Migration and diaspora politics are challenging what it means to be “Korean.”
South Korea, one of the standout economic success stories of recent decades, now boasts the 11th biggest economy in the world and has quickly become a destination for migrants from neighboring countries in East and Southeast Asia. Though today, migrants from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and elsewhere flock to the country in search of opportunity, up to and during World War II, Koreans sought opportunity outside of their now popular homeland, migrating en masse to Japan and Manchuria. Both those ethnic Koreans who remained in Japan and Manchuria after the collapse of the Japanese Empire and the ethnically non-Korean migrants settling in South Korea today have complicated questions of citizenship, belonging, and identity—namely, who is Korean and what it means in practice—throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.
Jaeeun Kim and Hae Yeon Choo, both of whom have studied migration to and from Korea and the attendant issues of membership politics and nationalism, answer a few questions about the politics of migration, citizenship, and national belonging in the Korean context.
What caused the massive out-migration from Korea to Japan and Manchuria in the first half of the twentieth century?
JAEEUN KIM: Japan’s occupation of Korea at the turn of the twentieth century gave the colony a turbulent push into the global economy and led to an influx of colonizers from the metropole, displacing millions of Koreans in the process. The displaced, in turn, migrated to the Japanese archipelago (the metropole of the Japanese Empire) and Manchuria (the disputed border region between the Japanese Empire and China). Even after repatriation following the end of World War II, 0.6 million of these migrants remained in Japan and 1.2 million in (now communist) China, and their fates diverged sharply in the newly emerging Cold War order in northeast Asia.
How were those who remained in Japan and China viewed by the two newly emerged Korean states, North and South Korea?
KIM: During the Cold War era, the Chinese Communist Party had proactively and successfully won the allegiance of Koreans by providing protection from Han Chinese nativism, distributing land, and granting Chinese citizenship along with comprehensive minority rights. The successful incorporation of Koreans into communist China led North and South Korea to take very different stances toward them. The anti-communist regime in South Korea chose to willfully ignore them. Their ties to North Korea, meanwhile, were alternately promoted, tolerated, or repressed by the Chinese and North Korean governments throughout the Cold War period. Various forms of cross-border transactions, including authorized and unauthorized migration between the two countries, profoundly shaped the war-making, state-making, and nation-making (or unmaking) processes in both China and North Korea.
The postwar Japanese government, by contrast, sought to rid its shrunken national territory of as many of its ex-colonized people as possible. It was reluctant to grant Japanese citizenship to those who, despite these efforts, chose to remain. North and South Korea engaged in prolonged and vehement competition over the allegiance of these Koreans in Japan. North Korea launched a successful repatriation campaign and heavily invested in Korean enclaves in Japan, presenting itself as a safe haven in which Koreans could find an escape—not only from the hostile Japanese world but also from the economically incompetent and politically repressive South Korean state. By contrast, South Korea fashioned itself as a broker that could facilitate the integration of the Korean minority into the Japanese mainstream (through, among other means, the Japan–South Korea treaty that made it possible for Koreans to attain permanent resident status in Japan), and as a gatekeeper that could control Koreans’ engagement with families and home communities in South Korea.
What attracted both ethnic Korean and ethnically non-Korean migrants to South Korea in the last quarter century?
HAE YEON CHOO: Migration to South Korea in recent decades has been part of a broader trend of inter-Asian labor and marriage migration that has been increasing in scale since the 1980s. The economic ascendance of the “Four Asian Tigers”—South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—made these countries attractive new migrant destinations, mostly for short-term laborers, as the possibility of permanent settlement remained elusive in most cases. Since the early 1990s, migrants from China, Southeast and South Asia have entered the country and worked in a variety of low-paid market sectors (factories, restaurants, construction, hostess clubs, and so on) where South Korea has experienced labor shortages.
At the same time, in a society where heterosexual marriage is considered core to personhood and women’s carework for the senior members of patrilineal families is of the utmost importance, an abundance of “rural bachelors” emerged as a social problem in South Korea. Local governments, religious organizations, and commercial matchmaking agencies all came together to solve this problem by looking for marriageable women in China and Southeast Asia for men in rural areas at first, then increasingly urban working-class men. For migrant women, cross-border marriages were one of only a few very limited pathways for transnational mobility, one that, unlike labor migration, offered the possibility of permanent settlement.
KIM: The factors that Hae Yeon pointed out also attracted a huge number of ethnic Koreans who had been living in China from the late 1980s onward. When other Chinese peasants tried internal migration to coastal cities to survive a lurching economic transition in the post-Mao era, the Korean Chinese tried to resettle in their newly rediscovered affluent “homeland” as labor and marriage migrants.
How have these recent migrants been treated by the South Korean government and native Koreans?
CHOO: It’s common among South Koreans to think of ethnic Koreans as “us” and others as outsiders and foreigners—even naturalized citizens of non-Korean ethnicity are viewed by many as outsiders. Migrants experience hostility and dismissive treatment from South Koreans in their daily lives, as people talk down to them, underpay them, or avoid interacting with them.
It’s common among South Koreans to think of ethnic Koreans as “us” and others as outsiders and foreigners.
Marriage migrants are expected to integrate as Korean mothers and wives, whereas labor migrants are expected to serve only temporarily in the workforce leaving after their labor contract expires. Otherwise they may be subject to immigration control and deportation. For many undocumented migrants, being “illegal” poses an added stigma, as some South Koreans perceive them as law-breakers and criminals.
At the same time, there are significant challenges and alternate visions for migrant citizenship offered by South Korean civil society. Many faith-based migrant advocates approached migrant workers, not as disposable labor, but as the new minjung (common people), whose marginalization and rights violations represent a shameful yardstick for South Korean democracy. Evangelical Christians saw migrants as an opportunity for global missionary work in their backyard, while progressive activists saw migrants as potential allies against global capitalism.
KIM: Despite the strong ethnic nationalism in Korea Hae Yeon pointed out, the South Korean state neither completely sealed nor widely opened its territorial and membership boundaries to the Korean Chinese but rather built multiple gates to regulate their access to its territory, labor market, and citizenship. Korean Chinese migrants were not spared the exclusion, discrimination, and stigmatization that other migrants experienced in South Korea, either. Nevertheless, their fierce struggle for inclusion—involving strategic mobilization of nationalist sentiment, phenotypical and ethnocultural commonality with the native population, extensive migrant networks, and commercial migration brokerage—forced this reluctant homeland state to gradually open both its front and back doors to coethnic migrants.
What can we learn about citizenship, belonging, and national identity in Korea by studying ethnic Koreans living abroad and ethnically non-Korean migrants in South Korea?
KIM: While scholars and the general public alike often consider Korea to be an ethnically homogeneous country with a powerful culture of ethnic nationalism, the question of who is Korean and what it should mean in practice—especially, what should be the proper relationship between the “homeland” state and ethnic Koreans living abroad—has not been easily resolved. In fact, in the case of those Koreans living in Japan and northeast China, their embrace by both North and South Korea has been selective, shifting, and recurrently contested throughout the twentieth century, both from above and below. The contentious transborder membership politics in twentieth-century Korea thus offers a much more nuanced portrayal of how ethnic nationalism shapes the immigration, citizenship, and diaspora politics in Korea and beyond.
While Korea is often considered to be a country with a powerful culture of ethnic nationalism, the question of who is Korean and what it should mean in practice has not been easily resolved.
Further, the contentious transborder membership politics in Korea caution us against the prevalent view that pits nationalism against globalism and suggests an epochal decline in the nation-state’s power to shape loyalty, belonging, and identity in an increasingly deterritorialized, diasporic, and transnational world. The dispersion of Koreans across the globe is now seen not only as a vestige of the nation’s colonial past but also as a harbinger of its global future. This new vision is fueling the South Korean state’s renewed effort to conceive, enumerate, and reclaim all “Koreans” outside its territorial reach, while in the “homeland” the influx of ethnically non-Korean migrants (like those that Hae Yeon studied) into South Korea, continue to challenge the boundary and meaning of “Korean.” We need to carefully map out the complex nexus between globalizing and nationalizing forces that are shaping the transformations in citizenship, belonging, and national identity in contemporary Korea.
CHOO: The current state of migrant citizenship in South Korea is paradoxical: While the multicultural initiative has led to greater social inclusivity, migrants of all stripes still contend daily with stigma or the threat of deportation. Even while the language of ethnic homogeneity of the Korean nation has been partially erased from school curricula, and a woman who was born in the Philippines has now been elected to parliament, violation of migrant rights and citizenship still abound.
Social inequality, whether in terms of race, gender, or class, significantly shape migrant rights in very concrete ways. Take the immigration raid, for example. On the surface, it’s about legal status—arresting those without certain legal documents. But frequent and routine immigration raids are unheard of in affluent neighborhoods, say, in Gangnam—even though it may be an open secret that some families do hire undocumented migrant domestic workers. Instead, most raids take place in low-income and working class areas, where migrants are concentrated. And when the immigration officers conduct a document check they frequently select people who, unlike the Korean Chinese migrants that Jaeeun studied, do not phenotypically look like Koreans, such as Bangladeshis or Vietnamese. Even though they may also be naturalized citizens, they still remain vulnerable to this kind of scrutiny, creating a condition of insecurity for them in public space.
Migrant workers’ rights also reveal what South Korean society perceives to be valuable work, which is deeply gendered. Although migrant factory workers and hostesses are subject to South Korean immigration and labor law in a similar way as temporary labor migrants, in reality, the degree to which they can practice their labor and social rights significantly differ. Whereas migrant factory workers were able to rely on the South Korean movement’s legacy based on dignity of workers, migrant hostesses could not be recognized as potential worker-citizens.
Understanding migrant rights and citizenship in the midst of such contradictions is not a separate matter only concerning migrants, but one that requires us to seriously examine the structures of inequality in the host society which migrants need to confront and negotiate, and also to rethink what it means to belong in South Korea together with migrant citizens.