The post-division (Christian) citizenship: the Christian encounters of North Korean migrants and South Korean Protestant Church

The post-division (Christian) citizenship: the Christian encounters of North Korean migrants and South Korean Protestant Church

Jin-Heon Jung

This study investigates the Christian conversion of North Korean migrants in the context of post-Cold War East Asia. I argue that North Korean conversion to Christianity is a cultural process that reflects South Korean Evangelical zeal and interest in “reinventing” anti-communist neo-liberal subjects (i.e., North Korean converts). In turn, the migrant converts’ submission to this Evangelicalism provokes competing discourses and practices of what constitutes “true” Christianity and what Korean-ness should look like in a transforming East Asia as well as in multicultural South Korea.

South Korean evangelical churches have long served as an anti-Communist bulwark, providing not only an “underground railroad” guiding North Koreans from China to South Korea, but also various religious and non-religious services for North Koreans settling in South Korea. Following this “Christian passage,” as I call it, and settlement in South Korea, a startling 85% of migrants identify themselves as Christian. In this context, the Church, with the caveat that it is by no means singular, emerges as a “contact zone” in which North Korean migrants are incorporated into a South Korean Christian system.

My research demonstrates the ways in which the migrants’ conversion to Christianity entails both physical relocation to the South and internal transformation from Juche (self-reliance, North Korean ruling philosophy) to neoliberal Protestant ethics. The evangelical language that the migrant converts acquire tends to lead them to imagine their sufferings as spatially and temporally Other (i.e., in the north and in the past), and to think of their cultural encounters in the South as the “blessed life.” Furthermore, my fieldwork data suggests that North Korean converts’ conversion performance is in turn used by South Korean Christians to revitalize weakening churches. Therefore my dissertation highlights the Church as a medium of this co-ethnic relationship, engendering a post-division Korean Christian subjectivity that reflects the complex character of evangelical nationalism.

My ethnography of North Korean Christian conversion will contribute to our understanding of religious conversion as a sociopolitical performance and process in which particular forms of narratives (e.g., North Korean testimonials) are often tailored for a specific group (i.e., evangelicals). My research will also contribute to work on Korean nationalism and Christianity in the post-Cold War context by examining the ways in which North Korean converts and their southern counterparts are struggling to negotiate a “true” Christianity in the process of the reunification of two Koreas. In addition, my ethnographic focus on people on the move will extend a body of work detailing the diffused effects of globalization in Northeast Asia and beyond by attending to how North Korean migration intersects with complex and ambivalent political economic interests and power relations.