#AsiaNow Speaks with Hyun Ok Park

Hyun Ok Park is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at York University and author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea, published by Columbia University Press and recipient of the 2017 AAS James Palais Award Honorable Mention.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

This book presents a paradigm shift on Korean unification, which is an unresolved and volatile matter for the global order. Regime change in North Korea and economic engagement with it have developed into showdowns in national and international relations whenever the security of the Korean peninsula is threatened by North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear development or by the trail of its refugees. Based on extensive archival and ethnographic research, I argue, instead, that Korea is already unified by capital in a transnational form. The hegemonic democratic politics of the post-Cold War era (reparation, peace, and human rights) have consigned the rights of migrant laborers—the protagonists of transnational Korea—to identity politics, constitutionalism, and cosmopolitanism. The Capitalist Unconscious reveals the riveting capitalist logic that underpins contemporary legal and policy debates, social activism, and media spectacle.

I develop this counterintuitive perspective on Korean unification by interpreting the postcolonial histories of the two Koreas and China and rethinking the temporalization of the post-Cold War era vis-à-vis the theories of capitalism, socialism, and democracy. The largely forgotten original and utopian ideals of ethnic and national sovereignty, as well as their historical metamorphosis, are illuminated by bringing capitalism into the analysis of nation-state formation and transnational migration.

What inspired you to research this topic?

The confluence of history and politics prompted, sustained, and deepened my commitment to writing this book. For instance, I was captivated by the persistent and yet overlooked gap between the South Korean crisis in capitalism and democracy, especially from the 1990s on, and the unwavering sense of South Korea’s victory against North Korea.

Moreover, human rights advocacy has filled the political space vacated by anti-communism in the post-Cold War era, while the growing reign of neoliberal capitalism has inspired many to harness a new political possibility to the utopian vision of communalism that they rescued from the failed history of twentieth-century socialism. At this juncture, I consider analysis of the crisis in North Korean and Chinese socialism to be very important, and therefore investigate the following questions in The Capitalist Unconscious: What contradiction emerged when rapid industrialization was prioritized over immediate equal distribution of goods during the socialist construction in North Korea and China? In what form of crisis did the contradiction manifest itself, and how was it repeatedly addressed? What was the logic of this repetition? And what do this contradiction and repeated rationalization have to do with the changing policy of nationality and ethnicity, the state’s violence, privatization, and border-crossing migration?

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better or easier than you expected it would?

This book is intended to be read as a whole that weaves together the local and national histories of South Korea, North Korea, and China in order to discern the dynamics of transnational Korea. Conducting multi-site research into undocumented migration across the borders indebted me to the migrants who shared their experiences with me, as well as to activists, colleagues, and friends for their help in the research process. The migrants framed their border-crossings within hegemonic narratives of ethnic nation and human rights, even when I asked about their changing work experiences. Their unexpected responses led me to articulate the global capitalist process associated with nation, diaspora, and transnationalism, and to interpret their interactions in light of the twentieth-century history of capitalism and socialism.

The research process was also a surprising opportunity to observe the effects of democratization on conducting research. Since the 1987 political liberalization in South Korea, holding public forums and making the resulting documents available to the public has become routine practice for policy makers, NGOs, and other activists there. Although, thanks to freer access, I garnered copious amounts of these data, I also realized that consensus as a mode of democratic politics circumscribes the diversity of perspectives. The uncanny consensus on capitalism among the political left and right is conceptualized in the book as “the capitalist unconscious.”

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

It is the tale of North Korean refugees who, as stateless subjects (to use Hannah Arendt’s term), escaped from political oppression in North Korea, were persecuted in China as North Korean spies during the Cultural Revolution, remained in China as overseas North Koreans despite their renunciation of the North Korean state, and finally came to South Korea though epic struggle, only to be denied recognition either as South Korean citizens—though being designated as such in the South Korean Constitution—or as escapees (t’abukja) from North Korea.

In current terms, they are transnational subjects who live between nation-states, neither enjoying dual or multiple belongingness nor finding any one place to belong. Cold War history is too bound to the idea of the nation-state to accommodate these migrants’ transnational status in failing to choose either South Korea or North Korea, and post-Cold War politics is so globalized that their life histories appear bound to the putatively old era of the nation-state. Filled with class struggle, purges, and revolutions, these migrants’ stories seem a thing of the past, with no place in the prevailing unification politics that espouses peace and global democracy.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

  • Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Schocken, 1951).
  • Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Belknap Press, 2002), and “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (Schocken, 1969).
  • Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2002).
  • Cho Hiyŏn and Pak Hyŏnch’ae, Han’guk sahoe kusŏngch’e ron I (The social formation debate in South Korea I–IV). (Seoul: Chuksan, 1989–92).
  • Jean and John Comaroff, Ethnicity, Inc. (University of Chicago Press, 2009). 
  • Goh Byeong-gwon (ed.), R: Sosusŏng ŭi chŏngch’ihak (R: The politics of minority) (Seoul, Kŭrinbi, 2007).
  • Karl Marx, Capital I: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin Classics, 1976).
  • Paik Nak-chung, Hŭndŭllinŭn pundan ch’eje (The national division system is shaking). (Seoul: Ch’angjak kwa pip’yǒng 1998).
  • Yi Jin-kyung (ed.), Chǒnjigu chǒk chabonjuŭi wa Han’guk sahoe: Tasi sahoe kusǒngch’eron ŭiro? (Global capitalism and South Korean society: A return to the social formation debate?). AlteRevolution 2. (Seoul: Kŭrinbi, 2008).

What are you working on now?

I am writing a book on the 2014 Sewŏl ferry disaster in South Korea and the consequent movement to uncover the truth about it. Entitled “Children of the Disaster: The Sewŏlho Politics, Truth, and Radical Democracy,” this book recognizes the Sewŏlho movement as a culmination of the life politics of those who have been expelled from factory jobs, rented stores, and farmlands under neoliberal rule, and who define that loss as the loss of life itself in their ongoing resistance, which goes beyond labor and identity politics. I investigate how new this social expulsion is, and ask what challenges it poses to the modern politics of otherness and an alternative future.

With the motto of “We Are All Sewŏlho,” the Sewŏlho movement dissolves the dichotomy of citizens and victims, and of life and death, whereas this dichotomy is the very foundation of the modern state’s sovereignty and biopolitics. Narrating the ferry disaster as “the second Kwangju massacre,” the Sewŏlho movement also crosses the time-honored divide between dictatorship and democracy to name materialism as the real culprit in the 2014 tragedy. My ethnographic research reveals that this politics of life and death is discernable when one steps out of the received framework of victimhood (mourning, trauma, healing, and commemoration) that fills popular imagination, intellectual discourse, and the state’s response.