Yongusil 55: Asymmetries and Activation at the Asian Borderlands Research Network

By | December 13, 2014 | No Comments


The Sino-NK team, engrossed in new research by a Seoul colleague, Dr. Kim Sung-kyung (University of North Korean Studies). | Image: Adam Cathcart/Sino-NK

Richard Ottaway MP’s recent outburst of pained indignance at the apparent diplomatic irrelevance of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee in the face of Beijing’s institutional will in Hong Kong serves as a perfect crystallization of the liquidity and liminality of bordered spaces and place identity. Given the Ottaway delegation’s altercation with Beijing, not to mention the recent Occupy Central movement’s challenge to the legitimacy of the post-1997 Hong Kong governance structure, it seems like a piece of magnificent semi-cosmic ordering that the 4th Asian Borderlands Research Network (ABRN) conference should be held on a hillside above Kowloon.

Here upon the sloping campus of City University Hong Kong (a plaque announcing the opening by HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, near its entrance), the ABRN undertook the biannual task of framing, shaping, and recounting the debates, methodological developments, and fieldwork outputs of the epistemological community that takes as its focus the borders, boundaries, and boundings of the Asian continent. Sponsored in part by the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), the conference included strong contributions from most major regions of Asia.

Professor Brantly Womack of the University of Virginia offered a masterful keynote speech, deploying the Republic of China’s island of Quemoy/Kinmen as a representative case of the ebbs and flows of history and historicity in, and upon, a boundary place. Framing tectonic shifts as manifestations of “border asymmetries and unequal gradients,” Womack conceptualized his chosen locale not simply in economic or development terms, but within cultural and temporal frames of early Cold War violence through to the post-1992 era during which the ROC military presence on the island was downgraded. In this way, he urged participants to unpick and unpack the gradients and deterritorializing asymmetries in their own respective places of study.

Sino-NK preemptively heeded Womack’s call, offering a panel investigating the acute asymmetries of the Korean Peninsula and its Sino-Korean borderlands. Entitled “Borderland Activation on the Korean Peninsula: Interdisciplinary Investigation of Bordering and Border Spaces,” there were presentations from Sino-NK analysts Christopher Green, Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Steven Denney, and Adam Cathcart. Benoit Berthelier, a prominent contributor to Sino-NK and expert on North Korean literary culture, took time out from completing a PhD at Yonsei University to play the role of productive discussant, while Byul Ryan-im, Sino-NK’s inaugural Junior Fellow, stepped briefly from the university exam hall to serve capably as Chair.

Quemoy/Kinmen, its past a place of transience and transfer and its modern history one spent on the boundary between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, connects in a real sense to historical narratives of post-coloniality, Socialist modernity, the Cold War, and post-Cold War transition manifest on the Korean Peninsula. Examining issues of governmental and consensus gradient, fiduciary interaction, and exchange, military history and identity formation as well as the utilization of environmental, non-political, non-human spaces and terrains in the creation of governing authority, the Sino-NK panel adopted a multi-valiant, trans-temporal flexibility which sought to equal Professor Womack’s conception of asymmetrics.

Asymmetries, gradients, and cultural/political developments in the post-colonial age tinged many of the papers at the conference: for instance, Michael Eilenburg’s (Aarhus University) encounter with capital accumulation and market gradients in Southeast Asian borderlands; and Srilatha Vallabu’s (of India’s Osmania University) discussion of reinforcing of maritime gradients of governmentality, military capability, and public border crossing around Sri Lanka’s Kachchateevu Islands post-Tamil Tigers, post-civil war. Others (Eric de Maaker of the University of Leiden) probed at the post-colonial geographic asymmetries created by map-making in India’s Garo Hills, or examined the impact on border governmentality and politics brought about by Missionary evangelism in Nagaland (Debojyoti Das of Birkbeck, University of London).

While, of course, we would assert here at Sino-NK that as far as borderland and governmental asymmetries go, those present on the Korean Peninsula are surely of the first order, matters Korean or Sino-Korean were found at the comparative peripheries in Hong Kong. While on occasion the Peninsula and its gradients, difficulties, and historical/temporal flux were dealt with great borderland aplomb–as in the case of Kim Sung-kyung’s (University of North Korean Studies; see photo above) adept assertions of a place for the senses and the gendered within the mix of Sino-Korean/North Korean asymmetries–a pre-requisite for borderland studies and academic approach to bordered or border spaces is the ability or the intention to step outside of the gradient or at least not to re-territorialize or actively assert and further develop asymmetries.

Unfortunately, the final panel of the conference saw just such a capitulation to the asymmetric. Han Hye-in and Lee Shin-cheol, both of Sunkyungkwan University, presented papers on issues (respectively) addressing the documentary evidence for Comfort Women under Japanese colonialism and the integrative process for North Korean defectors to South Korea, papers which were at the very least not conventionally objective in any recognizable sense. In their deployment of the obfuscatory, myopic tropes of a hackneyed academic South Korean Leftist Nationalism and tendencies to tautology, category failure, and self reference, they served, essentially, to counteract the aims and terms of a borderland studies approach. Instead of de-bordering, re-bordering, or un-bordering, the Nationalist core of their approach serves instead to further amplify asymmetries and gradients on an already acutely and distinctly asymmetric territory, bounding, and bonding the authors’ work with a web of its own obscurantist localism.

These frustrations and minor disappointments aside, the ABRN once again produced a stimulating, well organized and ambitious programme, which can only serve to drive on exploration of gradients, asymmetries, and their attendant and representative fields of study. Sino-NK intends to keep unpacking the spaces and places of the Sino-Korean borderland, and hopes to attend the next ABRN conference, in a way quite unrelated to the outbursts of British Members of Parliament.

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