Talking About the Unconscious: Interview with Professor Hyun Ok Park

By | December 09, 2015 | No Comments

Park discussing her book at a book launch hosted by The Centre for the Study of Korea on October 16, 2015. | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

Park discussing her book, The Capitalist Unconscious, at a book launch hosted by The Centre for the Study of Korea on October 16, 2015. | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

Standing on the hoary northeastern edges of the People’s Republic of China, observers tend to imagine the nation-state as all-powerful, and to imbue sovereign boundaries with almost mystical properties. China’s official narrative of unity certainly encourages as much — CCP power has been duly consolidated in the northeast, at the cost of much blood and treasure, and the border is daily reinforced with images of national power. China may have uncoiled a series of construction and development projects up to the very Korean frontier, but this nod toward the transnational simply reinforces how different things are on the Chinese side of the river. How curious China must indeed appear to North Koreans who are kept forcibly out. On the southern banks of the Tumen River, North Korean sovereignty has its glitches and gaps, but it, too, is seen as generally monolithic, a handful of smugglers, vagabonds, and AWOL border guards notwithstanding. 

One scholar, based in Toronto, with extensive fieldwork experience in Seoul and Yanbian, sees things somewhat differently — for her, national borders delimit realms of possibility. In an extensive interview with Sino-NK Managing Editor Steven Denney, York University’s Hyun Ok Park unpacks aspects of her book, The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea and extends the textual provocation into new realms. Like her book, there is a generousness with length and an invitation to an argument that might just last a decade. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Talking About the Unconscious: Interview with Professor Hyun Ok Park

by Steven Denney

Steven Denney [SD]: What is the “capitalist unconscious?” Why this phrase for the title of the book?

Hyun Ok Park [Park]: The exploration of the capitalist unconscious is my way of understanding what has continued to trouble and fascinate me at the same time, namely, the lack of discussion of capitalism in everyday life, let alone its critique. This is perhaps truer in North America than other parts of the world, such as South Korea of the 1970s and 1980s. In this book I tried to make sense of the ways that capitalism is imagined and experienced as the practices of democracy (including socialist democracy) and ethnic nationalism. The implications of this continuation of capitalism by other means for envisaging a new political possibility are explored in this book, for instance when leftists seek to recover the commons or communism from the deathbed of twentieth-century socialism.

The capitalist unconscious encapsulates the three pivots of my argument. 1) It grasps the centrality of capital in shaping the current mode of Korean unification and locates a new political possibility in the experiences of social relations. 2) The word “unconscious” also denotes that capitalist life, lived, embodied, and remembered is not the totalizing process suggested by the concept of reification. 3) The “capitalist unconscious” encompasses the historical unconscious, e.g., memories, flashbacks, and repetition, as a source for critiquing hegemonic narratives of historical transition.

SD: Could you talk a bit about how you apply these ideas to Korea, or different populations of Koreans?

Park: Specifically, this book historicizes the politics of Korean unification, approaching normative ethnic national sovereignty of Koreans as a historical question. During the anti-colonial struggle from Japanese colonial rule to national division in 1948, ethnic national sovereignty of Koreans concerned not just the creation of an independent Korean state, but also the emancipation of the people — the peasantry who constituted the majority of the population — for which socialist and capitalist politics vied to change terms of tenancy, labor, and land ownership. During the Cold War, the South Korean and North Korean states respectively fixed the matter of Korean unification to the task of unifying the territory and the state, while the popular democracy movement in South Korea contested anti-capitalist revolution and national liberation as the bases for national unification. This book presents the latest mode of national unification in the post-Cold War era: the formation of transnational community by capital.

By capital do I not mean the flow of money in the form of capital investment or humanitarian aid. It refers instead to social relations, where surplus labor is extracted in the form of unpaid labor and appropriated as profit accrued to capital investment. The current social relations of Koreans on a transnational scale involve their engagement in the production of goods and services through the invocation of ethnicity, nation, and democracy.

With the concept of the unconscious, I focus on the words, corporeality and senses, and mnemonics of migrant laborers and extrapolate disjuncture among them as the state of their commodification. South Korean activists and even global NGOs mobilized these migrant workers — whether Korean Chinese, North Korean, or non-Korean — for the politics of reparation, peace-making, and human rights. The limit of these democratic politics for representing concerns of migrant workers is inscribed in their capitalist logic. These latest democratic imaginations are also discussed in light of old political imageries of capitalism during the Enlightenment, socialist revolution, and industrial capitalism.

The capitalist unconscious emphasizes the fidelity of the political and the historical. In response to pressing questions about where a new political possibility might come from and what form it might take in this era of the end of history, this book presents the temporalizing of history as the urgent political task that Walter Benjamin alerted to us. I demonstrate that a critique of power emerges from disjunctured experiences of commodification, or rather one’s confrontation with them through a critique of the notion of historical progress. Operating as a hegemonic ideology, narratives of historical transition, such as the transition from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism, from dictatorship to democracy, and from socialism to capitalism, produce consensus on neoliberal capitalism. I show how recognition of historical repetition — be it recognition of the state’s continued violence after democratization or evocation of the colonial and Cold War past — harbors a new critical understanding of the present.

SD: Your book is principally concerned with retelling “the post-colonial and Cold War history of socialism and capitalism as the history of the neoliberal present” (Preface, xi). What, exactly, is it about the neoliberal present that deserves scholarly and analytical attention?

Park: In this book, I have tried to convey the importance of history and historical thinking for critiquing two popular interpretations of capitalism: the seeming convergence of the world into neoliberal capitalism as the victory of capitalism; and the repeated, though new each time, treatment of capitalism as democracy.

The capacity to link together three Korean communities [South Koreans, North Koreans, and Koreans in China] and theorize their connectivity as transnational Korea comes from my understanding of contemporary capitalism and rethinking twentieth-century socialism and capitalism. In order to understand what global convergence on neoliberal capitalism means, and how twentieth-century history matters for the current conjuncture, I have had to expand the purview of an analytical framework of capitalist experience beyond the customary analysis of labor (e.g., the regime of production) to include the historical and philosophical frame of commodification. My analysis begins with the present condition of Korean migrants — migration, work, incorporation into democratic politics, and protests against discrimination and exploitation —  and goes back to their work and life in their socialist era. That is, I have changed the conventional temporal and spatial spaces of neoliberal capitalism to include twentieth-century socialism and capitalism as its history. In this book, the history of neoliberal capitalism does not affirm the often projected transition from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism. Rather it shows that the twentieth-century history of industrial capitalism spills into the everyday experience and politics under neoliberal capitalism.

This historical temporality of neoliberal capitalism is twofold. Firstly, it involves memories of the past, as institutionalized narratives of memories and individuals’ flashbacks not only constitute important threads of the current capitalist experiences, but also enable a new politics. Secondly, it concerns how the two Koreas and China pursued rapid industrialization and material accumulation under military dictatorship and socialism, respectively, what crisis emerged with each approach, and how industrial accumulation and its crisis are being worked out in the form of neoliberal capitalism. Thus neoliberal capitalism is not a period that transcends industrial capitalism/socialism of the twentieth-century. It is a continuation of capital accumulation by other means, that is, by the adoption of new strategies and principles of capital accumulation that respond to the singular crisis in each country.

SD: Transnationalism is a concept that seems to have caught hold of many scholars and readers, but which paradoxically has not yet really been applied to Korea – could you describe your view of how this concept holds in your research on capitalism?

Park: Transnational Korea is constituted by the asynchronous adoption by the two Koreas and Korean Chinese community of neoliberal capitalism though to different degrees. Transnational Korea does not signify the victory of South Korean capitalism in its rivalry with North Korean socialism. On the contrary, it points to the crisis of its own capitalism as the foundation for neoliberal reforms in South Korea. The repeated capitalist crisis in the 1980s and 1990s offered a foundation for South Korea to think North Korea and the Korean diaspora as assets capable of reinvigorating its capitalist power and giving rise to transnational Korea.

The joining of transnational Korea by North Koreans and Korean Chinese in the form of their labor migration originates in their own crisis of socialism. As in the Soviet Union, twentieth-century socialism in North Korea and China did not overcome capitalism but rather resided within its parameters. That is, socialist construction in North Korea and China is conceptualized in my book as repeated revolution, in which each country developed a unique industrial structure and state sovereignty by incorporating key capitalist dynamics such as the prioritization of industrial development, labor exploitation, and commodity production. Seeking to understand the failure of twentieth-century socialism, scholars saw it as the twin of Western state capitalism or conceptualized the US and USSR as mirror images of industrial modernism.

I attempt not so much to reaffirm the failure of socialism as to explain the crisis of twentieth-century socialism by asking the following questions: What crisis did emerge from the incorporation of capitalist principles into socialist construction? What rationale was given, especially within the frameworks of historical materialism and permanent revolution, to such a contradiction? In what kind of crisis did the contradiction manifest and how was it addressed repeatedly? What is the logic of this repetition? What do this contradiction and repeated rationalization have to do with the adoption of privatization, deregulation of the economy, and the trail of border-crossing migration?

This historical temporality of neoliberal capitalism is skirted even by well-meaning critical scholars who seek to ascertain distinctive features of neoliberal capitalism and thus inadvertently conjure a transition away from Keynesian and industrial capitalism. It is also obscured by democratic politics under neoliberal capitalism, which I call “market utopia.” Market utopia emerges out of the crisis of mass utopia, which, as Susan Buck-Morss delineates in both the US and USSR in her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe, drew the vision of emancipation of the people from imagined possibilities of mass production, technology, and machinery during the era of industrial capitalism. In contrast, market utopia imagines an all-encompassing power of the market and is concerned with individuals’ freedom, legal rights, and protections from state violence. This incarnation of free market capitalism in the neoliberal capitalist era reconstitutes the early European liberal notion of the market as the basis of peace, as discussed in Albert Hirschman’s seminal work The Passions and the Interests, into three repertoires of democratic politics, namely, reparation, peace, and human rights.

Screenshot from a march during the June Democratic Uprising [6월 민주항쟁]. Many attribute the wave of marches across the country during this month with the decision concede democratic reforms. | Image: Revisiting History(역사다시보기)/YouTube

Screenshot from a march during the June Democratic Uprising [6월 민주항쟁]. Many attribute the wave of marches that took place during this month with the Democratic Justice Party’s decision to concede democratic reforms. | Image: Revisiting History(역사다시보기)/YouTube

SD: You were an undergraduate student during contentious times in South Korea: the 1980s. How have your experiences during this time shaped your views of post-87, democratic South Korea? What is so (in)significant about this period in modern Korean history?

Park: Indeed, my freshman year at Yonsei University began with the Kwangju uprising and the massacre of civilians by the military. Accordingly, we were immediately swept into campus protests and organizing meetings continued late into the night, not to mention frequent school closures. At the pinnacle of the minjung democracy movement against the military dictatorship my college years were marked with haunting political awakenings, campus and street protests, and a debilitating mixture of anger, despair, hope, and fear. After graduation I came to the US primarily to study socialism and North Korea, the two prohibited topics under the dictatorship. Of course, there is the obvious irony of studying such subjects in the heartland of capitalist imperialism! Another irony is that years of my studying of socialism led to the study of capitalism, which makes sense in light of this book. Guilty of studying and living abroad, I joined street protests when I returned to Seoul for summers. On June 29, 1987, I was also in the crowd protesting in front of Seoul City Hall after marching together from near the university, when the military announced a popular presidential election in the following year.

Two things stand out from my experience of the South Korean struggle of the 1980s. The first is its radical nature and its consequent ossification by a cultural turn in social movement and academia, as in the case of radicalism of the 1960s in other parts of the world. In South Korea, the notion of the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1987 became the basis for the split between the labor movement and soon-flourishing civil society movement. Under the progressive governments’ rule from 1998 to 2008, the 1987 transition to democracy began to be commemorated as the victory of the people’s power. The notion of the 1987 transition fueled the cultural turn in academia and the social movement sector, which substituted citizens for minjung (the oppressed) as subjects of democratic politics and focused on identity politics.

The commemoration of the struggle eclipses the fact that activists during the late 1980s warned about political liberalization without substantive socioeconomic change. Accordingly, the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s were filled with workers’ struggles, university students’ protests, and the state’s continued repression. However, after seizing power amidst the 1997 Financial Crisis, leftist governments pushed for neoliberal capitalist reforms. The remembrance of 1987 transition as the transition to democratization justified turning a blind eye to the capitalist character of the progressive governments.

The Capitalist Unconscious problematizes such historical and cultural turns in capitalism and democratic politics since 1987, elucidating the political conversion of leftists and the disappearing distinction between the left and the right in South Korean politics as in other parts of the world. It presents concepts and methods that I find helpful in assessing the limit of liberal democracy and recognizing signs of emerging alternative democratic politics.

Secondly, the struggle of the 1980s taught me that changes come with and through the crisis. The construction of the 1980s struggle as the heroic and triumphant struggle of minjung amounts to the normalization of history. It sanitizes visions of popular emancipation, erasing contradiction and conflict, as well as contingency and uncertainty that were integral to the struggle. According to Reinhart Koselleck, the temporalization of crisis is a political and philosophical question. In the time of crisis such as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and war, the seemingly inapprehensible present is captured by a philosophy of history that conjectures the passage from past to future. That is, “politics and prophecy” substitute for recognition of the present moment. In my book, three idioms of democracy — reparation, peace, and human rights — work as politics and prophecy. Not only do they reconstitute the notion of equality, justice, and freedom in the loosely called post-cold war era of decolonization and democratization. They also use the transition narratives of history as an explanation for the present, and create consensus about neoliberal capitalism.

SD: “First as tragedy, second as farce,” Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire. “Repetition” plays a prominent role in your analysis, but what is being repeated and why does that matter?

Park: Repetition is a central concept in my book. This phrase by Marx captures my interpretation of the history of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. My interpretation of these periods as “repetition” counteracts the transition theses of history, which draw two historical periods and posit them in terms of their opposition, e.g., socialism vs. capitalism, dictatorship vs. democracy, and industrial capitalism vs. financial capitalism. Of course, repetition does not mean sameness. On the contrary, it authorizes us to uncover historical specificity of each period that is obscured by the transition paradigms.

The analysis of democracy within the framework of state sovereignty is key to the transition theses of history, especially paradigms of the transition from socialism to capitalism and from dictatorship to democracy. The argument that twentieth-century socialism failed due to the dictatorship of the state and the party or factional struggles for power leads to an interpretation of the current privatization and marketization in China and North Korea as a decisive move toward democracy. Similarly, political regime change through the dissolution of military dictatorship in South Korea and consequent political liberalization are considered decisive moves toward democratization, as if once the bridge to democracy is crossed, then return to dictatorship is impossible.

If I borrow Trotsky’s term, this political democratization is the “metaphysics” of democracy. If one looks at the regulation of labor, then the opposition between socialism and capitalism and between dictatorship and democracy disappear. The relationship of state, capital, and labor is different in each regime of socialism, capitalism, dictatorship, and liberal democracy. The concept of repetition enables us to recognize the continued commodification of labor by the historically changing network of state, capital, and the regime of production. With the concept of repetition, I account for democracy in the domain of social relations, and argue that a change in the form of state does not guarantee emancipation.

When the state of socialist democracy is weighed in the realm of the social, its limit is evident in the continued extraction and appropriation of labor power that was demanded by the socialist construction’s imperative to develop productive forces. The pace of privatization and deregulation in China (and even North Korea) does not bring a resolution to the failure of twentieth-century socialism but reproduces commodification of labor in a new way. This is the meaning of repetition, which recognizes historical changes in the commodification of labor and renews the struggle for democracy.

The new struggle capable of bringing democracy to social relations exceeds a change of state or practices of a non-authoritarian structure of social movement. Seen from the experience of migrant workers, democracy requires an end to commodified social relations. Within scholarship on state’s sovereignty, Giorgio Agamben conceptualizes the seemingly swift shift in the twentieth-century from fascist to liberal democratic regimes and vice versa in terms of “contiguity” of political regimes; and he inscribes the contiguity to their shared belief in the state’s production of social life. In this book I approach the contiguity as historical repetition to highlight the ways that various political regimes reproduce capitalism and its crisis by different responses to them.

The train station at Yanji, Autonomous Korean Prefecture. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The train station at Yanji, Yanbian Autonomous Korean Prefecture. Yanbian is “home” to most of the Chinese-Korean migrant labors working in South Korea. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

SD: Throughout the book you cover at least three distinct geographical locations — South Korea, Northeast China (specifically Yanbian), and North Korea –- but bring it all together in a deceptively simple thesis: Korea is already unified through capital. This may come as news to some. What do you mean already unified?

Park: The word, “already,” conveys my emphasis on temporalizing history. By analyzing the current historical form of Korean unification I want to bring alive the original and utopian meaning of Korean national unification. The efforts to unify a divided Korea are tantamount to what Walter Benjamin notes as “making whole what has been smashed” in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

What has been smashed is not the homogeneous Korean ethnic nation per se, which never existed beyond belief, but rather the utopian ideal of emancipation of the people spoken in the language of ethnic nation. During the anti-colonial struggle leading up to the Korean War, national unification concerned decolonization: the quest for independence from Japanese rule was never separate from land and tenancy reforms for peasants who were the majority of the population; and Koreans contested capitalist and socialist forms of such reforms. Popular sovereignty, decolonization, and Korean unification were one and the same, and were irreducible to the formation of the independent nation-state. Yet, during the Cold War era, the rivalry between the two states fixed Korean unification to the task of territorial union and the creation of the single nation-state. In the post-Cold War era, Korean unification is once again transmuted, this time into the issues of righting the colonial wrongs Korean Chinese suffered and democratizing North Korea, both of which I analyze as capitalist ideology.

Benjamin calls us to find this unrealized ideal in the wreckage of the past struggles and rescue it from the modern drive to arrive at the future by transcending the past. This is not about returning to the past but performing the dialectics of the past and the present — that is, dipping into the past to recognize unrealized ideals in the past, awaken to the present reality, and engage in the struggle for emancipation. From early on in the writing of this book, memories and flashbacks of migrant workers and activists in the colonial and Cold-War pasts challenged me to find ways to understand their meanings and locate them in their histories. The exploration of repetition came out of such efforts. In that process, I wrote the history of three Korean communities not chronologically but from the present to the past. I demonstrate that the dipping into the past constitutes new political moments — dormant, uttered, or organized — which break down the hegemonic representation of the present political regime and capitalism as democracy.

SD: Your study is principally concerned with what some people might consider the Korean nation, or so it would appear. Chinese-Koreans, North Koreans, and South Koreans are key populations in your study. Yet, your objective is clearly to transcend the nation (and the state). How do you write a transnational history when the scope is limited to one group of people? Or, in other words, how do you avoid reifying a sense of Koreanness while only looking at Koreans?

Park: You are right that I present Korean history as a global and transnational history. As I pointed out in the preface, I hope this book sheds light on current crises across the globe that are marked by invasions, wars, ethnic nationalism, and large-scale displacement and migration of people. When popular and political analyses tend to decipher these current events in reference to previous occurrences of Cold War, ethnic separatism, apartheid, and civil war, I have tried to rework such historical extrapolation through the notion of historical repetition. In the book, bringing global capitalism into the analysis is essential for delineating the connectedness of ethnicity, nationalism, state sovereignty, and human displacement, and for envisioning a new democratic politics. For instance, bringing global capitalism into a central analytic framework allows us to understand the transnational migration of people beyond the conventional framework of refugees.

If I take as an example Korean Chinese who worked as undocumented laborers in South Korea until the mid-2000s as an example, their experience of migratory work appears a phantasmagoria. They speak, feel, imagine, and act in multiple strains of primordial ethnicity, national belonging, refugee discourse, and the vision of a stateless nation. Korean Chinese joined South Korean reparation politics, waging street protests, sit-ins, and hunger strikes. They expressed seemingly ineffable ethnic emotions, saying that they finally came home and were choked with emotion when they saw persimmon trees planted by their parents or grandparents. They said they could endure backbreaking work lasting 15 to 17 hours a day in South Korea since they were farmers in China; more unbearable in their view were the insults and cold-heartedness of South Koreans who treated them as foreigners. This primordialization of their South Korean ethnicity took place when, as undocumented workers, they suffered all kinds of illnesses, including sudden weight loss, kidney and heart failure, internal bleeding, insomnia, and skin diseases. Worse, this identification with South Korea prompted the Chinese state to increase surveillance and sanctions against Korean Chinese. Some Korean Chinese switched to embrace China as their true nation, saying that China is indeed their homeland because their ancestors had worked and lived there, that Chinese not only retain human compassion, but also that soon economic development in China will surpass South Korea.

Here, their switching of national identity is largely performative; South Korea and China are just different names of a community, which, as an affective transfer, distills capitalist experiences into hope for community. This switching of national identity signifies not the enjoyment of both national memberships but the neitherness of their being, in Korean Chinese words, “the people without a place to go to settle” or “living in sorrow whether coming to South Korea or going to China.” In this de facto refugee condition, their ardent identification with South Korea and China is a reminder of the paradox of the human condition of the stateless under the modern nation-state system, which Hannah Arendt so painfully captured in “We Refugees” by describing Jews as being ready to become 150 percent German, 150 percent French, and 150 percent Viennese, and so on.

SD: If Chinese Koreans are neither this nationality nor that, are they stateless refugees? How should we think about or conceptualize their condition?

Park: If we bring capitalism into the picture, we can discern a different paradox from the condition of statelessness. As undocumented workers until the mid-2000s, Korean Chinese were deprived of protection from the South Korean and Chinese states. However, I call Korean Chinese not de facto refugees but transnational migrants. Their de facto statelessness as undocumented laborers is not reducible to victimhood no matter how precarious their living conditions, because it transpires an unexpected critique of the past, the present, and the relationship between the two. When I ask Korean Chinese why they came to South Korea, some began their replies with surprising references to the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976: they said that during the Cultural Revolution Koreans killed each other; and this intra-ethnocide is an ethnic characteristic of Koreans.

This unexpected or even involuntary recollection of the Cultural Revolution in South Korea enacts an uncanny dialectics of present and past: Their construction of intra-ethnocide as specifically Korean implies their critique of intra-ethnic hierarchy and discrimination in South Korea. This critique of the present encapsulates a new understanding of their history in China. The intra-ethnocide during the Cultural Revolution denotes the broader violence against Koreans throughout the socialist period. In fact, Korean Chinese’s status and identity was and continues to be unresolved in China.

Though each instance was different, the violence against Korean Chinese during the 1958 national rectification movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution was not over their ethnicity per se. Instead the recurrent violence was a repeated response to a larger contradiction — the contradiction arising from Chinese historical materialism, or Mao’s continuous revolution in stages, which incorporated capitalist principles of commodity production and labor control as necessary for developing productive forces. In his book, Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze reasons that repetition leads to repression, not the reverse; I turn the philosophical notion of repetition leading to repression into a mode of politics and history, and argue that the repeated violence helped the regime to hide contradictions of its socialism. Throughout the Chinese revolution, Korean Chinese were given all kinds of names — names of anyone or anything that was not revolutionary — including feudal remnants, colonial remnants, remnants of the Kuomintang nationalist party, local nationalists, capitalists, and spies; and when the names ran out, they were called “mixed demons” caught between this world and next.

In other words, Korean Chinese acquired non-identities reminiscent of the persecution of Jews or Armenians, which resulted not so much from their ethnicity as from contradictions in Germany or Turkey. The desire for the stateless nation renders their transnational subjectivity as liminal practices of belonging that are irreducible to membership in a state. Here nation ceases to be a political unit and instead refers to the commons or commune.

SD: Reading the book, it is clear that you spent a lot of time with people who can be considered members of the global “precariat” – documented and undocumented migrant workers in China and (especially) South Korea. What did you learn most from your engagements?

Park: Their condition of living and working made me humble about what I do. I learned that they consider their work in the way we, intellectuals, do, that is, work as the source of sovereignty, identity, and politics. My engagement with their living and death as precarious migratory workers affirmed the importance of erasing the separation of manual and mental labor, which has been established by industrial capitalism, especially in mechanization and rationalization of factory labor. Migrant workers studied in my book desired simultaneously to accumulate wealth and step outside commodified rhythms of our daily lives. They confronted the poverty of current democratic politics for grasping their interests and experiences.

I documented some of the instances that North Korean migrants countered their objectification by human rights advocates, for instance, finding ways to create their sovereignty, e.g., gaining control over their own body and work and treating their work as sort of use-value. This attention on labor in the book carves out the “social” — rather than “the political” sphere of state sovereignty or organized social movement — as a space of emancipatory politics, whether organized or dormant.

Mixed media image from Left Turn magazine of migrant laborers protesting working conditions. | Left Turn/Flickr

SD: You are very critical of South Korean activists for enveloping the struggles of Chinese-Korean migrant laborers into liberal-democratic “identity politics.” What are the characteristics of these politics, and what does it tell us about contemporary South Korean democracy?

Park: South Korean democracy is in crisis. Since the 1990s, the social movement in South Korea has split into a labor movement and a civil society movement. The book extrapolates the limits of this dual hegemonic movement. On the one hand, the labor movement has focused on defending rights and benefits of unionized workers, while seeking to establish a national labor party. It is too centered on unionized workers to represent migrant workers and precarious domestic Korean workers who are the majority of workers. On the other hand, NGOs have advocated the rights of the discriminated, appealing to the principle of difference. The civil society movement is too focused on identity and culture to unleash attacks on rapidly growing inequality, unemployment, and unfulfilled promises of a welfare-society. A break from the dual hegemonic movement has begun over the last few years. Labor activists now call for a return to the ethos of labor activism of the 1970s and 1980s, in order to overcome the defense of narrow economic interests of the few unionized workers. NGO activists confront the reality that they have increasingly depended on the government’s project and capitalists’ contribution, and that their emphasis on expertise and professionalism come to be detached from the people they represent.

The shift from the minjung movement to this dual hegemonic social movement is predicated on the assumption that the 1987 dissolution of military dictatorship accomplished the transition to democracy. The book offers a critique of this historical transition, and analyzes institutional characteristics of liberal democracy in South Korea, such as the new network of the state and capital and of industrial and financial capital, the appeal to law, constitutionalism, and cosmopolitanism, and the enforcement of private property rights in the name of the rule of law. The book explains how recognition that the violence of the state after 1987 continues, though in new ways, leads one to break out of the hegemonic social movement and formulate a new movement.

SD: The topic of marketization is popular in contemporary scholarship on North Korea (at least in the English-language). For many, the market era signifies a transition from a socialist system to some form of capitalist-socialist hybrid. You take issue with this discourse, especially notions of a new era or of a transition in North Korea. You argue, instead, that the push for rapid and heavy industrialization in the 1950s saw the implementation of economic policies that sought to harness the power of material incentives at the levels of labor and enterprise (especially surplus value, or profit) to direct development. Obviously, this goes well beyond more recent speculation about North Korean “marketization.” What is the significance of your historical critique? Why does it matter?

Park: North Korea is not an exception to the twentieth-century socialist system, which integrated key capitalist principles such as commodity production and labor exploitation into its socialist construction in order to intensify the pace of industrialization. Experts of North Korean studies in and beyond South Korea regard the current marketization in North Korea as the sign of capitalist democracy. This approach strips North Korean socialism of its history. I explain industrial and institutional structures in North Korea, which since the late 1950s have incorporated capitalist principles into socialist construction.

When seen in this light of history, what’s new in North Korea since the 1990s is not the arrival of capitalism but rather a new politico-cultural interpretation of capitalist dynamics. As observed in China during the 1980s, the liberal notion of market democracy depicts increased market activities during and after the food crisis from 1994 to 1998 as empowering the powerless. Despite risks and hardships, North Korean migrants voice pride and contentment in market trading and migratory work, because it brings wealth and freedom.

The idea of market democracy usurps mass-line policy and collective nationalism, which are kernels of Juche ideology. The regime capriciously expands and contracts marketization and even calls it an anti-socialist phenomenon. Yet ordinary people describe the regime’s failure to acknowledge the death of socialism as “the emperor’s new clothes.” The regime’s loss of moral credibility is also observed in North Koreans’ own current fascination with China and South Korea as places of abundance, morality, and order.

The ethos of market democracy hides a new reality in North Korea. This reality encompasses growing inequality, monopoly of valuable resources by powerful state sectors, competition for survival, and deepening uncertainty in social life. Social instability is suggested by the popularity of folk customs and superstition used to allay anxiety and uncertainty. With funding from South Koreans and Korean Americans, covertly proselytize Christianity by presenting South Korea’s economic miracle as God’s blessing. Migration to China and on to South Korea is another means for North Koreans to escape this reality in search of economic opportunity, justice, or true community called the nation.

Any viable step for Korean unification must go beyond the opposition of socialism and capitalism in order to understand the actual socialist construction and marketization in North Korea. An informed account of the twenty-century socialist system and its North Korean characteristics saves us from futile predictions about North Korea’s inevitable or stalled transition to capitalism. North Korea is neither a monolithic totalitarian society nor outside of the capitalist system. North Korean socialism shares with South Korea and the West an industrial modernism that envisages human emancipation from the mass scale of production and technological possibilities.

SD: Not directly addressed, but lurking between the lines and pages is your take on the relationship between nation and capital. So as to avoid the trap of identity politics, don’t we have to understand the relationship between the commodification of labor and nation? How would you articulate this relationship?

Park: I don’t consider this book to be a study of the national history of Koreans, if national history implies primordialization of Korean ethnicity. Rather it is the study of global capitalism and its construction of the Korean ethnic nation. In Ethnicity Inc. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff argue that capitalism produces ethnicity, not vice versa. While emphasizing the socially constructed nature of ethnic identity and culture, they avoid economic determinism by revealing unsettling and indeterminate effects of commodification of ethnicity on political empowerment of ethnic groups. Similarly, I approach the embrace of ethnicity by South Koreans, Korean Chinese migrants, and North Korean migrants as performative politics, in which their invocation of primordial ethnic nation increases their speculative value in transnational Korea. Their desire for a stateless nation epitomizes the desire to step outside commodification. When we analyze the formation of ethnic nation in relation to global capitalism, it is possible to go beyond the space-based conceptualization of transnational as “transcendence” of the nation or “outside” of the nation.

In this book I pay attention to the temporality of their transnational migration — Korean Chinese’s switching of their national identity and North Korean’s continued migration to China and on to South Korea, and, in reality or desire, their return to North Korea or move to the US, Canada, or Europe. Border-crossing migration has the paradoxical effect of simultaneously reproducing commodification and displacing migrants from the normative order set by the nation-state. The concept of transnational migration expands the parameters of what the nation-state framework of migrants deems political, and challenges us to envision liberation outside of the time and space of the nation-state. Migrant laborers under consideration in this book see that a change of political regime would not end their displacement and commodification and express a longing beyond citizenship or refugee status. The desire to move to a new country uncannily entails recognition that one’s liberation does not come from changing one’s identification with a nation-state. The analysis of the temporality of transnational migration offered in The Capitalist Unconscious points to the social as a location of the struggle for liberation.