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Open Access Publications from the University of California

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Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review is a peer-reviewed, quarterly online journal that offers its readers up-to-date research findings, emerging trends, and cutting-edge perspectives concerning East Asian history and culture from scholars in both English-speaking and Asian language-speaking academic communities.

Readings from Asia

Tracing Seoul’s Modernity: The History of Urban Planning in Colonial Seoul

Lee, Hyang A. 2018. "Tracing Seoul’s Modernity: The History of Urban Planning in Colonial Seoul." Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review 27: 208–214. Yum Bok-Kyu 염복규. Sŏul ŭi kiwon Kyŏngsŏng ŭi t’ansaeng 1910–1945 tosi kyehoek ŭro pon Kyŏngsŏng ŭi yŏksa 서울의 기원, 경성의 탄생 1910–1945 도시계획으로 본 경성의 역사 [The origin of Seoul and the birth of Kyŏngsŏng, 1910–1945: The history of Kyŏngsŏng from an urban planning perspective]. Seoul: Idea, 2016. 416 pp. ISBN: 979119565013203910.  

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Recent Research on North and South Korea

Patriotic Revolutionaries and Imperial Sympathizers: Identity and Selfhood of Korean-Japanese Migrants from Japan to North Korea

Although the outward migration of North Korean refugees has received increasing attention in scholarly circles, little research has been done on migration to North Korea. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, this article considers the changing political identification of migrants from Japan to North Korea, from 1959 to the 1980s, and their relationship to both the ethnic homeland and the former colonizer. The author suggests that the North Korean state’s effort to contain the imagined threat posed by arrivals from Japan was undermined by transnational exchange between divided families. Specifically, women on both sides of the Sea of Japan (East Sea) engaged in kin work that alerted ethnic Korean immigrants to their ambiguous status as both fraternal comrade and outsider in North Korea. This article illustrates how mobility provided opportunities for new identities to emerge, as individuals who considered themselves Korean compatriots developed identifications that translocally connected them to kin and communities in Japan. Keywords: identity, migration, selfhood, transnational kinship, North Korea, Japan, Zainichi Koreans

“Becoming” North Koreans: Negotiating Gender and Class in Representations of North Korean Migrants on South Korean Television

This article examines how North Korean migrants become subjects of their own narratives in South Korean society, with a focus on gender and class divisions as represented on television programs such as Now on My Way to Meet You (Ije mannarŏ gamnida, 2011–present), Moranbong Club (Moranbong k’ŭlŏp, 2015–present), and Unification of Love: Southern Men, Northern Women (Nam-nam-buk-nyŏ, 2014–2017). These shows aim to depict perfectly assimilated migrants who embody the South Korean government’s image of an ideal citizen and thereby introduce an impression of “North Korean-ness” in the absence of input from the North Korea, a closed country. North Korean migrants “become” North Koreans within the programs’ formats, with mixed results. On the one hand, a “double-paned window” perspective, which relies on the North Korean panelists’ testimonies, complicates the programs’ intended narrative of exemplary migrants. On the other hand, North Korean panelists actively fortify the binary gender frame of South Korean society. For example, North Korean male panelists become antagonists when their rough and unsophisticated characteristics appear to confirm South Korean men’s superiority. These South Korean television programs focus on the polar concept of “Southern men and Northern women,” thereby marginalizing North Korean male migrants and South Korean females. Such a stratified gender structure supports South Korean males’ authority and strengthens the heteronormative structure of South Korean society. Keywords: North Korean migrants, South Korean television, Now on My Way to Meet You, Moranbong Club, Southern Men Northern Women, gender, class, South Korean conservatism

Modernity, Plastic Spectacle, and an Imperfect Utopia: A Critical Reflection on "Plastic Paradise" (1997) by Choi Jeonghwa

Plastic Paradise (1997), a massive yet precarious-looking vertical installation made of cheap, mass-produced industrial consumer goods found in popular places in Seoul, is one of a series of installations that South Korean artist Choi Jeonghwa (b. 1961) has produced since the mid-1990s. With architectonic metaphors that enact a uniquely self-reflective critique of Korean modern society and its ethos, this excessively vertical installation signifies the utopian hope of the Korean masses toward industrialization. However, its fragile material structure alludes to a counter-utopian reality latent in Korea’s compressed growth (apch’uksŏngjang). This article provides a reading of the visual and tactile elements of Choi’s art, which presents its unique structure as a cue for a nuanced social critique. Presenting samples of mass production as testaments to a modern utopia, Plastic Paradise critiques the pervasive myth within a society of mass consumption that these goods have become the totem of happiness “for all.” Inspired by Choi’s original observation of the dynamic form of the life of the masses, the installation also demonstrates how their seemingly mundane, everyday life is punctuated by the iconoclastic utopianism that they embrace for the future, and their understated creativity that continues to adapt and transform the given environment. In this way, the installation becomes both a monument and an antimonument to the state of development and its pervasive optimism. Keywords: South Korea, modernity, compressed development, Choi Jeonghwa, utopianism, dystopia, kitsch, plastic, readymade, street market, pop art, minjung art, democratization, mass consumption, mass production, imperfect utopia, popular creativity, city, spectacle, Miracle on the Han River, contemporary art

Chosŏn-Qing Tributary Discourse: Transgression, Restoration, and Textual Performativity

In 1864, a fire destroyed the Chosŏn-Qing frontier market for Qing merchants at Kyŏngwŏn on the Tumen River. Unable to supply timbers himself, the Kyŏngwŏn magistrate asked his Qing counterpart across the river in Hunchun, for permission to fell timbers in Qing territory. This request was to evolve into a series of violations of frontier protocol that eventually necessitated a Chosŏn diplomatic mission to Beijing to restore frontier order. Read uncritically, the tributary discourses that facilitated these interactions between Qing and Chosŏn suggest a timeless relationship borne of the forces of the cosmos itself. Taken as empirical accounts, the discourses reveal little of how the two states interacted along their border. Employing close readings of Qing and Chosŏn intergovernmental communications, this article argues that the most important question is not what these texts are about but rather what they do. Emerging scholarship in international relations and other fields employing models of a Chinese tributary system must be careful in using tributary discourse naïvely to reconstruct the policy and ideological commitments of its participants. To do so is to mistake the performative for the descriptive. Keywords: tribute, discourse, Chosŏn Korea, Qing China, Kyŏngwŏn, frontier, borderlands, performative

Not There For the Nutmeg: North Korean Advisors in Grenada and Pyongyang’s Internationalism, 1979-1983

This article looks at North Korea’s relationship with Grenada, a small Caribbean spice island, from 1979 to 1983 as a case study of Pyongyang’s socialist internationalism during the Cold War era. Compared to capitalist globalization’s emphasis on profits, markets, and competition, socialist internationalism gave priority to sacrifice, comradeship, and solidarity. As a postcolonial Eastern-bloc nation with one foot in the socialist Second World and the other foot in the anticolonial Third World, North Korea sent advisors, military specialists, equipment, and supplies to recently decolonized nations in Africa, southern Asia, and Latin America as a way to export its peculiar brand of anti-imperialism and spread its image abroad as the legitimate Korean government. The North Korean leadership viewed the socialist Grenadian government as brave revolutionaries fighting U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean. Thus, the North Koreans offered large amounts of free assistance to the Grenadian government. However, in October 1983, U.S. armed forces invaded Grenada and removed the socialist leadership from power. North Korea’s support of the distant Grenadian Revolution demonstrates the extent to which the regime in Pyongyang committed itself financially, politically, and ideologically to the tenets of socialist internationalism. Keywords: North Korea, Pyongyang, Caribbean, Cold War, foreign relations