Yongusil 39: ABS World Borderlands Conference Roundup

By | June 25, 2014 | No Comments

Regular readers will be aware from Yongusil 37 that Sino-NK ran a panel at the recent ABS First World Conference in Joensuu, Finland/St Petersburg, Russia. However, we were far from the only game in town. It was an expansive conference in both scale and disciplinary focus, and while our discussion of the North Korea-China borderlands was no doubt intriguing, it was not the only moment of interest.

First and foremost, there were essential keynotes from Professor Oscar Martinez of the University of Arizona at the beginning and Professor Ansi Paasi of the University of Oulu in Finland at the end. Professor Martinez outlined the methodological development of the field and its formative interactions with lived reality on the border between the United States and Mexico, while Professor Paasi offered theoretical and methodological thoughts for the future. These deeply practical yet scholarly underpinnings of the field, while far from the Korean or East Asian context, provide support for a functional academic approach, something that Borderlands Studies clearly needs, and which Sino-NK longs for in our own work.

Perhaps inevitably, borderlands will always be most intensely studied where there is the greatest degree of intersection, and where the borders are the most liminal, contested, or diffuse. Historically, spaces defined by colonialism and those forming divisions between imagined nation states fit the bill. Climate change and global warming also play a key part.

As such, there is much focus on the Arctic and the un-thawing/re-thawing of borders there driven, in part, by resource concerns. Lassi Heininnen of the University of Lapland, leading a panel on bordering in the rapidly globalizing Arctic, looked at how the region’s importance is increasing and, facing the vagaries of globalization, how it is suddenly in need of bordering. Heather Nicol of Trent University, Canada and Doretheu Cambou of the Vriej Universitiet Bruxelles both gave empirically grounded accounts of state institutions and bureaucratic engagement with accessible spaces in northern Canada. Specialists in post-liberation Korean political formation could benefit from considering these spaces of institutional vacuum, and the forces and bureaucracies that try to fill them.

While Africa and its liminal borders was present in presentations from David Coplan at the University of the Witwaterstrand in South Africa and Julie Macarthur at the University of British Columbia, new colonization by capital and post-communism was more apparent (one could characterize Arctic frontiers within this group, too). Given that it is the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wider Warsaw Pact and World Communism that has provided the largest contemporary geographic space for such colonization, it was unsurprising that a multitude of panels and papers addressed the reality of those spaces and problematized their various aspects.

However, it was not simple descriptions of borders redrawn and institutions recreated that provided food for thought in the Korean context. Much more came from the diffuse and intangible elements of bordering that were on display. North Korea functions through a lens of charismatic, theatrical politics, and the conflicts and conflagrations that have beset and consumed it over 70 years are envisaged in radically different ways inside, across, and beyond its borders. Panels encountering the task of memorializing post-Cold War or difficult and now inconvenient older nationalisms seemed specifically relevant.

In particular, the panel “Memory Politics in the Post Soviet Borderlands” laid out a number of the intriguing and little understood impacts of the radical re-bordering that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Elena Nikiforova of the Center for Independent Social Research in St Petersburg offered an analysis of memorialization of the Red Army across and beyond its former territory, including acute discomfort and disapproval in Talinn, Estonia, while Bjarge Schwenke Fors of the Barents Institute demonstrated an oppositional sense of gratitude and remembrance in Kirkenes, Norway. For those encountering North Korea and its southern and Sinitic borderlands, as well as the political form redolent in between, one so reliant on narrative, memory and memorialization, this is one of the most useful frames through which to imagine post-bordering or post re-bordering situations. Just as North Korea’s current borders are spaces of flow, transfer and breach as much as stasis, restriction and opacity, one day they will be memorialized and/or forgotten spaces of contest. In our role as academics investigating the present borders of North Korea, a fruitful endeavour may be, as demonstrated by this fascinating ABS World Conference, to prepare for the imagined and real spaces of the future.

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