Yongusil 64: Sino-NK, AAS, and the Windy City

By | April 01, 2015 | No Comments

Here at Sino-NK, we often find ourselves traversing the physical, temporal, and political edges and boundaries of East Asian sovereignty and politics. Navigating the transient, liminal spaces of the North Korean and Chinese boundaries is, frankly, sort of “what we do.” Such navigations must surely be familiar to all scholars of the region, for it is not so long ago that Korean studies served as one of the frontier edges of academic endeavour, replete with encounters with the opaque, the confusing and the misunderstood. Thanks to a difficult one and a half centuries in Northeast Asia and the difficult upheavals on the Korean Peninsula in the past seventy years, Korea has been marked internally and externally by its boundary and bounded status; even in 2015, Korean studies cannot be helped but incorporate those sometimes painful encounters.

The empirical lines of Korea’s flight therefore appeared often only on a downwards, irredeemable trajectories at AAS 2015. This could be seen in multiple research frameworks, ranging from University of Pennsylvania Professor Eugene Park and his masterful tracing of the fall and fate through new governmental and sovereign modalities of the Kaesong Wang, to the seemingly never ending Alptraum of separation, rupture, rending, and division painfully still present and further sustained by the “weaponization of narrative” in the forceful work of UC Santa Cruz’s Christine Hong. Others carry conceptions forward into the apocalyptic, dystopian vision of liberal modernity’s icy denouement, such as seen in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a dystopian film carefully dissected by UC Davis’ Kyu Hyun Kim.

Yet, as a major gathering of Asianists from near and far, it would of course not be doing the Association of Asian Studies conference justice if we were to assert that hopefulness was entirely absent. Apart from the natural camaraderie and the often absurd check-by-jowl density of scholarly inspiration (think bumping into Ezra Vogel doing a “selfie” with a fan of his Deng Xiaoping biography), there was much research that suggested new directions and cause for intellectual encouragement. University of Chicago’s Bruce Cumings turned his gaze, not to internal North Korean cultural productions, their frightening context, or threatening implications, but to the photography of Chris Marker, a French photographer and filmmaker who encapsulated seemingly mundane but beautiful moments of North Korean life at the post-war epoch of the mid-1950s while also questioning the on going “party of forgetting” and the corresponding consequence of a perceptually unending Korean War.

The possibilities presented by human and cultural connectivity even at its most fleeting and tenuous were heralded by Sophia University’s Sandra Fahy who presented the case for imagining individual unifications enabled by communications equipment and financial instruments which could only be described as technologies of personal liberation for those deploying them. Fahy’s conception of continued familial interaction across the governmental void of the 38th parallel suggests an emotional salve to the disruptive, unmitigated pain described in her vital new book Marching through Suffering.

Equally, Ole Miss’ Shinhyung Choi’s deep thinking on reconceptualising the division process and the entire binary framework of subject/object relationality and its implications for the permanent marking of North Koreans as the separated other, while perhaps challenging in its operationalization, creates different social/conceptual terrains for reconnection or de/othering. Leiden University’s Koen De Ceuster sought to reconstitute those cultural and artistic boundings, which would have North Korean cultural production both misnomer and impossibility. In a similar vein of recovery, EFEO at Korea University’s Elisabeth Chabanol’s analysis of the Kaesong fortress, Koryo historiography and the joint work there undertaken by North Korean and French scientific authorities presented possibilities for a revitalization of Pyongyang’s empirical landscape.

Practically, Ohio State’s Hyesun Shin, grappled with the potential and practical implications of cultural unification in the present. If building trust means, for instance, playing together as musicians and artists, could Korean’s from either polity demonstrate processes of social cohesion, acceptance and togetherness through acceptance of the outputs of either side’s cultural production–an acceptance that necessarily demands acceptance of the other’s as inherently capable of acculturation. Even esoterically and with a sort of retrospective futurist glare, Stanford University’s Dafna Zur’s encounter with a space bound, science-obsessed North Korean children’s literature of the 1950s and 1960s reveals an optimistic political and social space, untraumatized by division, unwounded by famine, thoughtful and excited by potential.

Perhaps as scholars and analysts, we must think not only outside or beyond the box to recenter the terrain and topography of our encounter, but potentially beyond our temporal and atmospheric fix.

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