eurasia. I believe that it will become an important national asset if we strengthen the cultural bond between the origins of Korean culture and the Turkic countries of Eurasia on the Silk Road and use this as a basis for political and economic exchange. In addition, these are countries that have the assets to cope with the conflict between the United States and China as well as historical and cultural conflicts with China.
10. What should Korea pay attention to when interacting with Turkey and other Turkic countries in the political and economic fields?
The future value is so infinite that it can be said to be the last market that Korea can explore. Nevertheless, the reality is that research on the domestic Turkic people or Turkic countries is not being conducted as actively as needed. There were not enough experts capable of conducting research. There are not many talented people who can play on the field.

In this reality, the Turkic countries are very important political and economic partners for Korea. In particular, since the inauguration of the Biden administration, the United States has been in a very sensitive confrontation with Russia and China. At a time like this, Korea needs to turn its attention to the Turkic countries of Central Asia. This is because the tense situation with Russia and China could actually be a greater opportunity for advancing into the Turkic countries of Central Asia. The Biden administration's accession to the climate agreement and carbon neutrality policy have changed the paradigm around the world. The introduction of a carbon border tax has become a critical threat to the survival of companies and countries. With renewable energy and new green policies, large domestic companies are racing to dominate advanced markets such as the United States. Central Asian countries are not only resource-possessing countries, but also have a natural environment perfect for producing renewable energy such as wind and solar energy. And in the case of automobiles, the president of Uzbekistan announced plans to convert automobile production lines to electric vehicle lines. Korean companies need to take the lead by using this environment as momentum.

In particular, the Biden administration has created “C5+1” as a way to diversify cooperation channels and is paying great attention to Central Asia. By taking advantage of this atmosphere, it appears that the influence of the United States can increase in Central Asian countries as well. Turkic countries depend on major investors Russia and China for much of their economy. In both countries, the public sentiment has historically not been very positive, and they want to maintain some distance from each other if possible. Through this gap, Turkey has begun to infiltrate to a large extent, and is also exerting a powerful, invisible influence. However, there are areas where Türkiye's technological capabilities fall short. Korean companies are eager to enter and invest in fields such as energy, automobiles, smart farms, healthcare, blockchain, and digitalization of industries that require significant technological capabilities.

Politically, the Turkic countries are countries that can unconditionally take South Korea's side on the international stage. In a situation where Korea needs “votes” due to the flow of the international situation, I can be on my side unconditionally. In the event that China causes a crisis or conflict situation, such as the THAAD retaliation in the past, a card can be created to pressure China by persuading the Turkic countries. One more thing, there are Korean compatriots living in the Turkic countries of Central Asia, including 180,000 in Uzbekistan and 100,000 in Kazakhstan. Korean Diaspora are generally people who have relatives living in North Korea and can travel freely to North Korea. “Koryoin(Korean Diaspora)” are also an important human resource that can play a significant role in conflict situations between North and South Korea.

As such, they are countries with high future value for Korea in many fields. However, above all, the source of such cooperation and friendly relations should be seen as deriving from the results accumulated historically and culturally in multiple layers. This is why the study of the Turkic state should be based on the humanities, but should be expanded to include politics, economy, diplomacy and security measures.


11. You said that there is an urgent need to train experts related to Turkic countries, including Turkey, in Korea. What measures are needed?
I think it will be difficult for Korea's relationship with Turkic countries, including Central Asia, to develop unless the Korean government takes special measures to foster experts in Turkic countries. We cannot think about the future without training talented individuals and experts.

Above all, the university system must be reformed. Recently, domestic universities are expanding the second major and minor system in addition to the first major. ‘Microdegree courses’ are also emerging. In order to train experts in the Turkic state, we must actively utilize this system. This is a plan to train experts by creating an expert course that combines one’s major with Turkic studies.


12. What are your expectations about <Encyclopedia of Turkic Studies and Humanities>?
I believe that <Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities> will not only revitalize Turkic studies research, but also provide key humanities information related to Turkic studies to researchers, business officials, and citizens. I believe that this information service will contribute to the development of relations between the Republic of Korea and the Eurasian Turkic countries in the future and to the expansion of the horizons of Koreans, and I hope that this dictionary will become a small light that illuminates the future that the Republic of Korea and the Eurasian Turkic countries will develop together.


13. It is said to be the first in Korea but also the world. What are the preliminary reactions at home and abroad?
This  <Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities> is ‘Korea’s first’, but in fact, it is also ‘the world’s first’. ‘Turkic Humanities Dictionary’ has not yet been published in any country. Although Turkic studies research in Korea is poor and awareness is low, I think it is the power of Korean humanities that <Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities> can be published in Korea. The response from foreign scholars to the dictionary has been warmer than expected. It's a Korean dictionary, and there are scholars who use a translator to read it carefully and give feedback, and there are also a lot of orders to translate it into English.


14. What was the most difficult thing about creating a <Encyclopedia of Turkic Humanities>?
Since publishing a dictionary is also a human task, the biggest difficulty came from ‘relationships’. This opportunity made me realize the difficulties of co-work. The workload in the process of turning a raw manuscript into a dictionary was unexpectedly excessive. When I first suggested ‘let’s publish a dictionary instead of staying in the database,’ everyone stopped me. In particular, Dr. Choi Seon-ah, who was the main author and worked as an editor until the very end, shed cried because of fear. It was not easy to proofread each and every manuscript that 21 authors submitted in a completely raw state, find and combine duplicate entries, find related photos, and find errors. Personally, due to my responsibility as the head researcher and editor-in-chief, I had to read all 2,000 headwords from beginning to end, proofread them, and compile them into a single coherent language. This was a time-consuming task and required co-work by several people. I saw that each person was under excessive stress due to their work. It was also my job to coordinate everything so that teamwork would not be broken while not making each other emotional. Sometimes I had to accept all the complaints from authors. For the past 10 months, I worked without getting enough sleep, but as I had to complain all over the place and console and coordinate the complaints while leading the team, there were many times when I was pushed to my physical and mental limits.

Moreover, since we were forced to do this with a really tight budget. We all worked without pay, it was natural for me, and I felt a great burden because the editorial committee members, Dr. Choi Seon-ah and Dr. Jang Ju-young, worked without pay for six months after the research project was completed. The publishing team also worked under almost volunteer-like conditions. This situation made me feel even more pressured. What was worse, if a mistake occurred and the typesetting had to be redone, unexpected costs would arise, so everyone had to be extremely sensitive.

Still, Dr. Choi Seon-ah, Dr. Jang Ju-young, and Guzal Mihraeva did not give up until the end and carried out the work together, and their effort and dedication, which was with them until the very end, was very comforting. In particular, the role of publisher Dr. RyuSu, who made creative suggestions and worked hard in the areas of editing, proofreading and design so that DB could be released into the world as a 'dictionary' even though it was almost a volunteer position, was also very important. .The fact that my reckless challenge and determination were able to come out in the world in the form of a dictionary is the fruit of the pain and patience of everyone who recognized and respected the need for Turkic studies.


15. What are your future plans for the dictionary?
I have no plans on what to do right now. While getting my degree in Uzbekistan, building a research institute, and making a dictionary, I haven't been able to rest comfortably even for a single day in the past 15 years, so I just want to rest for a bit. However, I feel the need to supplement and update this dictionary if any organization can provide support. I haven't thought about it yet, but I think it would be nice to publish it in English after some supplementary work. All of this requires a huge budget.


16. What are your plans and ideas for other projects?
Personally, there are countless books I would like to write in the field of Turkic studies. However, if I were asked to work on a large project before retirement, I would like to write <Dictionary of Turkic Intangible Cultural Heritage> for the development of Turkic studies in our country and ways to utilize it internationally. These materials are important materials that will clarify the exchange of civilizations between East and West on this planet and connect civilizations as one. It is also important for the formation of a cultural community, exchange, and harmony among all Turkic peoples. However, since it requires such a large budget, it is impossible without support at the national level. 


17. Do you have any advice for developing relations with Turkey and other Turkic countries in the future?
There is a need to create institutions and systems to enable sustainable cooperation with Turkic countries.
First of all, a plan to cultivate experts and talent is urgently needed. We must actively seek ways to open a Turkic department and foster key universities. The human exchange and talent development measures currently being promoted by the Korean government are entirely focused on supporting Korean studies and the Korean language in Central Asian countries or providing study abroad opportunities by attracting local government officials and students to Korea. For this reason, the gap in domestic Korean Turk Belt country experts is becoming increasingly serious. As a solution to this problem, it is urgent to establish projects and funds to foster key universities and encourage the opening of Turkic departments. Currently, there is a special foreign language education promotion project implemented by the National Institute for International Education of the Ministry of Education, but it is not aimed at encouraging the opening of foreign language courses in a piecemeal manner. There is an urgent need to open departments in the form of convergence or interdisciplinary majors and to cultivate talent with both expertise in the major and regional expertise. There is a need to establish a fund related to the establishment of Turkic studies at the National Research Foundation of Korea under the Ministry of Education and prepare a plan to foster key universities.

Second, it is necessary for the Korean government to join the “Organization of Turkic States” as an associate member. The OTS is “a council of Turkic-speaking countries.” Established in 2010, it is currently strengthening cooperation in all areas including politics, economy, society, culture, education, trade, transportation, and logistics among Turkic countries. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are full members, and Turkmenistan and Hungary are associate members.

As the conflict between the U.S. and China is deepening, Korea also needs to secure various cooperation channels. In particular, the Turkic countries have cultural affinity with us, and geopolitically, they include the Caucasus region, which connects Asia and Europe, and occupy a significant portion of the Eurasian continent. It is expected that the completion of the network with the Eurasian continent can be expected by actively seeking opportunities to build an economic and cultural cooperation network, such as expanding the entry of Korean companies through participation in the Turkic Council.

Third, although projects between Turkey and Korea are important, multilateral cooperation projects and systems between Turkic countries are needed. Even for large companies pursuing B2B projects, it is not easy to properly carry out the project without cooperation and help from the government. Therefore, a special organization called “Korea-Turkic Economic Cooperation Center (tentative name)” must be established to provide consulting and solutions to corporate problems at any time. However, this organization must be established equally in each Turkic country and must be organized so that a connection channel up to the prime minister can be secured.