Jaeeun Kim is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies at the University of Michigan. She is author of Contested Embrace: Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea, published by Stanford University Press and recipient of the 2018 AAS James B. Palais Book Prize Honorable Mention.


To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book analyzes transborder membership politics in and around the Korean peninsula, focusing on the complex relationships between the states in the Korean peninsula, colonial-era ethnic Korean migrants and their descen­dants, and the states in which they have resided. The book explores when, how, and why a state seeks to claim a certain transborder population as “its own,” and how transborder coethnics participate in this process as they seek long-distance membership on their own terms. The spatio-temporal scope of the book covers critical politico-legal and social transformations in northeast Asia in the long 20th century. The book analyzes the legal, bureaucratic, and semantic infrastructures that shaped the identities of Korean migrants under colonial rule; the vehement competition between North and South Korea over the allegiance of Korean migrants who remained in Japan; various forms of cross-border transactions between China and North Korea amidst the Cold War confrontation and the socialist transition; and the post-Cold War struggles of ethnic Korean “return” migrants from China to South Korea to gain belated recognition as members of the rediscovered affluent homeland. Drawing on archival and ethnographic data collected through field research in three countries, I demonstrate how the politics of sovereignty, governmentality, and identity shape the making, unmaking, and remaking of the transborder nation on the macro-political, meso-institutional, and micro-interactional levels. I argue that being a “homeland” state or a member of the “transborder nation” is a precarious, arduous, and revocable legal-political achievement, mediated profoundly by bureaucratic practices of the state.


What inspired you to research this topic?

Japan’s occupation of Korea at the turn of the twentieth cen­tury set in motion a massive out-migration of the colonial population to the Japanese archipelago (the metropole of the Japanese Empire) and Manchu­ria (the disputed border region between the Japanese Empire and China). By the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, ethnic Koreans in these two regions (over 2 million in each) comprised approximately 15 percent of the entire “Korean” population. Postwar repatriation left 0.6 million of these migrants in Japan and 1.2 million in (now communist) China.

The literature on ethnic Koreans in Japan and China has tended to place them squarely within the territorial boundary of postwar Japan or the Peo­ple’s Republic of China, the seemingly contrasting narratives characterizing the two groups notwithstanding. Studies of ethnic relations in Japan, for instance, have shown how Japan’s transformation from a multiethnic em­pire to a self-stylized homogeneous nation-state entailed the transformation of its Korean residents from colonial subjects to a hidden ethnic minority that was legally disenfranchised, socially excluded, and culturally assimi­lated and thus rendered invisible. The few existing accounts of Korean Chinese history, by contrast, have uniformly highlighted the progressive integration of this “model minority” into the People’s Republic of China in a teleological and triumphalist fashion. Inquiries about the genealogy of Korean ethnic nationalism or colonial and postcolonial state building, for their part, have limited their analytic focus largely to the Korean penin­sula. The massive outward migration that coincided with the rise of Korean nationalism and the uneven incorporation of these transborder Koreans into the colonial and postcolonial state-building processes have been largely missing or mentioned only in passing in these studies.

I wanted to break with the “methodological nationalism” underlying these studies, that is, the prevalent tendency in social sciences to take the current nation-state as a seldom-questioned unit of analysis. I wanted to situate ethnic Koreans in Japan and China not simply at the margin of their respective state of settlement but also at the transborder margin of their states of origin, that is, the colonial and postcolonial states in the Korean peninsula. This analytic shift reveals that, despite a widespread, deeply entrenched and quasi-primordial belief in Korean ethnic nationhood, the embrace of these transborder coethnic populations by the colonial and the two postcolonial states, North and South Korea, has been selective, shift­ing, and recurrently contested. I sought to explore under what circumstances and by what means the colonial and postcolonial states have sought to claim (or failed to claim) certain transborder populations as “their own,” and how transborder Koreans have themselves shaped the making, unmaking, and remaking of transborder ties as they have sought long-distance membership on their own terms.


Read the full article here.