Formation of the Korean Chinese Migrant Class


A review of Mobile Ethnicity: The Formation of the Korean Chinese Transnational Migrant Class, by June Hee Kwon.

Mr. Moon was born in 1933 to an ethnic Korean farm family in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. At seventeen he signed on for the Korean War and ended up in North Korea. The war took a toll on his health, so he returned to his family’s farm in northeastern China. Five years later, the Great Leap Forward upended his livelihood, so he snuck across the border for a fresh start in newly industrializing North Korea. Finding the conditions inhospitably foreign, he slipped back across the border to his hometown. If returning to China felt like a homecoming, that feeling quickly evaporated with the advent of the Cultural Revolution and the ensuing witch-hunt against ethnic Koreans with suspected loyalties to North or South Korea. After decades of suppressing his ancestral ties to South Korea, Mr. Moon cautiously unearthed them in the late 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping declared it was glorious to get rich and Korean Chinese sought to cash in on their ethnic and kinship relations to the capitalist South. At the age of sixty-something, Mr. Moon pursued what seemed like a sensible strategy for any able-bodied Korean Chinese who could produce evidence (real or fake) of family ties to South Korea. He applied for a family visitation visa, overstayed it, and joined South Korea’s undocumented, low-wage migrant labor force. Despite his deteriorating health, he managed to squeeze five years of factory labor out of his aging body before returning once again to northeastern China.

Mr. Moon is one of many itinerant individuals featured in June Hee Kwon’s ethnographic study of ethnic Koreans “living and leaving” (to invoke Kwon’s expression) in the borderland region of Yanbian in China’s Jilin Province. My choice to highlight Mr. Moon, who does not make an appearance until Chapter Five, is somewhat arbitrary. I might have sketched the roving life history of any of the older generation of Korean Chinese residents with whom Kwon converses during hiking expeditions, informal social gatherings, and scheduled interviews, to capture the overarching theme of her new dissertation. The emergence and solidification of the Korean Chinese as a distinct ethnic group grows out of a long and episodic history of back and forth, semi-illicit movement between (and within) China, the Korean peninsula, and—though not part of Mr. Moon’s personal itinerary—Russia. If migration was an adaptive response to the cataclysmic geopolitical events that serially unfolded over the course of the twentieth century, the normalization of ties between China and South Korea in 1992 inaugurated a new era in which migration became more than a pragmatic life strategy. It became a lifestyle, the predominant one in fact, among Korean Chinese living not just in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Yanbian but across all three northeastern provinces in China. Kwon sets out to explain how it is that the Korean Chinese in Yanbian have come to conceptualize themselves—promote themselves even—as a “mobile ethnicity,” and with what unintended, morally ambivalent consequences.

Kwon begins with a meditation on the meaning of the term “Korea Wind,” the neologism created to capture the profoundly irresistible draw of South Korea. If, as Kwon explains, other “winds” had swept across the region in earlier times, carrying Korean Chinese off to North Korea and Russia, [South] Korea Wind packs a punch of such magnitude that all previous winds by comparison seem like mere breezes. As Kwon demonstrates, Korea Wind changes people’s conceptions of themselves, their relations to one another and their Han Chinese neighbors, and their experience of time, place, love and money.

Making sense of the momentous changes unleashed by the Korea Wind is an interpretive feat for the individuals caught up in its whorl. No less so for the anthropologist. Kwon, ever mindful of how her own South Korean nationality is perceived by her Korean Chinese interlocutors, succeeds, by dint of her persistence, sensitivity, and sincerity, in gaining entrée to a wide range of public and private social settings on both sides of the migration circuit. Her ethnography is the culmination of seven years as an avid watcher of the Korea Wind. Over this extensive period of time she carried out three distinct phases of fieldwork. The first phase was conducted in 2004 when Kwon volunteered for several months in a shelter for Korean Chinese migrants in Seoul during the height of the government’s crackdown on undocumented workers. In 2008, she returned to the field, this time on the Chinese side, where she spent eighteen months living in Yanbian. Kwon conducted a final stint of follow-up research in 2011 taking stock of what she calls the “post-Korea Wind moment.” At this juncture, Kwon reports that the Korea Wind had calmed considerably and migrant dreams for a better future were beginning to shift homeward in the direction of globally ascendant China.

Money, its Triffid-like quality and janus-faced power, is a theme that runs through nearly every chapter of the dissertation. Kwon describes the age of Korean Wind as a time when many Yanbian Koreans are living and dying for what they call “blood money” (p. 155). When imbued with affect, Korean money constitutes the very lifeblood of people’s subjectivity and sociality in the region. It is also credited with transforming the erstwhile “ethnic enclave” into a thriving, consumption-oriented “ethnic hub.” But, as Kwon demonstrates, Korean money can also drain relationships of intimacy and expectations for reciprocity. Considerations of money combined with restrictive South Korean visa regulations, for example, lead Yanbian Koreans to downplay ties to poor relatives in the North while resurrecting (and fabricating) kinship connections to the South. The result, as described in Chapter One, is that kinship ties to North Korea are worn thin due to the emotional and financial burden they are perceived to entail. Kinship connections to South Korea, while in greater demand, are even less substantive. They exist primarily on paper, in the form of (forged) genealogies and passports, granting coveted access to South Korea’s labor market but largely lacking in sociality.

If kinship in the form of genealogies is reduced to a currency between kin separated by geopolitics, currency in the form of remittances is the main conduit for sociality between spouses separated in the name of transnational money-making. Drawing upon Marxian analyses of money and Maussian understandings of gift exchange, Kwon describes remittances as an “affective currency” that possesses the power to transform intimate relationships and gender dynamics in unpredictable, sometimes destructive ways. In Kwon’s account, whether remittances solidify or destroy bonds between separated spouses hinges largely on the skill of the “waiting spouse,” that is, the one who remains in China while his or her conjugal counterpart earns money overseas. Generally treated in the migration literature as a passive and marginal state of non-action, waiting is redefined by Kwon as a strategic form of “affective labor” that is integral to the sustenance of the remittance-based household economy. The main task of the waiting spouse, she argues, is to lovingly manage remittances which are symbolically drenched in the “time, health, youth, and loneliness” (p. 155) of the sojourning spouse. Not only must this labor of love be performed well in order to preserve the marriage; waiting is inevitably performed under duress. Will the wait culminate in marital reunion or dissolution? In the continuation of remittances or their cessation? These are the questions that weigh heavily on the waiting spouse whose affective labor is necessary but never sufficient to ensure the eventual return of his or her partner.

The sojourning partner also engages in a peculiar form of waiting but is plagued by an entirely different set of anxieties. As of 2007, South Korea’s guest worker program requires co-ethnic migrant workers to depart the country every three years for a period of two years before they are eligible to renew their work visas. Implemented with the intention of rescuing Korean Chinese laborers from the indignities of undocumented status and the dangers of deportation, the H2 visa has institutionalized a never-ending pattern of waiting in China for two years, working South Korea for three, then waiting again, ad infinitum. Kwon calls this mode of existence a “split life.” Even for Korean Chinese migrants who somehow manage to become adept at the linguistic, ethnic and cultural code switching entailed in this constant back-and-forth regimen, the “dual temporality” that structures their lives defies habituation and plagues them with a feeling of schizophrenia. While attempting to rest, recuperate and prepare their bodies for their next stint of migrant labor, Korean Chinese migrants are afflicted by an obsessive concern that they are hemorrhaging time and money in Yanbian, a place where living is perceived to be languorous and overpriced. While performing backbreaking labor amid the “work work” ethos that pervades South Korea, migrants miss relaxing with friends and family and teeter on the verge of physical and emotional collapse. In light of this psycho-physical double bind in which Korean Chinese are permanently ensnared, Kwon raises the question of whether the creation of the H2 visa, the culmination of a political battle jointly waged by South Korean activists and Korean Chinese migrants, should be considered a Pyrrhic victory. That Korean Chinese migrants use their earnings in South Korea to “jump scales” in China, as Kwon calls the incremental moves from countryside to city, from small to large Chinese cities, from large to larger Chinese cities, further complicates the matter of whether South Korea’s guest worker program proffers a circuitous road to nowhere or a vehicle for other types of mobility.

In Chapter Five we learn that there is a subset of Korean Chinese in Yanbian who have staunchly resisted the forces of the Korea Wind. These are aging members of the Chinese Communist Party whose sense of (political) belonging is firmly rooted in China. Their unambiguous attachment to their host country, attributed by Kwon to the “emotional vestige[s] of Cold War politics” (p. 235), flies in the face of recent literature that portrays diasporic people as innately melancholic subjects yearning for a sense of belonging to their distant homeland. Although making money in South Korea is tinged with political betrayal for these CCP loyalists, many reluctantly succumb to the pressure. This is true of Mr. Moon. Recall from the opening paragraph how his life is narrated as a series of border-crossings between China and the two Koreas. Every decampment adds ideologically loaded layers to his ethnic identity, each of which must be strategically downplayed or embellished depending on the national ambit he inhabits. According to Kwon, the combination of suppressing and leveraging ethnic ties to North or South Korea should not be viewed as antithetical. Instead, Kwon argues this strategic and oscillating performance of ethnicity, which is born of deeply rooted historical and political traumas (Kwon calls this “vigilant ethnicity”), is precisely what characterizes the Korean Chinese as a distinct group of people. That this form of ethnic dissembling is a marketable trait is not lost on the Korean Chinese who seek to brand themselves in the global “identity economy” as an ethnic group with incomparable border-crossing ability.

In the 2011 “post-Korea Wind moment” to which the final chapter is devoted, Kwon takes stock of the effects of the Korea Wind and the new cleavages that have been created in its wake. What emerges is not a deterritorialized vision that transcends the pitfalls of geographically-bounded identities or eliminates the need for ethnic vigilance but rather a community riven by new divisions that are as much a legacy of the Cold War as they are twenty-first century trends toward neoliberalization and Chinese hegemony. Those who stayed in China versus those who were “gone with the Korea Wind,” the stay-at-home laoban (bosses) versus the migrant dagong (laborers), the China Dream chasers versus the Korea Dream chasers, the proudly immobile versus the desperately mobile, the self-defined Chinese Koreans versus the Korean Chinese––these are the stark dichotomies that stratify the region. While much has changed in this “thriving yet oddly dejected borderland” (p. 280), it seems the ambiguities of mobility and ethnicity are here to stay.

Kwon’s dissertation is a compelling ethnography that integrates revealing narratives of mobility and immobility, challenging us to think differently about both and how they are intertwined. Her theoretical reflections on the subject engage a host of issues including the relationship of mobility to ethnicity, the role of remittances in development, how kinship becomes a currency and how currency creates (and destroys) kinship. By framing her research on Yanbian Korean Chinese as a study of a “borderland” region that is connected in historically complex ways to China and the two Koreas, Kwon provides a corrective to existing studies that treat Korean Chinese as either a well-assimilated ethnic minority straightforwardly located within the borders of the PRC or a migrant population that is marginalized within their purported South Korean homeland. After reading this work, one must think twice before using the terms diaspora, homeland, and return migration to describe the relationship between Korean Chinese and the nation-states on the Korean peninsula. Also, by bringing together domestic and international migration into the same analytical frame, Kwon provides a way out of the “methodological nationalism” that plagues studies confined to an exclusively national or transnational perspective. Social scientists and students interested in Korean and Northeast Asian studies, migration, globalization and development, ethnicity, and economic anthropology will find Kwon’s dissertation to be an eye opening and provocative read.

Caren Freeman
University of Virginia
Department of Anthropology

Primary Sources

Ethnographic interviews
Literature and film
Newspapers and magazines
Government documents and statistics

Dissertation Information

Duke University. 2013. 304 pp. Primary Advisors: Anne Allison, Ralph Litzinger.

Image: The Tumen River, a border between North Korea and China. Photo by June Hee Kwon, 2009.

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