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Borders of Belonging: Nationalism, North Korean Defectors and the Spiritual Project for a Unified Korea

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My dissertation examines the conflicts and contradictions of national identity that emerge out of the interactions between North Korean defectors and Protestant South Korean Protestants who give them aid. Since the mid 1990s, a significant number of North Koreans have migrated to South Korea in search of food and opportunities as a result of a devastating famine. Instead of the warm welcome they expect, defectors are treated with suspicion by South Koreans who have been taught that North Korea is their mortal enemy. South Korean Protestants, who make up the majority of defector aid workers, are unique in their welcome to defectors through material and emotional support. My research shows that this welcome is not without conditions: South Korean Protestants subject defectors to a process of domestication – of eradicating undesirable elements of North Korean “culture” as well as the stigma of their communist past, in the process of bringing them in to the “family” of God and the nation. The process of domestication includes conversion to Christianity as well as transformation into “God’s Warriors” to work for the future downfall of North Korea and the unification of Korea. While North Korean defectors are being domesticated, I argue that South Koreans are also domesticating themselves to absorb elements of Korean purity that North Korea is perceived to have, thus creating a part of a new Korean nation.

This study draws upon 19 months of ethnographic fieldwork in multiple fieldsites in Seoul and outside of Seoul, including a Protestant church with a large defector congregation, an alternative school for North Korean youth, and multiple defector aid organizations. Through ethnographic observation, interviews, and media analysis, I illuminate the tensions of domesticating a population against which South Korean identity has been formed. These contradictions include the myth of Korean purity in a growing multiethnic demographic and the drive to unify two deeply divided countries. I argue that these processes of domestication of North and South Koreans are attempts to find belonging to the nation of South Korea, to the world, and finally to themselves.

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