Stateless GI Babies in South Korea & USA

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A review of Intimate Encounters, Racial Frontiers: Stateless GI Babies in South Korea and the United States, 1953-1965, by Bongsoo Park.

This dissertation examines the case of stateless “G.I. babies,” born to Korean women and fathered by U.S. military personnel, to trace transnational histories of race, ethnicity, nation, and gender between the United States and South Korea during the Cold War. Bongsoo Park fills gaps in the relatively understudied history of transnational adoption by addressing the case of mixed-race children (honhyola) sent for overseas adoption in the immediate post war period, and also asserts the importance of bringing an analytic focus to “race” (minjok) and racism in studies of South Korea. Although the title of the dissertation suggests that the time period is restricted to the immediate post-war period, 1953-1965, these dates only refer to the period when the first mixed-race children were born in South Korea and identified as a problematic population by the South Korean state, American social workers, and U.S. lawmakers. Park connects the problem of mixed-race GI babies to pertinent discourses and legal technologies embedded in colonial era Korean nationalism and debates in the 1940s over citizenship definitions in the U.S. and South Korea. In addition, she extends her analysis to the contemporary period of “multiculturalism and globalization in South Korea.

The introductory chapter lays out the author’s thesis and explains the particular political and legislative technologies that rendered mixed-race children stateless in South Korea, where citizenship was explicitly defined in patriarchal, nationalist terms such that it could only be passed down from father to child. Children with Korean mothers but non-citizen fathers were thereby excluded by the state. Legislative decisions in the U.S. also excluded these children as Americans, as only U.S.-citizen mothers were permitted to automatically transmit citizenship to foreign-born children. Children born to American citizen fathers in foreign countries could only be granted citizenship if a request for paternal recognition was filed by the father. The fact that these children could be intentionally rendered stateless reflects the deep preoccupations of both nation-states with inscribing boundaries of national security and cultural purity, informed by a racialized logic. Park argues that “statelessness reveals a racially exclusionary vision of national belonging that shaped citizenship policies of both [the U.S. and South Korea]” (p. 3).

In Chapter 1, “Ties that Bind: Making the Origin of Korean Race,” Park analyzes transcripts from the South Korean National Assembly in 1948 and 1957, in which discussions among lawmakers regarding the Korean Nationality Law and the Korean Family Law, respectively, reveal the ways that ideologies of racial purity, national unity, and patrilineal kinship were drawn upon to support particular views of national belonging. Especially for the Syngman Rhee administration, establishing national unity through the ideology of ilminjuui (one people-ism) as the legitimizing feature of the South Korean state required that mixed-race children born in Korea be excluded, even though it contradicted the liberal democratic spirit of the Constitution and would render these children stateless.

Chapter 2, “Technologies of Imperial Rule: The Nationality Act of 1940 in the Age of American Expansionism,” focuses on the legal history of U.S. immigration laws, through close readings of the Congressional record to show how some foreign-born children, including those from South Korea, were rendered stateless. A seemingly progressive law that permitted U.S. citizen women to transmit citizenship to their foreign-born children obscures, Park argues, the racial logics that excluded children born overseas to American men, who constituted the vast majority of foreign-born in the context of U.S. expansionism especially in the post-WWII period. Although not explicitly about “mixed-race” children as in the South Korean case, Park uses her evidence to suggest that racist attitudes and xenophobic conceptions of “Americanness” were deployed by legislators anxious to keep the nation protected from foreign influence.

Chapter 3, “Pitied but Not Entitled: Redemptive Adoption and Limits of Cold War Liberalism,” draws upon the archives of the International Social Service and press reports from the 1950s to show how the ambiguous racialization and ambivalent national origins of mixed-race children from Korea were understood by social workers at the time. On the one hand, the United States was presented as racially progressive and morally superior, especially in contrast with Korea, where black-Korean children were presented in media reports as facing certain death because of Koreans’ xenophobia. The children’s acceptance into American homes was celebrated in cross-racial terms, emphasizing their Koreanness even as the black-white division was reinforced by the children’s placement into “racially-matched” homes. In this way, the children functioned to provide evidence of the U.S.’s liberal attitudes toward race, despite the fact that they had been rendered stateless by the racially motivated exclusionary practices of the South Korean and U.S. legislatures.

The final chapter looks at the media reports in South Korea that proliferated around the homecoming of star linebacker, Hines Ward, born in South Korea to an African American father and a Korean mother, who was named the NFL MVP in 2007. This case provides a way for Park to consider how race and the histories of American occupation and military prostitution appear and disappear in contemporary representations in South Korea, where definitions of race, nation, and belonging are being destabilized and actively reworked as South Korea has become an immigrant-receiving nation since the late 1990s. A short epilogue highlights the significant arguments made in each chapter and discusses recent changes in citizenship laws in South Korea and the United States.

Park’s project is an excellent example of a truly transnationalized American studies, and she seeks to contribute to studies of U.S. empire, citizenship, and studies of what Mary Dudziak calls Cold War civil rights, as well as borrowing from foundational studies of empire by Ann Kaplan and Ann Laura Stoler. Park’s work will offer a strong contribution to the emerging field of Cold War Korean American studies, which follows in the line of Christina Klein’s Cold War Orientalism (see Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), bringing a humanistic focus to a period that has been overwhelmingly viewed through the lens of international relations, military history, or foreign relations.

Eleana Kim
Department of Anthropology
University of Rochester
eleana.kim@rochester.edu

Primary Sources

National Assembly Stenographic Record, South Korea
U.S. Congressional Record
International Social Service American Branch records, Social Welfare History Archive, University of Minnesota
U.S. Children’s Bureau records, National Archives II, Maryland
South Korean newspapers and periodicals

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2010. 239 pp. Primary Advisors: Lary L. May and Hiromi Mizuno.

 

Image: Hines Ward and Barack Obama, Pittsburgh Steelers during their visit to the White House as Super Bowl XLIII champions, May 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

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