#AsiaNow Speaks with Jaeeun Kim

Jaeeun Kim is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at the University of Michigan. She is author of Contested Embrace: Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea, published by Stanford University Press and recipient of the 2018 AAS James B. Palais Book Prize Honorable Mention.

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

My book analyzes transborder membership politics in and around the Korean peninsula, focusing on the complex relationships between the states in the Korean peninsula, colonial-era ethnic Korean migrants and their descen­dants, and the states in which they have resided. The book explores when, how, and why a state seeks to claim a certain transborder population as “its own,” and how transborder coethnics participate in this process as they seek long-distance membership on their own terms. The spatio-temporal scope of the book covers critical politico-legal and social transformations in northeast Asia in the long 20th century. The book analyzes the legal, bureaucratic, and semantic infrastructures that shaped the identities of Korean migrants under colonial rule; the vehement competition between North and South Korea over the allegiance of Korean migrants who remained in Japan; various forms of cross-border transactions between China and North Korea amidst the Cold War confrontation and the socialist transition; and the post-Cold War struggles of ethnic Korean “return” migrants from China to South Korea to gain belated recognition as members of the rediscovered affluent homeland. Drawing on archival and ethnographic data collected through field research in three countries, I demonstrate how the politics of sovereignty, governmentality, and identity shape the making, unmaking, and remaking of the transborder nation on the macro-political, meso-institutional, and micro-interactional levels. I argue that being a “homeland” state or a member of the “transborder nation” is a precarious, arduous, and revocable legal-political achievement, mediated profoundly by bureaucratic practices of the state.

What inspired you to research this topic?

Japan’s occupation of Korea at the turn of the twentieth cen­tury set in motion a massive out-migration of the colonial population to the Japanese archipelago (the metropole of the Japanese Empire) and Manchu­ria (the disputed border region between the Japanese Empire and China). By the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, ethnic Koreans in these two regions (over 2 million in each) comprised approximately 15 percent of the entire “Korean” population. Postwar repatriation left 0.6 million of these migrants in Japan and 1.2 million in (now communist) China.

The literature on ethnic Koreans in Japan and China has tended to place them squarely within the territorial boundary of postwar Japan or the Peo­ple’s Republic of China, the seemingly contrasting narratives characterizing the two groups notwithstanding. Studies of ethnic relations in Japan, for instance, have shown how Japan’s transformation from a multiethnic em­pire to a self-stylized homogeneous nation-state entailed the transformation of its Korean residents from colonial subjects to a hidden ethnic minority that was legally disenfranchised, socially excluded, and culturally assimi­lated and thus rendered invisible. The few existing accounts of Korean Chinese history, by contrast, have uniformly highlighted the progressive integration of this “model minority” into the People’s Republic of China in a teleological and triumphalist fashion. Inquiries about the genealogy of Korean ethnic nationalism or colonial and postcolonial state building, for their part, have limited their analytic focus largely to the Korean penin­sula. The massive outward migration that coincided with the rise of Korean nationalism and the uneven incorporation of these transborder Koreans into the colonial and postcolonial state-building processes have been largely missing or mentioned only in passing in these studies.

I wanted to break with the “methodological nationalism” underlying these studies, that is, the prevalent tendency in social sciences to take the current nation-state as a seldom-questioned unit of analysis. I wanted to situate ethnic Koreans in Japan and China not simply at the margin of their respective state of settlement but also at the transborder margin of their states of origin, that is, the colonial and postcolonial states in the Korean peninsula. This analytic shift reveals that, despite a widespread, deeply entrenched and quasi-primordial belief in Korean ethnic nationhood, the embrace of these transborder coethnic populations by the colonial and the two postcolonial states, North and South Korea, has been selective, shift­ing, and recurrently contested. I sought to explore under what circumstances and by what means the colonial and postcolonial states have sought to claim (or failed to claim) certain transborder populations as “their own,” and how transborder Koreans have themselves shaped the making, unmaking, and remaking of transborder ties as they have sought long-distance membership on their own terms.

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

Since the book drew largely on multisited ethnographic research, how I, as a South Korean native studying at an American university, was perceived, accepted, welcomed, suspected, or rejected by my (potential) study participants was an important issue, both practically and methodologically. In particular, my reception among Korean Chinese varied reflecting the complex relationship between Korean Chinese and South Korea in the post-Cold War period. As is discussed in Chapter 4 of the book, the post-Cold War migration boom in northeast China has been largely predicated on the Korean Chinese incorporation into the secondary labor market in South Korea. This has exposed many Korean Chinese not only to the hos­tile immigration policies of their ancestral “homeland” but also to everyday discrimination and humiliation at the hands of South Korean citizens. Such disillusioning post-Cold War intraethnic encounters have had the effect of reinforcing their self-identification as citizens of multiethnic China, while undermining attachment to their ancestral homeland or “coethnic breth­ren.” Yet it is also undoubtedly true that their “return” migration to the affluent “homeland” has brought higher income, improvement in general living standard, familiarity with South Korean culture (especially its thriv­ing pop culture), and, in some cases, pride in their ethnic identity vis-à-vis the majority Han Chinese. This complex situation generated ambivalent attitudes toward South Koreans in general and toward me in particular.

Interestingly, I was sometimes approached by Korean Chinese whose fu­ture vision (not only for themselves but also for their children) was no lon­ger limited to northeast Asia after two decades of intensive migration expe­rience. In efforts to find a way to migrate to the United States or send their children to study abroad, they asked me about how to get admitted to U.S. colleges or graduate schools, how to pass the visa screening, how to pay for tuition or send remittances back home, and how to obtain green cards. I told them that obtaining visas should not be difficult for students already admitted to a university, that student visa-holders were not allowed to work, and that students should first find employment after graduation to obtain a green card. However, my responses—largely limited to a description of how to work within the official system or how the official system should operate—were often interpreted as a product of my privileged naiveté (that is, as a person holding a “better” passport) or, worse, as an unwillingness to share my knowledge about how to circumvent official policies that discrim­inated against people like them. These episodes highlighted the profound discrepancy between my own experience of global mobility and that of my research participants. This enabled me to understand more keenly how the hierarchically organized global mobility regimes have shaped the ways in which the Korean Chinese have charted their migration ventures, not only to South Korea but also to other parts of the world. How this factor is shap­ing evolving transborder membership politics at the turn of the twenty-first century is discussed in the book’s concluding chapter.

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

Let me tell Kil-yong’s story, one of the three stories with which I open my book; the story, and more broadly, the unauthorized exodus of Korean Chi­nese to North Korea and their return from the “return” at the turn of the 1960s, is analyzed in depth in Chapter 3 of my book.

A fourth-generation Korean migrant, Kil-yong was born in 1942 in Dunhua, Man­churia (the disputed borderland in northeast China), which had been under Japan’s control since 1932. His family did not join the massive wave of re­patriation after the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945. Instead, his fa­ther became actively involved in the Chinese civil war as a communist and later became a high-ranking official in the newly minted People’s Republic of China. The government dispatched his father on the official Chinese goodwill mission to North Korea in 1948 to celebrate the establishment of its socialist ally. His father returned from this trip with a photo of himself being greeted by Kim Il-sung.

In 1961, Kil-yong, a college dropout, managed to land a job as a teacher at a technical high school in Yanji (the capital city of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, home to the majority of ethnic Koreans in China), and this brought him the privileged city-dweller status. Several months later, however, a government directive ordered the closure of his school. This left him unemployed, jeopardized his hard-won city-dweller status, and darkened his future prospects overall. The deepening radicalization of the Communist Party leadership also concerned him; a mocking remark he made about the agricultural collectivization project had been publicly criticized during the Anti-Rightist Movement a few years prior. Encour­aged by the rumor that North Korea provided coethnic “returnees” with jobs, higher education, and citizenship, Kil-yong crossed the China–North Korea border one night in January 1962. He and several friends knocked down the Chinese border guards, ran across the bridge between Tumen (China) and Namyang (North Korea), and were welcomed by North Ko­rean border guards at the end of the bridge with a salute: “Welcome to the socialist fatherland!” Although many other Korean Chinese “repatriates” were assigned to factories or mines near the border area, Kil-yong secured a teaching job in a developed port city, Wonsan. He suspected that the photo of his father and Kim Il-sung he showed North Korean officials during the intake interview was helpful.

In North Korea, Kil-yong became a Chinese teacher in a senior high school in a developed port city, Wonsan. His new life in North Korea was not bad. He obtained citizenship in six months and was soon allowed to join the Korean Labor Party. He was in his mid-twenties, and, as white-collar workers with relatively high sala­ries and prestige, teachers were popular as marriage partners—“second only to military officers,” Kil-yong added with a mischievous smile—in post-war North Korea where the male-to-female sex ratio was already too low. He soon fell in love with a university student, who became pregnant with his child. But his parents in China vigorously opposed his plan to marry the woman, fearing that the marriage would decisively anchor their first son in North Korea. They saw Kil-yong’s departure as a temporary youth­ful adventure and wanted him to return to China, as some of his friends had already done. Kil-yong explained to me that many of his friends, ac­customed to China’s egalitarian culture in which most people called each other simply “comrade,” had a hard time adjusting to the allegedly more hierarchical culture in North Korea. He recalled having been harassed by the police on the streets for improper attire: however hot and humid the summer days might be, teachers had to wear perfect suits “for the honor of the Great Leader,” he was told. Torn between filial duty and love for his fiancée, he decided to return to China temporarily, thinking that he would persuade his parents first and then come back again in four months to marry his pregnant fiancée.

Kil-yong successfully returned to China in January 1965. On crossing the frozen Tumen River, he threw away his clothes and wore an old Mao jacket that his mother had sent him in advance. He also held the People’s Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper, under his arm. He knew that if he looked like a Han Chinese, the border patrol would be unlikely to question him. Kil-yong’s problem lay somewhere else, though. Unable to recover his urban hukou, he had to become an irregular worker at a tofu-processing factory in Yanji so that he could at least eat the leftover tofu even with­out proper grain cards (liangpiao). A year later, his father, a cadre, was able to help him recover his registration, but with the onset of the Cultural Revolution several months later, the life of Kil-yong’s family was quickly turned upside down. In addition to being one of the leading cadres who were especially vulnerable to the Red Guards’ aggression, his father had been a member of the official goodwill mission dispatched to North Korea in 1948. The Red Guards accused Kil-yong’s father of having secretly served the revisionist agenda of North Korea; it was alleged that Kil-yong’s venture to North Korea had been part of this secret mission. Because both his father and Kil-yong were labeled “antirevolutionaries,” his whole family not only lost the urban hukou but was discriminated against in every aspect of their lives: they were not rationed white rice; their home was not supplied electricity; even their pig, branded an “antirevolutionary pig,” was denied its share of rationed feed! Kil-yong’s younger brothers and sisters were not allowed to join the Communist Youth League—not even if they openly denounced and disowned their father and elder brother. It was ten years before Kil-yong could teach at a school again.

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

There are plenty among Korean, Japanese, and Chinese publications, but I will list only English-language references here.

Brubaker, Rogers, Margit Feischmidt, Jon Fox, and Liana Grancea. Na­tionalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town. (Princeton University Press, 2006).

Chu, Julie Y. Cosmologies of Credit: Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China. (Duke University Press, 2010).

Cook-Martín, David. The Scramble for Citizens: Dual Nationality and State Competition for Immigrants. (Stanford University Press, 2013).

Freeman, Caren. Making and Faking Kinship: Marriage and Labor Migra­tion between China and South Korea. (Cornell University Press, 2011).

Joppke, Christian. Selecting by Origin: Ethnic Migration in the Liberal State. (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Kwon, Heonik. The Other Cold War. (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Lau, Estelle T. Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion. (Duke University Press, 2006).

Lie, John. Zainichi (Koreans in Japan): Diasporic Nationalism and Postcolonial Identity. (University of California Press, 2008).

McKeown, Adam M. Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Global­ization of Borders. (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Mullaney, Thomas S. Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. (University of California Press, 2011).

Park, Hyun Ok. Two Dreams in One Bed: Empire, Social Life, and the Origins of the North Korean Revolution in Manchuria. (Duke University Press, 2005).

Ryang, Sonia. North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology and Identity. (Westview, 1997).

Sadiq, Kamal. Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries. (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Torpey, John. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

What are you working on now?

The process of writing Contested Embrace sharpened my understanding of the centrality of categorization and identification practices (and the accompanying epistemological anxiety about the accuracy of such practices) in the everyday working of immigration bureaucracy; the moral economy that informs migrants’ involvement in “identity fraud” in the context of global inequality and migration control; the mutually constitutive relationship between self-presentation and self identification (or performance and identity, to put differently); and the utility of multisited ethnographic field research for closely examining the dynamic unfolding of these phenomena. These are the theoretical and methodological concerns that inform my second book project.

This project examines the hitherto underexplored nexus of migration, religion, and nation-states in the current phase of globalization, focusing on the asylum-seeking of unauthorized migrants on religious grounds. Specifically, I examine the migration careers, legalization strategies, and conversion patterns of ethnic Korean migrants from China—through various steppingstone countries—to the U.S. As colonial-era migrants and their descendants, Korean Chinese remained concentrated in their ethnic enclaves in northeast China throughout the Cold War era. Yet since the early 1990s, labor migration has become a major strategy with which Korean Chinese have weathered China’s drastic economic transformation. A decade of diverse and intensive migration to neighboring regions (including, most importantly, their newly discovered affluent homeland, South Korea) prepared the way for the (frequently) unauthorized migration to ever more distant and diverse destinations outside northeast Asia. In the U.S., Korean Chinese migrants mostly work in Korean or (if less frequently) Chinese ethnic enclaves, and some have sought to legalize their immigration status by seeking asylum, including submitting asylum claims based on a persecuted Christian identity.

The migration careers, legalization strategies, and conversion patterns of Korean Chinese migrants in the U.S. pose several intriguing questions of general theoretical import. Under what circumstances and in what ways does ethnicity facilitate stepwise migration of otherwise disadvantaged capital-constrained migrants? What local, national, and transnational institutions, networks, and moral economies make asylum-seeking, especially asylum claims based on a persecuted Christian identity, a conceivable and actionable legalization strategy for a certain group of migrants? What kinds of practical challenges, legal intricacies, and moral dilemmas do various actors—immigration officials, religious actors, and migrants themselves, among others—face as a result and how do they make sense of and respond to these challenges, intricacies, and dilemmas? And how do the complex interactions among these actors over time reshape unauthorized migrants’ multi-scalar incorporation into, and identification with, the local community, the national body politic, and a transnational community of faith? These are the questions that I want to address with my new project.