Return Migration and Korean Personhood in a Transnational Age

Samuel Gerald Collins

With nearly 7 million people of Korean descent ‘scattered across 175 countries worldwide’ (p. 24), the size and scope of the Korean diaspora has stimulated interest both within and outside of Korea. Beginning in the 1980s, and accelerating through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the turn to economic and cultural globalization in the 1990s, Korean scholars have documented communities in diaspora. Inside Korea, waves of ethnic return migration have precipitated qualitative research on growing communities of Korean Chinese (Chosŏnjok), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Koreans (Koryŏ Saram and Sahallin Salam) and the increased circulation of Korean Americans moving back and forth from North America to Korea. 

The government has not only looked to diaspora communities as sources of investment and tourism, but has also sought to commodify the relative marginalization of diaspora communities in Korea, with Korean Chinese and CIS Korean communities (e.g. Dongdaemun’s ‘Central Asia Village’) attracting domestic and international tourists.

Building on this growthing interest on diaspora and return, Ji-Yeon Jo’s Homing is an accessible, ethnographic study of ethnic return migration that examines the complexity of ‘Korean personhood’ in terms of both migrants’ transnational identities and still-evolving Korean policies. Through an evocation of ‘homing’, ‘an analytical metaphor to highlight the multiple, often circular border crossings that legacy migrants take-both spatially and affectively circulating between diaspora home and ancestral homeland’ (p. 7), Jo explores how people have shaped themselves and have, in turn, been shaped across geopolitical borders. Along the way, Homing suggests ways that later generation migrants challenge scholarly understandings of immigration, identity, and citizenship.

The first part of the monograph summarizes the histories of these diasporic communities, beginning with the chaos, conflict, and economic oppression that sent the first waves of diasporic Koreans over the Tumen and Yalu rivers to China and to Russia’s Maritime Provinces (Primorsky Krai) at the end of the 19th century. During the Japanese colonial period, additional waves of Koreans fled to China, or were forcibly relocated by the Japanese to Manchuria, to Sakhalin Island, or to Japan itself. In 1937, diasporic communities in the Maritime Provinces were summarily (and, in many cases, fatally) shipped to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where they were abandoned by Stalin. Finally, post-Korean War immigration to the United States and to other Western countries was partially enabled by South Korea’s 1962 Law of Overseas Migration and by a gradual lifting of race-based immigration quotas in the United States and elsewhere.

Over the course (in some cases) of multiple generations, each of these populations developed very differently with respect both to the diaspora home and to Korea. Chinese Korean support for the Chinese revolution resulted in the founding of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in 1952, together with rights and privileges comparable to those enjoyed by Han Chinese. On the other hand, CIS Koreans in Central Asia have had a more tenuous relationship with the state, and the turn to ethnic populism over the last two decades has made life in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan particularly precarious for ethnic minorities.

These complex histories had been echoed in Korea’s immigration policies. With the growth of Korea’s economic globalization in the 1990s, the government sought to exploit overseas Koreans ‘as significant human and financial resources for the country to draw on’ (p. 104). This led to the establishment of a preferential visa for overseas Koreans (F-4 visa) that allowed people to work, invest and buy land. From its inception, though, the F-4 visa was critiqued for discriminating against Chinese Koreans and CIS Koreans, two groups that emigrated or were displaced from Korea before the establishment of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 1948 and that, at first, were ineligible for the F-4 visa. Later amendments to the Overseas Korean Act have allowed these diasporic communities to live and work in Korea, but the economic and affective experiences of overseas Koreans have been decidedly mixed, testament to ‘the interactions between ethnic nationalism and neoliberal market forces’ (p. 107).

The second half of the monograph explores these tensions of migration and personhood, raising real questions about whether or not Koreans see their compatriots as co-ethnics at all. Again, the question depends upon the history and position of the diasporic community vis-a-vis contemporary South Korea, with CIS Koreans reporting the most suspicion and hostility, while Korean Americans reportedly enjoy the most acceptance, testament to their embeddedness in neo-liberal structures that privilege US economic and social capital (education and English language proficiency). Ultimately, there are multiple marginalizations of these diasporic communities: first, as ethnic minorities in their diasporic home and, then, as marginalized co-ethnics in Korea.

One of the significant barriers to acceptance is language. The phenotypical similarities of later-generation returnees with their native counterparts has been a mixed blessing; people are expected to speak Korean fluently and, when they fail at this, they’re vilified by their Korean counterparts who suspect them of ‘a lack of loyalty to the ancestral homeland and overassimilation to the diaspora nation’ (p. 149). Still, this (like everything else) depends on the context of the return migration. Later-generation Korean American migrants may find their lack of fluency a problem with some native Koreans, but the Korean elite also value English language ability and, moreover, may have considerable experience living abroad themselves.

Moreover, those ethnic return migrants without economic or social capital may leave lives and families in their diasporic homes, typically younger children and older relatives. What is oftentimes simplified in the literature as the labor migration of single individuals in actuality involves complex agreements between ethnic migrants, relatives, and the people they have left behind.

All of this means that the relationships of later-generation migrants to Korea are complex and include not only the reception of the ethnic migrant, but the plans people themselves make and the paths that they ultimately follow – plans that may change over time as, for example, when migrants who had planned to work in Korea for a few years get ‘stuck’ in a particular economic or vocational track that makes it difficult to return to their diasporic homes (p. 122). Other return migrants (e.g. Korean Americans) may trace a complex pattern of travel and return, and the relative low rate of naturalization among immigrants to Korea (less than 10 per cent), suggests that people strive to hedge their bets and preserve their mobility: ‘legacy migrants from the United States and China are inclined to leverage their diaspora citizenship to maximize their future opportunities’ (p. 123).

Ultimately, Homing contributes to our understanding of an emergent, Korean multiculturalism. With this surge in migration comes the realization that one, unified ethnos (tanil han minjok) is, in fact, multiple, and that “being Korean” can include different accents, languages and even phenotypical characteristics. As Jo concludes, ‘First, legacy migration disrupts the discourse of ethnic homogeneity, tanilminjok, introducing new and multifaceted possibilities for what constitutes Korean ethnicity. Second, legacy migration destabilizes the “one language, one nation” logic that is embedded in the Korean psyche’ (p. 189). In other words, ‘reunification’ ultimately means more than a the reformation of a single ethnos – the ideology that has, until very recently, been at the core of education about the diaspora. The reality is that reunification means different languages, different cultures, different territorializations and different paths in the process of ‘homing’ in on Korean personhood itself.