Yongusil 37: Bordering, Re-bordering, and Un-bordering the Korean Peninsula in Karelia

By | June 10, 2014 | No Comments

The panel in action. From left to right: Chris Green, Steven Denney, Darcie Draudt, and Robert Winstanley-Chesters

The panel in action. From left to right: Chris Green, Steven Denney, Darcie Draudt, and Robert Winstanley-Chesters | Image: Dongsei Kim

Against the grain of studies of the clearly-defined post-Westphalian state, there is a developing and vital genre of academic research and output focused on liminalities, edges and spaces known as “borderland studies.” The Association of Borderlands Studies is currently holding its first world conference jointly between Joensuu, Finland and St. Petersburg, Russia, an intriguing location in the light of recent, sudden, and unexpected activations of interactions and controversies along the borders of post-Cold War Europe.

The place and prominence of the Korean Peninsula at such a conference should be somewhat unsurprising.  The peninsula is, of course, the site of the most highly concretized, militarized, and “un-liminal” border region in this world, across which little travels and from which little positive is expected. However, the Koreas themselves have other border spaces and are bordered in ways both contributory and separate from their shared border at the 38th parallel. A team from Sino-NK appeared at the ABS World Borderlands Conference with a panel entitled “Across Northern Rivers: Examining the Borderlands of the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as Transitional, Transient Spaces.” Together, the panellists sought to examine, construct, and explode some of the impact, implications, and processes of borderland living, engagement, and ideological navigation in Korea’s northern borderlands.

Robert Winstanley-Chesters, our Director of Research, focused on historical narratives of ideological and philosophical transfer across North Korea’s borders when it comes to environmental matters. Coupling this to an analysis of more contemporary eras, Winstanley-Chesters conceives of a re-spatialization of Pyongyang’s developmental policy, from the metropole to the periphery. This revised territory of approach connects with its narratives of political and national authority and legitimacy and allows Winstanley-Chesters to explore disparate policy elements such as tiger conservation, infrastructural development on the Tumen River, and faunal diplomacy through the same frame, as readers of his 2012 symposium will recall.

Darcie Draudt, assistant editor at Sino-NK and graduate of Yonsei School of International Studies, engaged with the experiences of women with North Korea’s borderlands. After investigating how the push and pull factors on both sides of the border have led to the gendering of outward migration, she examined the intersection of women’s navigation of border spaces and experiences with their national identity. Draudt’s title, “Illegal Exchange, Licit Change,” hints at the complications in female experience of this dangerous, diffuse phenomenon.

Fiduciary connection and financial transaction were the subject of Christopher Green’s presentation, “Yuanization: An Answer to Bad Government Policy Born in the Borderlands.” Green recounted the failure and diminution of North Korean control and popular ownership over its own currency, given previous instances of re-valuation, devaluation, and monetary capture at its behest and the dominance of China’s currency in the region. The appearance of alternative stores of value and greater cash resources seemingly leading to diffusions in North Korean state sovereignty, power, and ideology and a reconceptualization of the nature of commodity and labor value.

Finally, Steven Denney, a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, moved the panel’s analytical gaze south of the border and its ossified geo-political stasis to the vibrancy of contemporary South Korea. Utilizing a rich collection of empirical data (public opinion and survey data), Denney described the variations in beliefs between generations and age cohorts, focusing especially on how the values and political attitudes of Generation X (those in their 20s and 30s) are significantly different from older generations. He argued that South Koreans today are engaged in a process of self re-bordering, solidifying the sovereign divide between North and South Korea. The new South Korea—a nation in its own right—is being built on a new, pragmatic set of political attitudes and a more civic-oriented (rather than ethnic-based) national identity.

Collectively the panelists vital contribution to the field of borderland studies could be their willingness to examine the Peninsula as a unified whole from a bounding and boundary perspective, seeing Korea in its entirety as a borderland space. This approach expands their field of engagement to include not just Koreas’ northern or southern boundaries, but conceivably the seas surrounding it and those unresolved temporal boundaries and boundings, left not simply by the Korean and Cold Wars, but by the fractures and wounds of colonialism and imposed modernity in a wider East Asian context. These issues, no doubt, will be further explored by a follow-up Sino-NK panel appearance in December, 2014 at the Asian Borderland Research Network’s Fourth Conference “Activated Borders: Re-openings, Ruptures and Relationships” held at the City University of Hong Kong.

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