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Performing in the “Cultural Borderlands”: Gender, Trauma, and Performance Practices of a North Korean Women’s Musical Troupe in South Korea

Abstract

North Korean women encounter traumatic experiences escaping from North Korea. Upon arriving in South Korea, despite being officially welcomed as co-ethnics, many North Korean migrants find that their hopes for a better life are not realized. On the one hand, women arriving from the North are ethnic Koreans and speak the same language as South Koreans. On the other hand, they are in a territory whose culture and society are entirely foreign to them. Against this background, women from North Korea experience considerable trauma in South Korea as they struggle to negotiate new identities as gendered, liminal subjects in a cultural borderland. This article discusses a dance performance by an all-female performing arts troupe, P’yŏngyang Minsok Yesultan, to answer the following questions: How does the performance articulate traumatic and gendered migration experiences? To what extent might performance restore agency for North Korean trauma subjects? By closely engaging with North Korean women’s migration experiences and their performance practices in South Korea, the author shows that performance practices represent potentially empowering, affective sites that may open a space for restoration of North Korean women’s agency. Keywords: North Korean migrants, South Korea, gender, trauma, performativity, affect, performing arts

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