The Newsletter 93 Autumn 2022

Borderland Futures: Technologies, Zones, Co-existences

Ruth Gamble

7th ABRN Conference
Seoul, South Korea
23-25 June 2022

The seventh Asian Borderlands Research Network conference took place this year from the 23rd until the 25th of June at Chung-Ang University, Seoul, South Korea. It was postponed for two years due to the pandemic, and was held as a hybrid event because of ongoing public health restrictions. However, this did not stop the participant and attendees (in person and online) from having a great time, exchanging ideas, and meeting new and interesting people.

The conference was held and hosted by Chung-Ang University’s Reconciliation & Coexistence in Contact Zone (RCCZ) Research Centre and was jointly organised by the RCCZ, the Asian Borderlands Research Network (ABRN) and the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden, the Netherlands). It revolved around the three key themes of ‘technologies’, ‘zones’, and ‘co-existences’.

Panels focused on how technologies are shaping borders and borderlands, making them ‘smarter’ and increasing surveillance. Discussions on technologies included everything from Xinjiang’s coercive industrial parks to the existence of borders in online influencer culture. The conference explored borderland zones through their ability to attract development, investment, extraction, and extra-territorial experimentation. Participants responded to this topic in multiple ways, including how borderland zones give licence for socially proscribed activities such as gambling and how deep-sea fisheries operate as borderlands. Within this section of the conference, the participants also examined how borderland models get exported from one county to others. Co-existences in borderlands was the other key theme throughout the conference, and those who engaged with this theme were particularly innovative. One of the conference’s first panels was on human-non-human co-existence in Asian borderlands. Amongst other things, the speakers talked about the role that camels play in the Chinese state’s creation of its Gobi Desert border.

The two Keynote presentations at the conference approached the idea of borderlands from quite different perspectives, but both were equally compelling. The first was given by Professor Yongku Cha from Chang-Ang University, our host university, and was entitled ‘Whose Borders and Borders for Whom?’. Professor Cha gave us a history of three famously problematic borders: the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Oder-Neisse Line, which marked the border between East Germany and Poland after World War Two; and Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Besides providing us with interesting comparisons between these three borders—including getting us to think about what perpetuates a border and when they disappear—he reflected on South Korea’s long history with the DMZ from a personal and national perspective. The other Keynote was delivered by Franck Billé from the University of California, Berkeley, and was entitled ‘Archipelagos, Enclaves, and other Cartographic Monsters'. Dr Billé’s work is at the cutting edge (no pun intended) of borderland studies. His talk gave us much to ponder about places that disturb our cartographic imagination.

Along with these Keynotes, other highlights of the conference were roundtables on borderland evoking art, and two documentary movie screenings. The first was Shadow Flowers, about Kim Ryon-hui, a North Korean woman trapped in South Korea. The other, Comfort, was about Kim Hak-sun, a Korean woman forced into sex slavery by Japanese troops in the Pacific War. Besides negotiating other borders, our hosts were also adept at transforming language barriers into multilingual expression.

The RCCZ members live in a borderland; the South-North Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is only ninety-one kilometres from Seoul. This meant that this particular borderland played a vital role in the conference. The RCCZ ran a series of special sessions, primarily in Korean, working through some of the issues associated with this unresolved border zone and other pressing borderland issues, such as the war in Ukraine.

The organisers also ran an all-day excursion to the DMZ on Sunday, after the conference ended. My own experience and conversations with others suggested that our closeness to the DMZ affected and intensified our borderland thinking at the conference. It is one thing to know that the Korean peninsula is divided, and the two states that occupy it operate in such different ways. It is another thing to be at a borderland conference, thinking about borderlands, when you are right next to one of the globe’s most infamous border regions.

People in Asian borderland studies are generally amiable and interesting. Still, our hosts at the RCCZ exceeded even these standards through their friendliness and professionalism. They did multiple little things that made the event special. The commitment to running the digital component of the conference well was impressive, with a specialist IT assistant in each room. We had meetings in rooms with views over Seoul. My favourite was the stickers they gave us to commemorate the conference, because they were shaped like visa stamps and baggage tags. Here’s hoping the Asian Borderlands Research Network will start organising the next conference soon.