Rightful Citizens vs. Exotic “Other”: Contradictions and Liminality in Seoul’s North Korean Defector Community

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by Mary Bohn, 20C East Asian Studies
2019-2020 Halle/Fox Center Global Research Fellow

How did you learn about the opportunity through the Halle institute for global research and what about it made you apply?

I first read about the Global Fellows Program at the Halle Institute online during my second year at Emory while researching opportunities to conduct independent research as an undergraduate student. After reading the fellowship description, I felt that the Global Fellowship would be an incredible opportunity to conduct research in South Korea, which I had hoped to pursue since years prior, and became determined to apply. My honors thesis analyzes how North Korean migrants negotiate their cultural and national identities as members of a marginalized minority in South Korea. I examine migrants’ identity formation as well as the strategies migrants take to “belong” in South Korean society by analyzing how migrants discuss their North Korean background and experiences in North and South Korea in different contexts, such as YouTube, reality TV shows, NGOs, and churches.

I knew I would need to travel to South Korea in order to understand how many North Korean migrants publicize their stories, the process of this public storytelling, and how migrants perceive sharing their stories with the public. I also knew that it would be essential for me to understand how to discuss my research with those outside of my field, as I believe this topic has significant implications for understanding how minorities combat marginalization in any society. The Halle Global Fellowship provides me with the opportunity to conduct my research and clearly articulate my findings to a broad audience.

What is unique and significant about your research/project and its contribution to your field?

While scholars have conducted significant research on how South Korean media and popular discourse portray North Korean migrant experiences and the North Korean identity, this research often regards migrants as passive objects which South Korean actors shape and influence. My research focuses on migrants as the primary agents of their identity formation, regarding their testimonies and how they tell them as strategies for belonging. Moreover, I analyze North Korean migrant YouTube channels as a primary resource, which has not yet been analyzed in academic literature.

How did the support from the Halle Institute for Global Research facilitate your research/project?

Funding from the Halle Institute allowed me to travel to South Korea for three weeks during the summer of 2019 and conduct interviews with migrants, the producers of a South Korean migrant-focused TV show, and NGO workers who regularly interact with migrants. Moreover, I was able to attend the live taping of a migrant talk-show TV program during my fieldwork.

Why was it important that your research be conducted in the location you chose?

 My conversations with NGO workers, TV show producers, and migrants in South Korea completely changed the direction of my research from what I originally planned. Before coming to Seoul, I knew little about how North Korean migrant interviews are facilitated. In Seoul, I learned that there is significant infrastructure around migrant interviews in regard to where and how often migrants tell their stories as well as the composition of these stories. I gained this information through my in-person interactions with NGO workers and migrants. Also, attending a live screening of a migrant talk-show allowed me to witness the highly-structured process of producing migrant stories.

Mary Bohn is a senior majoring in East Asian Studies with a secondary focus on Global Development. Her senior thesis explores how North Korean migrants narrate their stories of escape and discuss their background in South Korean public spaces. Mary specifically analyzes how migrants tell their stories in three public “spaces”: South Korean protestant churches, a South Korean variety TV show “Now I am Coming to Meet You,” and migrant-run YouTube channels. By analyzing how North Korean migrants tell their stories differently based on each space’s respective setting and audience, Mary’s research reveals that migrants’ personal narrative storytelling functions as a tool to gain social and monetary capital in South Korea. Ultimately, Mary’s thesis explores a marginalized group’s strategies to “belong” in South Korean society in contestation with hegemonic discourses of citizenship and national belonging. 

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