State and church in the making of post-division subjectivity: North Korean migrants in South Korea

by Jin-heon Jung

Working Papers WP 11-12
October 2011
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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This paper provides a historical overview of the shifting identity politics of the South Korean state with respect to North Korean migrants, and an ethnographic study of intra-ethnic contact zones in which North Korean migrants and their southern counterparts interact and negotiate a new citizenship in envisioning a reunified nation. The presence of North Korean migrants and their daily struggles in adjusting to South Korean society gives rise to questions about the narrow-minded South Korean-centric nationalism which was once believed to be ingrained and that descended through „our“ blood. This essay posits that Korean ethnicity should not be taken for granted as a self-evident unit that shares a homogenous identity, but rather as a product of the complex social processes of boundary making. By examining gradual changes from national anticommunist celebrities to new settlers, I want to punctuate how state powers and interests influence the Northerners‘ processes of re-subjectification in South Korea, and further illuminate the ways in which the different terms of „North Korean migrants“ end up serving as quasi-ethnic markers. Micro-levels of empirical data are crucial in  dismantling the assimilationist tendency in the policies towards the Northerners and a reunification rooted in a belief of Korean ethnic homogeneity.

Jin-heon Jung is currently a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the
Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, and received his Ph.D. in Anthropology
at the University of Illinois (2010). He has co-authored the books Han’guk-esŏŭi tamunhwajuŭi hyŏnsil gwa chaengchŏm [Multiculturalism in South Korea: A Critical Review] (2007, Seoul: Hanul academy), and Pukhanesŏ on nae ch‘in’gu [My Friends from North Korea] (2002, Seoul: Urikyoyuk). He is currently working on a book manuscript on the Christian encounters of North Korean migrants with the South Korean Evangelical Church, refugee and faith-based humanitarian aid, communism and religion, and multiculturalism and human rights.