A Roundtable Review of Suk-young Kim’s DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border

By | July 20, 2015 | No Comments

Background image is a 1969 map of the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). | Image: CIA

Background image is a 1969 map of the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). | Image: CIA

The amount of critical and emotional energy expended outside of North Korea on the media event known as “Women Crossing DMZ 2015” should indicate that the barrier between the two Koreas remains as controversial and galvanizing as ever. In approaching the boundary with a scholarly eye, Suk-Young Kim, an associate professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, provides much food for thought. Responses from three scholars follow. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief.

A Roundtable Review of Dr. Suk-young Kim’s DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border

Kim, Suk-young. DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 224 pp. ISBN: 9780231164825.

by Sino-NK

Thus Flows the Han

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Crossing the absurd infrastructural behemoth and dividing line between the two Koreas is as problematic and difficult as ever, and currently virtually impossible for natives of the Korean peninsula. One emotion that citizens, institutions and political cultures of both nations do share surrounding their separation, is intense sorrow, no matter how triumphant the representation of the conflict which created it might be. Division is in many ways acutely painful, felt as such, manifested in commemorative architectures and monumentality as such and held in both private and public memories as such. Yet extraordinarily most research and academic writing on this unfortunate stasis focuses primarily on both the military and ideological conflagrations which resulted in it, and the political and bureaucratic relationality which essentially still sustains and propagates it and which prevents any real movement towards its resolution.

Suk-young Kim’s “DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship on a Divided Peninsula” serves as a frankly quite brave, personal and heartfelt riposte to much of that writing which is generally as sterile and abstract as the environment of the plane in which I write this review. While underlining the ludicrousness and injustice of the division and separation and its crystallization on the 38th parallel, Kim is primarily focused on the real encounter of the division through both attempted, undertaken and longed for crossings of the division, both in conceptual or internalised forms and in its practical, infrastructural physical form. On the 65th anniversary of the war, and nearly the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the Korean Peninsula, which brought with it the extraordinarily bitter pill of division, the separation and separateness of the Korean Peninsula now has a long history to itself and it is intriguing that before delving into the realm of current personal performance and encounter with the division, Kim moves backwards to explore the cultural representations of its earlier years. Investigating early theatric representations of division in Yu Chi-jin’s 1958 play Thus Flows the Han River and Sin Go-song’s Ten Years from the same year but from north of the dividing line, she encounters social productions which are still in the process of learning to live with separation, concerned with its geographies and in Ten Years with familial impact of attempting to cross the newly re-bordered terrain. Later from the filmic output of the peninsula from the 1960s and 1970s in South Korea’s The DMZ and North Korea’s The Fates of Geumhui and Eunhui, Kim suggests a peninsula exploring notions of citizenship, belonging and nationality in the face of continuing, fearful, anxious division.

It seemingly would not be until matters connected to Lim Su-kyung’s fateful and famous attempt at a personal unification on the cusp of the collapse of transnational communism on August 15th, 1989 that journeying across the DMZ is presented by Kim in an example of personal embodiment. Lim’s journey and her optimism it seems was utilised by North Korean narratives as a fracture in South Korea’s “division system.” Lim’s eagerness though seemingly reflecting the deep personal longing for connection across the space of the 38th parallel more generally, still extant some 44 years after the initial political moment of separation. This, for the reviewer opened really the most exciting element of the book, and one which is grounded in personal experience from Kim.

Lim Su-kyung’s journey was between two spaces locked, it seemed, in something of a cultural stasis, not dramatically changed in cultural or psychic ways (other than the impact of the separation), since 1945. In contrast, in the near present when Kim goes searching for a route of connection across the ossified terrain between the two Korea’s, she is doing so as a citizen of country which has undergone radical socio-political changes and structural adjustment during the 1990s and 2000s. Kim encounters border spaces concocted around the dividing line which, while ultimately offering no real passage across the division, are presented as a confusing melange of pained commemoration and consumption focused touristic experience. Spaces like Imjingak Peace Park which while seeking and manifesting an interest in objects which channel the raw authenticity of war time border are equally happy to adopt the role and style of a theme park. Or the briefly opened Geumgang mountain crossing, which in homage to its corporate benefactor appears to have focused on encountering the North Korean other through processes of consumption.

Ultimately of course, despite her previous fascinating exploration of the nature of citizenship on a divided peninsula, Kim, like any South Korean, is not allowed to cross the real border, to break the bounds of the division. While she points out that non-Korean foreigners are allowed to do so on occasion and may visit and encounter North Korea itself, they never really existentially experience the division as an impact on their bodily subjective, as North Korea in reality is as foreign and bordered as South Korea. Kim can it seems not cross as a Korean, in the unified sense, but instead must carry the structures and processes of her South Korean citizenship either as she approaches or crosses the demarcation line. Therefore in this frequently intense book, crushingly the only emotional citizenship she and any contemporary South Korean is allowed to perform is one of silent, pliant consumption. Real border crossing, of the kind her mother so poignantly wishes to perform for the memory of her uncle, will have to wait.

A detained North Korean sailor walks over the DMZ at Panmunjom, July 2015. Image via StimmeKoreas.

A detained North Korean sailor walks over the DMZ at Panmunjom, July 2015. |Image: StimmeKoreas

Border Crossing as a Method

by Shine Choi

Border crossing is a method of making and unmaking the political. Or this is what I as a student of politics took away from reading Suk-young Kim’s DMZ Crossing. Two competing sovereigns have long used the DMZ border, and the sense of separation that it affects, for the top-down purposes of state building and body politics. The author reminds us early in the book that citizenship in both South and North Korea places emphasis on citizens’ duties to the state rather than their rights as citizens. (p. 9) She argues that while Korean cultural productions are not simply mouthpieces for anti-communist or communist state propagandas, Korean citizenships, in North and South, are intimately entangled with state building founded on two diametrically opposed claims to sovereignty that rely on separate Koreas.

The broader insight of the book is that there have always been border crossings as gestures to alternatives, i.e. as a method for reimagining what is possible and the terms of body politics. Here, border crossing is a way of negotiating with one’s immediate surrounding and present–or as the author put it, the terms of one’s citizenship – by crossing over, by moving over and back, by insisting borders are there to be crossed. It is a way of creating alternative terms of longing, belonging, surviving and being in the world by escaping, however momentarily, the hold that both sovereign powers seek to exercise in the language of citizenship. I hope I am not misappropriating the author’s argument when I say the book presents a strong sense that stopping acts of border crossing is unjust: it is a major exercise of (state) power that is wrong not only on humanitarian grounds but also because it impedes alternative realities for the future of the Korean peninsula to emerge. It is holding full realization of citizenship, or what I would call the political, hostage.

What DMZ Crossing illustrates well is the pluralistic nature of border crossing as a method of (un)making the political in cultural practices across time (begins with immediate years following the Korean War and ends in 2000s) and across cultural genres (theatre, film, documentary, war museums, tourism). We get a dense account of how diverse border crossings have been aligned by and disrupted the preferred statist meanings of the paradoxical space that is the DMZ. It also shows that a border like the DMZ, once put in place, becomes a site of emotional, political and cultural investment whose workings are hard to undo. The DMZ has developed a life of its own, and to be more precise, the reality is not a simple case of the state (that imposes) versus the ordinary people (that suffer the imposition). The DMZ has become a site of paradoxical longing, reliving trauma and remembering by citizens and statecrafts sometimes in synchrony, sometimes in discord.

For me DMZ Crossing most powerfully serves as a particularly poignant and painful document of how scholarship on DMZ and North Korea is crucially shaped by borders and unequal freedom to cross them. The author’s border crossing in(to) the Korean peninsula is halted, repeatedly diverted and constrained because she is a South Korean citizen unaffiliated with the state. The author cannot access Panmunjeom, Pyongyang and other cultural spaces in the Northern side that she identifies as important for her study. In Chapter 4 “Borders on Display: Museum Exhibitions” where she faces the no trespassing sign to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in the North, the author asks,

What would it feel like to sit on the revolving stage and be mesmerized by the spectacular visions of victory while an eternally shining red star sees it all from the empyrean? Would I feel embraced by the eternal presence of the Great Leader, or would the critical distance between what I feel and what I am supposed to feel alert me to resist the manipulative indoctrination by the state? (p. 136)

These are curious questions especially since they appear at the end of the chapter after the author presents a seamless recreation of the experience of being over there through secondary sources and experiences. For me, these questions point to the heart of the matter of the book–the pain of being contained and kept out by virtue of one’s stakes in crossing borders. I then read the final chapter, “Nation and Nature Beyond the Borderland” as a release, an alternate routing for deploying border crossing as a method in borderspaces that are open to her as a Korean citizen. The personal turn at the end of the book that recounts a family story brings us back to this pain more intimately.

Thus, I would like to add this book to a growing archive of expressions of indignation by Korean citizens especially in the global climate where mobility is power. To reappropriate the author’s description of DMZ tourism, the book “is about celebrating mobility as much as mourning immobility… is an ambivalent emotional experience predicated on the hopeful “vicarious crossing” and the frustrating impossibility of actual crossing” (p. 148). As an academic document of pain and indignation of being bounded by borders, this book points to the honest and difficult discussions that need to take place, especially between Korean citizen scholars and international scholars, about concrete strategies for more imaginative, prolific, multi-variant border crossings that the sphere of academic research can and must open up.

According to Lankov, a unified Korea with Seoul as the capital is likely to be accepted by China | Photo Courtesy of Korea Report

Seoul’s institutional channel for DMZ crossing. | Image: Korea Report

Vicarious Crossings

by Valérie Gelézeau

In DMZ Crossing, Kim Suk-young considers the Korean border as the stage on which the lasting drama of the division is performed. To achieve this, she examines various types of border-crossers, avoiding to oppose in a binary way border control expressing the State authority and legitimacy on one hand, and, on the other hand, acts of crossing affirming resistance of individuals or groups to that authority. Instead Kim argues that crossers can act as agents of the State, discusses how their emotions are manipulated, and analyzes how “border crossers use their physical bodies and emotions as optimal frontiers to resist the state’s conventional right to define citizenship.” (p. 4)

This program makes the book a welcome addition to the already vast Korean Studies’ scholarship devoted to the border, the division, and its separated families in various other disciplines (mainly anthropology and history), simply because it offers the fresh approach of performance studies. In fact, the book is particularly interesting for being representative of an “emotional turn” in social sciences, which puts affect and emotion (and the body as the primary signifier of those human emotions) at the centre of the perspective.

The five chapters of the book are logically set, each addressing a certain type of border-crossers, with one example from the North, and one from the South. Each chapter introduces a specific medium of capturing border crossing (from theater plays in chapter one to DMZ places of memory in chapter five), laid in chronological order, from the late 1950s to the present.

The first two chapters encounter border crossers in stage plays (Chapter 1: 1958 Ten Years published in Pyongyang and Thus flows the Han River published the same year in Seoul) and movies (1965 South Korean movie The DMZ, and 1975 well-known North Korean movie The fates of Kŭmhui and Ŭnhui). While Kim Suk-young shows that border crossers can also be dramatized as dangerous infiltrators (chapter 1) and not only victims of the partition, she retraces particularly well the making of the separated family paradigm in visual fictions. Drawing on the work of political scientist George Marcus (Sentimental citizen 2005), she argues that (Korean) citizenship appears defined by “intuitive bonding between lost family members–an interesting way to challenge other notions of citizenship relying on political or ethnic criteria.

I particularly liked chapter 3, the beautifully titled “Twice crossing and the price of emotional citizenship,” which focuses on specific types of political border crossers who cross not just once but twice. While the 2003 South Korean documentary Repatriation was not new to me, having it confronted with the 1989 North Korean documentary on Lim Su Kyung The Flower of Unification (a South Korean college student who visited North Korea in 1989) was particularly enlightening, as it allows the reader to measure the distance between emotional display of border crossing by North and South media.

This rigorous construction challenges a secondary structure in two parts, the first one being based on materials that are familiar to a scholar in performance studies (theater plays, films and documentaries), while the second part embarks the reader into the self-staging of the author’s border crossing (“vicarious” at times), and an emotional (auto-)imagination of the border.

In that second part (chapters 4 and 5), the author recounts her own experience of museums and places of memory and how they might be used as similar materials for analyzing the border on stage. I somewhat regretted that these chapters were not situated in the backdrop of existing scholarship on museums, border crossing studies, or tourism in other disciplines.

Chapter 4 in particular will be a bit hard to use, because the author uses obsolete states of the Pyongyang War Museum (조국해방전쟁승리기념관), in reference to disparate sources (a 1973 tourist guide edited in Pyongyang, “several accounts” (p. 133) not more precisely cited, some pictures from tourists found online, etc.). In fact, the museum was entirely renovated in 2013 and reopened precisely on July 23, 2013 as a commemorative gesture to the end of the war. Now, what the visitors face entering the museum is a giant statue of Kim Il Sung obviously created to enhance the resemblance to the new leader Kim Jong Un. And, while museographic techniques show the knowledge of international museums, the border is indeed featured in this new version of the museum (from didactic videos to installations).

Inspite of this issue, in chapter 5, although Kim Suk-young justifies the use of auto-ethnography as a method, the account might have been much more significant if that experience were articulated in regard to other works having elaborated on similar topics (e.g. Christian Park’s anthropological critique of the Kŭmgangsan tour). Moreover, since space is not only a stage of performance, but a much broader social construct, it seems hard to interpret what planners had in mind on the bases of a single journey (the June 25, 2009 trip to Imjingak, a “solemn experience”) and without having considered their voices.

In the end however, it is in this second part where the book, extremely well-written, full of creative power and–indeed!–affect, poses real questions. But not about the Korean border. This book is about other types of border in writing, such as borders between social sciences and literature, or ethnography and (auto)-biography, or academic paper versus fiction or epistolary writing. While a considerable amount of research was devoted in Western academia to a critical approach of ethnographic methodology, current research emerges regarding those new issues (Ivan Jablonka affirming that history is literature (2014), Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan on how to deal with the blurred limits between ethnography and self-staging). Although Kim Suk-young does not explicitly mention this body of research in her book, she clearly argues for other ways to approach scholarly writing.

By offering this skillfully written emotional journey into the division, she indeed manages to advocate for de-bordering academic literature, which is probably why we really all would want to read this book.

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