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Unwelcome Home: Ethnic Ethos, Gender and Class of North Korean Refugees and Migrants


Unwelcome Home analyzes South Korean, Chinese, and U.S. artistic and media representations that consider the relationship between East Asian countries and the United States. This research examines what having become refugees and migrants in the only divided nation in the world has meant to North Koreans, with particular emphasis on their sense of ethnic homogeneity and gender roles as reflected in artistic representations. I argue that the ethnic ethos used to justify reunification discourse has weakened through the generations as an understanding of South Korea and North Korea as different countries has become the status quo.

The first chapter examines the relationship between Korean Chinese and North Korean refugees on the frontier of China and North Korea, focusing on how neighbors become strangers and how the threshold of community emerges. In Zhang Lu’s Dooman River, for example, the tension between Korean Chinese and North Koreans in the Chinese border village demonstrates the dissolution of communities and the subsequent weakening of members’ sense of ethnic ethos.

The second chapter delves into how North Korean migrants’ subjectivity is reconfigured in South Korean society, with a particular emphasis on South Korean television programs and independent films. Indeed, the gendered images of North Korean migrants in television fortify the bifurcated gender frame of South Korean society, by deleting North Korean male migrants and South Korean females from scenes. Independent films, for their part, deal with the socially marginalized, including North Korean migrants, and bring class discourse to the forefront.

The third chapter analyzes autobiographies of North Korean migrants that have been published in the United States. Focusing on their production and readership, it attests to the connection between three political agents: evangelical churches, South Korean “conservatives,” and North Korean migrants’ groups.

This study demonstrates how representations and cultural discourse intervene in North Korean refugees’ and migrants’ subjectivity formation and explains how the divided Korean peninsula has been, and will continue to be, sustained in the postcolonial and neo–Cold War paradigms. By describing how collective ethics become the responsibility of sole individuals, this research questions the Korean communities’ potential for coexistence.

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