Academic journal article Asian Social Science

An Abuse of Culture: North Korean Settlers, Multiculturalism, and Liberal Democracy

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

An Abuse of Culture: North Korean Settlers, Multiculturalism, and Liberal Democracy

Article excerpt


This paper presents how the concept of multiculturalism, when applied to North Korean settlers in South Korea, falls short of a viable solution to the identity negotiation process these settlers continually undergo while living in South Korea. In the liberal national formulation of multiculturalism, North Korean values and lifestyles cannot be cherished, and these refugees cannot express or take pride in their culture. Instead, it is when they express their pain, sorrow, anger, and frustration about their experiences in North Korea and during their refugee life that they can be hailed as brave, autonomous, reliable, and responsible citizens. I argue that this is an abuse of culture that depoliticizes these refugees. North Koreans living in South Korea are often mobilized to witness the persistent cruelty of human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean regime, which has been considered a significant contribution to the strengthening of liberal democracies. But these refugees are rarely invited to provide critical commentary about the liberal democratic regime in which their subject formation as competent citizens is always questionable. To catch a glimpse of the insight into North Koreans as avant la lettre for unification of the nation, we Others to them should be better prepared to respond to the political implications that are made and carried through multiculturalism ventriloquizing the ideal liberal citizenship that they can never attain without a constant denial of the self.

Keywords: liberal democracy, multiculturalism, nationalism, North Korean refugees, South Korea

1. Introduction

1.1 We Others North Koreans

In a 2004 interview with a South Korean scholar, a North Korean settler in South Korea remarked, "Eve realized I'd have to die in order to survive in this society" (Yoon, 2009, p. 148). His use of the word "die" is not so much about literal physical death as it is about a removal of his North Korean identity marker in his daily encounters with his South Korean neighbors. Sociologist In-Jin Yoon's (2012) recent survey reveals that only four out of ten North Korean settlers in South Korea believe their North Korean background, culture, and knowledge are worth keeping and passing down to their descendants. The survey also reports that 87.1% of those settlers have no hesitation confirming that they have been trying their best to become "genuine South Koreans" since entering that country (Yoon, 2012, p. 47). One of the implications of these survey results is that the settlers' successful social adaptation to their adopted country, South Korea, has something to do with a pious denial of their North Korean origins in identity. Embracing "South Korean values" seems essential to their survival in South Korean society. But isn't this act of embracing, not simply acceptance, but subjection? In her ethnographic survey on North Korean refugees' account of the famine in mid- and late-1990s North Korea, Sandra Fahy reports that their memories of the homeland are not entirely negative. She suggests, "As they compete for a living in a society that mostly rejects them and their past, they may more readily call up positive memories of their former lives as sources of comfort and national pride" (Fahy, 2011, p. 21). This short essay on the discursive formation of North Korean settlers via multiculturalism and liberal democracy feeds on the interpretation of their negotiation in social life, ambivalence in cultural identity, and resilience from painful memory.

North Koreans in South Korea are expected to remain a vivid entity through which South Koreans can understand and experience what North Korean-ness is or what genuine Korean values are. Policymakers, church ministers, NGO activists, and TV talk show hosts bring North Korean settlers to seminars, confessions, and testimonies to uncover and confirm the ruthless, horrible, and miserable face of the North Korean regime (Green & Epstein, 2013). …

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