Undocumented North Korean Migration


A review of Gender, Justice and the Geopolitics of Undocumented North Korean Migration, by Eunyoung Choi.

Most reports on North Korean defectors tell the story of a victimized people, downtrodden by a terrible regime who search for a better life, only to be exploited again in China. Eunyoung Choi’s Gender, Justice, and Geopolitics of Undocumented North Korean Migration offers a different version of this now familiar story. The tale begins in a similar fashion: undocumented North Korean migrants face great odds to cross the border in search of survival. Arriving in China, they fall to prey to traffickers or state authorities. Here the story differs. Instead of portraying North Korean migrants as a homogeneous group of helpless victims, Choi presents stories of women who make difficult choices and are agents of their own survival while making no moral apologies. Her dissertation is a sincere effort to “recover the subaltern voices of North Korean migrant women” living in China (p. 216). While highlighting that these women are at the mercy of transnational, national and local politics, there are also agents of their own destiny who do what is necessary to survive.

The dissertation is organized into an introductory chapter, four empirical chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction begins with a tragic ethnographic account about a North Korean migrant and the sexual violence she encounters in China, which echoes the experiences of many of her sisters. Choi gives us a historical perspective of these migrants within the context of the changing geopolitics of East Asia. She argues that the increased international attention to North Korean migrants has resulted in more violence and suffering — in the form of misrepresentations of North Koreans as homogeneous, and upon the bodies of migrants themselves as China increases surveillance. Drawing upon feminist theory and feminist perspectives of embodiment, she shows how the global and national play out on the level of individual bodies, which occupy the space of the private and the public. The body is not just the realm of the corporeal, but a space of embodied knowledge. Through her focus on the body, Choi explores how North Korean women migrants exercise agency through the spatial strategies they use to find safety.

The first empirical chapter (Chapter 2: “Confession, Compassion and Commitment: Doing Geography with Anguish”) is a reflexive account of the moral dilemmas and dangers inherent in studying undocumented migrants who are under threat of deportation and punishment in North Korea if caught by Chinese authorities. These dilemmas include questions of fear of unwittingly causing the deportation of North Koreans, or knowing that her research subjects will lie to protect themselves and their families from harm, guilt from her privilege and power as an American doctoral student, and moral questions about criminality. In a fieldwork situation where Chinese face heavy fines, NGO workers imprisonment, and North Koreans deportation, the researcher bravely grapples with her own demons and prejudices. She concludes by committing herself to writing and giving compassionate voice to the injustices that North Koreans face in China.

In Chapter 3, “Everyday Practices of Bordering,” the central chapter to her dissertation, Choi introduces the concept of bordering which she defines as “the daily dividing practices over the physical territory and the people” (p. 67). Territorial divisions are mirrored in social practices which divide Chinese from North Koreans. Beginning with a historical overview of undocumented migrations over the Korea-Chinese border to the present period, she shows how identities of Korean-Chinese and North Korean were interchangeable and dependent on politics of nations. Choi then examines the bordering experienced by undocumented North Koreans in the present, including cross-border flows of money and bodies. North Korean women are particularly targeted as they represent the reproduction of the nation: those who are found to have married or have children with Chinese men are severely punished. The chapter concludes with an examination of how North Korean bodies are affected by international politics: China’s refusal to recognize North Koreans as refugees rather than economic migrants allows their repatriation, while the North Korean human rights issue becomes a justification of US militarism in Asia. The situation is further complicated by the fact that North Koreans are considered citizens under the South Korean Constitution.

Chapter 4, “Trafficking in North Korean Women,” examines the causes and consequences of border-crossing by North Korean women, and how they are mediated by the state. Choi argues that North Korean migration is feminized by the increased numbers of North Korean women migrating to China (the majority of North Korean migrants in China and South Korea are women, as of 1999) and the kind of gendered work that North Korean women do when they migrate. In the tradition of post-colonial scholarship, Choi critiques the construction of North Korean migrant women by Western scholars and international NGOs as powerless victims in need of being saved. This obscures the agency that many North Koreans exercise by choosing commercial marriage as a survival strategy and a method to increase their mobility. She argues that the moral discourse that prevents their characterization as anything less than victims is hidden in the international critiques of North Korea and China.

Gendered spaces take front stage in Chapter 5, “Gendering Undocumented Migrants’ Geographies of Survival in China,” which shows the relationship between space and bodily security. Choi employs the concept of “geography of survival,” in which space structures how people live and whether they live, to analyze the gendered spatial strategies of women and men in the heavily militarized landscape of the border towns. Being invisible is key to their geography of survival. Through de facto marriages, women are able to hide themselves in private homes and seek the protection of Chinese families, while men have a harder time being “like invisible ghosts” (p. 184) in shelters provided by missionaries or humanitarian organizations. Another important aspect of this geography is mobility: those who learn the language can escape detection by moving to big cities away from the border where there is less state surveillance. Ultimately, the greatest strategy is escape to another country. With promises of large resettlement funds and housing in South Korea, North Koreans can find the safety of legal citizenship.

Eunyoung Choi successfully accomplishes her goal of recovering the voices of subaltern women from the discourse of victimization in her engaging research. Her dissertation is a very welcome contribution to the current dearth of North Korean defector scholarship and challenges mainstream representations of North Koreans. Her work will be of particular interest to scholars of gender and migration and raises important theoretical questions about the politics of representation and the effect of global migration flows on the body. Above all, this dissertation takes us directly into the heart of the morally difficult and dangerous world of North Korean migration which she navigates with an impressive degree of knowledge and compassion. For Choi, as for many of us committed to ethnography, research is a process of knowing the world and knowing ourselves.

Sarah Eunkyung Chee
Department of Cultural Anthropology
University of California at Santa Cruz


Interviews with North Korean defectors
Critical and feminist geopolitical theory framework and media analysis
Newspapers, policy and NGO archives

Dissertation Information

Syracuse University. 2010. 253 pp. Primary Advisor: Beverley Mullings.


Image: Inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin. Photograph by Prince Roy, Wikimedia Commons.

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