A Roundtable Review of Hyun Ok Park’s The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

By | March 07, 2016 | No Comments

The Tumen-Namyang bridge, during a frigid winter day. | Image: Sino-NK

The Tumen-Namyang bridge on a frigid winter day. | Image: Sino-NK

As an indictment of the current world order, Hyun Ok Park’s The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea is an ambitious and far-reaching work. Engaging its readers in the latest postcolonial critiques and Marxist theories, Park deconstructs democratic politics of the post-Cold War era, laying bare triumphalist discourses on reparation, peace, and human rights. Placing the spotlight squarely on migrant laborers as “the protagonists of transnational Korea,” Park shows how identity politics and lofty notions of cosmopolitanism mask difficult social relations in the era of neo-liberal capitalism.

The book’s empirical foundation rests upon years of ethnographic observations, archival research, and notes from the field. It puts substance on the theoretical bone. The ambitious geographic and temporal scope of the book will doubtless frustrate some, and the alternative — some kind of post-capitalist order — might not impress. But, then again, this is not an effort to “fill a gap” in the literature so much as the birth of a new genre or category of analysis of Korea’s place in Northeast Asia. It is thus with great interest that Sino-NK’s roundtable reviewers engaged the work. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

A Roundtable Review of Hyun Ok Park’s The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

by Sino-NK

Park, Hyun Ok. The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea. Columbia University Press, 2015. 400 pp. 9780231171922


Table of Contents
(Names link to reviews)

I. Andre Schmid, “The Unconscious Explained: Review of Hyun Ok Park’s The Capitalist Unconscious”

II. Steven Denney, “Going Beyond Cosmopolitanism: Park Hyun Ok’s Critique of Identity Politics in Contemporary South Korea”

III. Christopher Green, “Capital and Crisis: No Time to Waste”

IV. Adam Cathcart, “Hyun Ok Park’s History of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian”

V. Robert Winstanley-Chesters, “From Hiroshima to Seoul”

At the Dandong railroad station, gateway to North Korea. If North and South Korea are indeed unified in a transnational form by capital, this city facilitated the unification. | Image: Matthew Bates/Sino-NK

At the Dandong railroad station, gateway to North Korea. If North and South Korea are indeed unified in a transnational form by capital, this city facilitated the unification. | Image: Matthew Bates/Sino-NK

 The Unconscious Explained: Review of Hyun Ok Park’s The Capitalist Unconscious

by Andre Schmid (University of Toronto) 

The Capitalist Unconscious will leave readers raising their eyebrows in marvel, frowning in frustration, and scratching their head in wonderment. Hyun Ok Park has written a book that will change the way many think about Northeast Asia, both past and present.

At the core of the book lies the key challenge remaining from the Cold War for the region: the division of the Korean peninsula. For everyone invested emotionally or professionally in the politics of reunification, Park has a little surprise, which she reveals in the first clause of the book’s first sentence. “Korea,” she tells us, “is already unified.” (p. ix)

At first glance, this suggestion appears absurd. For anyone who has visited that most militarized of demilitarized zones, watched the weeping families reunited by the Red Cross, or listened to the shifting but ever constant rhetoric in Seoul and Pyongyang about the need for future reunification, these four words beg the question: how could anyone possibly suggest that anything other than division captures the current predicament of the peninsula?

Park’s answer relies on the novel way she defines unity, or as she explains in the remainder of that first sentence, “Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital.” The book is a sweeping and audacious effort to unpack just what she means by these last six words. It is quite a story.

Park would no doubt be displeased with my invocation of these hoary Cold War images of division. For these are her bugaboos, from which she wants to rescue us. Indeed, Park challenges our penchant to understand reunification as a territorial problem, one of bringing back together two separated territories. To the now all-too-common claim that “the Korean peninsula remains frozen in the Cold War,” Park might reply, “Nonsense – too much has been changing but simply not recognized because of that very style of Cold War thinking.”

At the time when Northeast Asia is experiencing a historical transformation that is bringing Koreans closer together in the labor and capital relations of a growing market economy, Park tell us this emphasis on space and sovereignty for thinking about unification is a type of misdirection. Instead, she contends that Koreans in the north and south as well as diasporic Korean in China have never before been so deeply intertwined in complex social, economic, and ideological ties. That which now binds them is what she calls a “capitalist consensus,” arising out of simultaneous economic crises in all three locations of her study.

Park’s extended critique of Cold War approaches rests on a historical sociology of the transformations of labor – or, more precisely, the movement of labor throughout Northeast Asia. This is the transnational in the Capitalist Unconscious, which Park traces through the life stories of a wide range of migrant laborers as they move in a “cascading hierarchy” from North Korea into China and, in turn, from China to South Korea, always linked by a flow of capital invested in and extracted from their labor. Park allocates separate sections to each segment of these flows – subjects which have been covered by other researchers, often in much more extended, book-length treatment. Yet the power of Park’s argument lies precisely in the fact that she rises above any one location, bringing multiple sites together as a single field of analysis to show how each of these places are simultaneously undergoing massive disruptions that serve to bring them more tightly entwined. Although the book includes new empirical information – interviews, statistics and the like – its strength lies more in rethinking and reinterpreting what we have already been coming to learn over the last fifteen years.

No where is this more true that in the chapters on North Korea – the lowest rung on Park’s hierarchy, yet, arguably, the most significant section of the book. By now it has become standard in most current accounts of changes in the DPRK to trace the rise of markets back to the famines of the early 1990s. While analysts might disagree how much of this shift was due to deliberate state policy or how much changes in state policy were forced by the crises, most observers rest their analysis on a series of assumptions – what Park calls a “market utopia” – that the growth of market forces are necessarily antagonistic to the North Korean state.

Not so quick, Park warns us. Instead, she offers a longer history, reaching back to the 1950s. Noting that material incentives had always been part of the economic strategy of the construction of socialism, Park argues that the changes of the 1990s were in themselves not as radically new as is generally assumed but must be seen as “embedded” in a longer history of the DPRK’s economic policies. It’s at this point in her argument that Park’s turn to theoretical Marxism is most helpful, in particular her use of a long tradition of leftist critiques of state capitalism. Some will feel uneasy with discussions of theorists as diverse as Rosa Luxemburg and Jodi Dean, or the author’s treatment of the general theory of value. Yet Park shows the worth of all her efforts because ultimately her approach enables her to reach a crucial point: North Korea has long been obsessed with maximizing worker productivity and differential wages structures and bonus systems have been regularly mobilized to this end. Labor, in short, has always been commodified in the north, as it has been in the south. On this point, Park offers a theoretical argument rather than an empirical one, which leaves room to debate the extent of change and continuity over these years, yet there’s little doubt of her main point that a variety of incentives used in the past in an effort to maximize the value extracted from labor acted as a precursor to the reforms of 1990s.

For Pyongyang watchers – who are by no means Park’s targeted audience – there is a significant lesson that arises out of the arguments in The Capitalist Unconscious. By questioning liberal orthodoxies about the mutually antagonistic relationship of markets and states, Park is telling us to be careful in assuming that the growth of markets in the north will necessarily undermine the state. Given that the South Korean experience in 1987 is often the star model in civil society-style arguments about democratic “transitions,” Park is cautioning against such simplistic, triumphalist formulations being extended northwards. Instead, she suggests that we should be realizing that markets are highly adaptable to diverse political regimes.

Read conversely, the North Korea state has long incorporated markets into its governing strategy – which is a ‘’blend of socialist and capitalist elements” (p. 248) that we have failed to recognize because of our own Cold War ideologies have always represented North Korea as socialist and, thus, different.

Although Park does not quite go so far as to suggest that recent market growth might, in fact, strengthen the state, this is one of the obvious implications of her research. Thus, as much as her “capitalist consensus” allows for a high degree of unevenness in the hierarchical relationship between the north, China, and the south, it is the interlinkage of capitalist forces through the flows of labor that brings not only unity to her analysis but also of her opening statement, “Korea is already unified.” In this sense, Park’s emphasis on the parallels between the north and the south can be seen in the context of a growing body of Cold War scholarship, starting with Susan Buck-Morss (one of Park’s inspirations) that emphasizes the commonalities across the Cold War divide. Most of this work has been done on Europe and the United States. Park is one of the first to bring this approach fruitfully to Northeast Asia through her focus on the transnational commodification of labor.

“Korea is already unified” is a statement that, however qualified, might appear to be a cause for celebration. Not so for Park. Her work is a despondent one. For pundits of diverse political stripes, reunification has often appeared from at least the 1970s to offer a panacea to the socio-economic and national problems of the south, an imaginary future of possibilities. Capitalist Unconscious is stripped of any such hope. Park’s emphasis on the capitalist consensus and its accompanying market utopia to define unification ultimately leaves unification, with all its triumphant possibilities, as the current problem. This is perhaps not surprising for a work that has reached its conclusion through a commitment to theoretical Marxism. Yet it leaves Park in something of a conundrum, especially given that she hesitates to turn to class politics as a possible solution for the very challenge she outlines.

What is to be done? Not human rights, reparation, and peace movements. All of these are skewered by Park, who sees this “trinity” as doing little more than reinforcing the very capitalist consensus she wishes to critique. Her rather unusual answer is to turn to three individuals, all migrants from North Korea living in China. The vagabond, the manual worker, and the stateless national all give voice to not just a critique of the capitalist present but also the rejection of the two Koreas. Their “disquiet” at the situation in Northeast Asia reads as the author’s own. When Park writes that a certain Mr. Han possesses a sense “of a new temporality that…marks a radical moment of remembering the unrealized dream that once again is commandeered by the capitalist present,” (p. 285) one cannot help but wonder how much the views of the interviewer are blurred with those of interviewee. And just as these three figures struggle to articulate an alternative or a politics that arises out of their critiques, Park is left struggling to move beyond invoking the humanity that arises out of their “momentous critique” and a “struggle for the commons.” Nevertheless, herein Park offers a sliver of hope in a work which otherwise remains a bleak assessment of Northeast Asian futures.

The slenderness of this hope presents something of a danger for the author. For while Park has written one of the most erudite and incisive analyses of the political economic changes shaping the Koreas in Northeast Asia, there will be readers who reject her politics yet accept her conclusions – only with a very different assessment. If, for Park, the words “Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital” represent a lamentable situation, for others these same words hazard being celebrated as the post Cold War triumph of capitalism. While Park positions her analysis as a critique of both the north and south Korean states, for others her emphasis on the dominance of capitalism in all places will be taken as proving precisely that against which she warns us from accepting: the victory of the capitalist south over the socialist north. If for Park, her tracing of the process of labor commodification opens up history, in the eyes of others her analysis threatens to be read as a naturalizing history of capitalism — in other words, a Northeast Asian version of the End of History.

Such interpretations would be regrettable but hardly unexpected. For as Park has shown throughout her book, the capitalist unconscious is above all powerful. And among its powers – whether conscious or not – is the remarkable capacity to recoup and refold criticism back into the ideologies that make it work. Yet, for others actually willing to follow Park on her journey across Northeast Asia, Capitalist Unconscious offers that strangely illicit pleasure of having one’s common assumptions questioned and new historical vistas opened.

Geographic distribution of Korean speakers on the peninsula and in China. | Image: Zorion/Wikicommons

Geographic distribution of Korean speakers on the peninsula and in China. | Image: Zorion/Wikicommons

Going Beyond Cosmopolitanism: Park Hyun Ok’s Critique of Identity Politics in Contemporary South Korea

by Steven Denney

“Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital,” writes Park Hyun Ok in the first sentence of her book The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea. This deceptively simple thesis is captivating, because it is a widely held belief that not only is the Korean peninsula not unified, but that it is headed toward something approximating permanent division (what some may call a “re-bordering”).

But unification isn’t what Park’s latest work is really about. True, the movement of capital and people across borders has had a certain de-territorializing effect, but that’s as true for Korea as it is anywhere else. More than unification, The Capitalist Unconscious is about labor, specifically migrant laborers and their struggle for the right to work and for freedom of movement. This theme runs throughout Park’s hefty tome, but chapter three, “Reparation: On Colonial Returnee,” is one that will speak loudly to those interested in how labor interacts with the politics of post-minjung activism and recent changes in national identity in South Korea.

Passage of the original Overseas Koreans Act (alternatively, the Act of the Immigration and Legal Status of Overseas Koreans; first passed in 1999), a policy crafted with the intention of bringing in overseas capital from the Korean diaspora, made it possible for those who had previously held Korean citizenship and their children (the “past citizenship principle”) to acquire permanent status and opened a path towards naturalization. The state made a conscious effort, according to Park, to avoid the lineage principle, citing international conventions on repatriation which bars principles based on race or ethnicity, i.e., ethnic nationalism. (This is an interesting development for those studying changes in types of Korean nationalism, specifically the grounds upon which the state adopted the past citizenship principle over the lineage principle.)

The act, however, effectively barred those who had emigrated prior to liberation from Japanese colonial rule (approximately fifty percent of the entire diaspora). Subsequent amendments, nominally meant to address the act’s exclusive nature, did little to resolve the exclusion of many ethnic Koreans who were already in South Korea as undocumented workers (predominantly Chinese Koreans). Thus, while they may be ethnically similar to Korean-American or Japanese-Americans and preferred over other foreigners, their national origins separates them from the others. South Koreans consider China to be a developing country and a place from which relatively “cheap and disciplined” labor hails. Herein lies what Park sees as the power of capitalism to affect social relations between ethnic Koreans – a Marxist critique, perhaps, of Seol and Skrentny’s “Ethnic return migration and hierarchical nationhood.”

After a Constitutional Court ruling deemed the act unconstitutional (and in need of revision), a flurry of activism geared toward resolving the Korean-Chinese reparation issue brought to center the debate on reparation and the (ethnic) nation. As told by Park, the Committee for Amending the Overseas Korean Act, an organization lead by Christian reverends and former democracy movement activists (Lim Kwangbin chief among them), campaigned vigorously against “the economic instrumentalization of Korean Chinese.” (p. 84) Drawing from the well spring of ethno-nationalist rhetoric and symbolism, the former protestors-cum democratic activists called upon the South Korean state to fulfill its obligation to take care of all members of the (ethnic) nation. Lim, for instance, rejected “proponents of the principle of past citizenship [who] drew on cosmopolitanism” for lacking “historical consciousness,” arguing instead that “treating tongp’o [ethnic Koreans residing outside of Korea] as any other foreign migrant worker constitutes discrimination against tongp’o…. As an act of rewriting history, the Overseas Korean Act must perform ssikkimgut [a shaman’s cleansing dance], capable of fully cleansing [nation history of] the perturbed relationship between tongp’o and our [South Korean] society.” Employment, “the most important issue,” was not prioritized, notes Park. (p. 86)

And it is on this point – employment – that Park criticizes civil society activists (e.g., Lim) for failing to account for the real struggles of daily life for Chinese Korean migrant workers. Their struggle has more to do with working conditions and dignity in work than lofty notions of righting history’s wrongs or brining together the ethnic nation. In my interview with the author, Park had this to say:

South Korean democracy is in crisis. Since the 1990s, the social movement in South Korea has split into a labor movement and a civil society movement. The book extrapolates the limits of this dual hegemonic movement. On the one hand, the labor movement has focused on defending rights and benefits of unionized workers, while seeking to establish a national labor party. It is too centered on unionized workers to represent migrant workers and precarious domestic Korean workers who are the majority of workers. NGOs have advocated the rights of the discriminated, appealing to the principle of difference. The civil society movement is too focused on identity and culture to unleash attacks on rapidly growing inequality, unemployment, and unfulfilled promises of a welfare-society.

For another committed civil society activist – reverend So Kyongsok – simply permitting the right to freely travel (or work) was insufficient. Reverend So wanted the South Korean state to recognize Chinese Korean migrant workers as dual citizens, calling upon the state to recognize the principle of lineage, thereby channeling the emotional and historically prominent sense of ethnic and pan-Korean nationalism. The reverend mobilized a number of Korean Chinese active in the movement to amend the act to apply for citizenship. After the court rejected this particular appeal, true interests surfaced. In one official letter to the Chinese government cited (in part) by Park, the Korean Chinese who actively participated in So’s campaign had the following to say about their involvement: “All that we wanted is to visit and work freely in South Korea…. Although we have applied for South Korean citizenship, not all of us want South Korean citizenship. In fact, most of us want to return to China. What we really want is to possess the right to choose Chinese or Korean citizenship at our will.” (p. 95)

Some may applaud the state’s abdication of the principle of lineage, arguing that the struggle over migrant laborers’ rights has precipitated a decline of ethnic nationalism (this argument is indeed popular), and that this change is good. Such an observation, however, runs contrary Park’s critique that a decline in ethnic nationalism doesn’t mean a more just or equal society; civic nationalism, cosmopolitanism, or whatever nominally inclusive -ism tends to mask the “capitalist unconscious.” In fact, the nature of social relations in capitalist 21st century South Korean are such that, while ethnicity means less than perhaps it once did, the demands of capital and the shortcomings of South Korea’s underdeveloped welfare state demands immigration (especially of Korean-speaking Chinese and others), but only for a short time and for a very limited, economically instrumental reason: filling a labor shortage. And life for migrants workers (especially those hailing from developing or underdeveloped countries), as studies illuminate, is difficult at best, insufferable at worst. Park reminds us of the enduring value of Marx’s analysis of capitalism: the commodification of labor has an alienating effect, especially on those most vulnerable.

In Mao they trust? Christopher Green is at the forefront in the literature on the use of foreign currency in North Korean markets.

Chinese Yuan | Image: Sino-NK

Capital and Crisis: No Time to Waste

by Christopher Green

Crisis as a driver of social change is scarcely a new idea; Rahm Emanuel was by no means first in line to envision the potential for drastic re-calibration in the aftermath of a major incident. Indeed, the desire to fundamentally alter the status quo appears to transcends partisan politics. Perhaps that is inevitable, for if one didn’t want to change the world, or at least a part of it, why would one go into politics in the first place? The only missing ingredient is the right and proper moment. Put simply, crisis makes manifest the “opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But whereas Emanuel may have envisioned crisis as opening up the political space for powerful elites — acting in all our best interests, no doubt — to remake the world in a positive sense, Park Hyun Ok, with a Marxist historical brief, sees instead a free-floating process of unification of the two Koreas and their Korean-Chinese brethren rising from the ashes of societies reconfigured by the multiple crises of capitalism that beset Northeast Asia in the 1990s. That is, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which did and continues to demand greater labor flexibility from South Korean workers, and the collapse of state distribution in the North in the years immediately preceding it, which triggered a rush for one or other of Albert Hirschman’s exits — to China for some, and to a parallel system of market exchange for most.

Park’s good news is that these contiguous crises mean unification is already here1)It is only the tendency of many to treat the nation-state as the only understandable ordering principle of social life that obscures this stark reality.. When North Koreans cross the Tumen and Yalu rivers, they form part of the “osmosis” of economic migration that is happening more or less everywhere, more or less all the time. Ditto the remittances that flow north from Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea; the tens of thousands of ethnically Korean Chinese who, under a liberal visa regime, flow to the South annually; and all the intermediaries who facilitate these mass capital and human flows. The bad news is that there is seemingly little or no room for transmogrifying the flows of people and capital into a lever for a new mass politics that might, in its turn, alter the way of things in a positive, productive, (counter-)Emanuelian sense. Efforts are made, but the target is slippery, and transnational capital never grants that kind of space; it is an impersonal response to crisis, at best.

Park’s is an exciting, fresh vision. However, the conceptualization is taut, and opens itself up to ready critique. First and foremost, disjuncture rather than unity tends to prevail. Put the book down, look out of the window, and what you will see is a level of integration between the three economies that still depends heavily on contravening the will of state(s) through illegal border crossings of goods and people, not to mention overwhelming economic and political differentials. Transnational capital is powerful, yes, and we would be wise to thank Park for slicing through the demagoguery that hides this indisputable fact behind dominant social discourses about democracy and freedom2)This has always been the benefit conferred by Marxist historical analysis.. Nevertheless, politics also isn’t going anywhere — witness closures of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2013 and 2016. Borders are not wide open, and the majority of North Koreans — most obviously but not exclusively — shall never go across to the other side.

Moreover, while “Transnational Korea” may be a real construct, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, it is far from being one of Ian Lustick’s “ideologically hegemonic” ones. Recent clashes between labor and capital in South Korea highlight the point that labor is not going without a fight, and despite serious doubts over both motivation and competence, politicians and civil society leaders3)Some, like Seoul City’s progressive mayor, Park Won-sun, are both. still debate alternative ways of organizing society — economics with a sociological component, in Bourdeau’s encapsulation — even though their chances of revolutionary change are — and frankly probably should be — slim.

In September 2015, a single toppled truck on the ancient bridge across the Yalu was enough to paralyze legal trade into Sinuiju, and North Koreans who attempt to cross a river to ply trade or make the indirect and perilous leap toward South Korea are increasingly prevented by force from doing so. It is best to view Park’s exceptional vision as lighting the lamps on a possible path, deftly highlighting the notion that apolitical trade and capital flows are in the process of unifying Northeast Asia as an economic entity, irrespective and disrespecting of the political power in the hands of the region’s leaders — elected and unelected alike. But the process is not the done deal that is implied in this work of breadth and ambition.


Chu Dok-hae in a Yanbian Museum | Image: Adam Cathcart

Chu Dok-hae in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture History Museum | Image: Adam Cathcart

Hyun Ok Park’s History of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian

by Adam Cathcart

Paradoxically, scholarship that attempts to explode the frame of the nation-state can be most useful for scholars concerned precisely with what occurs within state boundaries. In the case of The Capitalist Unconsious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea, the ardent drive to reframe the nation results in an exquisitely useful chapter for scholars concerned with the history of ethnic Koreans, or Chosonjok, in eastern Jilin province, whose intellectual forays into neighboring North Korea tend to be fleeting.

Scholarly writings about the experiences of “minority nationalities” during the Cultural Revolution on the frontiers of the PRCs are still relatively few, although growing. Among the best entrants are Kerry Brown’s The Purge of the Inner Mongolian People’s Party, 1967-69 (which originated as a PhD dissertation at Leeds University), and Melvyn Goldstein’s galvanizing 2009 book on Nyemo, a Tibetan county taken over by a charismatic spiritual medium woman, and where the intersection between ethnic nationalism, traditional religion, and Maoism became extraordinarily violent in 1969.

When it comes to viewpoints on the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture during the Cultural Revolution, few works have shed much light; or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that light has been shed from a small number of works which have been rendered dim by virtue of their isolation. An early fieldwork report, “The Effects of the Cultural Revolution on the Korean Minority in Yenpien,” was Setsure Tsurushima’s useful effort to unpack his 1976 fieldwork to the region, but was more geared toward travelogue and institutional history than unpacking the full brunt of how the Cultural Revolution had fallen upon interpersonal relations in the region, much less a cataloging of cadre who had been struggled against. A more recent addition in Korean Studies, published in 2010, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945–1950,” looked forward to the Cultural Revolution via a biographical template of Chu Dok-hae. Dr. Park’s chapter easily surpasses these works, resulting in the most in-depth treatment of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian yet to appear in English, describing the impact that the Maoist revolution had on Korean minorities in China and in the subsequent diaspora.

The formation of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in 1952 is often marked as a defining moment in the Chosonjok as a minzu, or nationality, within the boundaries of the PRC. But, as Park shows, the back story and the tensions within it are more interesting. The designation of Koreans as a “model minority” in China went beyond levels of education; there were revolutionary behaviors and struggles against Japan dating back to the colonial era. As in her previous work, Park is impatient with dominant narratives, and thus moves beyond the historiographically monolithic themes of anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance and the Korean War.

Park focuses on Chu Dok-hae, the secretary of the Party and arguably the most prominent political Chosunjok since 1949. Chu had been at Yenan in the 1930s, was a friend of Zhou Enlai and did much to help the CCP consolidate eastern Jilin province in the late 1940s. He also was a pivotal link for the Central Committee with the Northeast — along with the controversial Gao Gang (the Chinese equivalent of Pak Han-yong, whose purge in Pyongyang preceded Gao’s by a year). From a newly-socialist Yanbian, Chu supported the war effort in Korea, providing Korean interpreters for the Chinese People’s Volunteers in the battlefield and also creating linkages with North Korean institutions like Kim Il Sung University.

A large new permanent museum exhibition for Chu, on the top floor of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region History Museum, mirrors the official histories in Yanbian by emphasizing Chu’s work in the 1940s and 1950s, and leaving his Cultural Revolution trauma out of the frame entirely, since, presumably, everyone local knows what happened anyway, and the notion that foreign visitors need not be bothered with scars caused by the Chinese Communist Party.

To borrow a phrase from Park’s title, there is nothing particularly “unconscious” about the way that Chu Dok-hae was destroyed; the Party which he had helped to build tore him apart. Chu was accused of ethnic nationalism, and finally lost his ability to shape events or soften punishments for Chosunjok accused by Han cadre or Red Guards of having been collaborators with the imperial Japanese or the Kuomintang. Park describes these fissures, but, like Melvyn Goldstein, does not seem interested in recreating binary treatment of ethnic victimization. Indeed, the Cultural Revolution served as a screen for their fellow ethnic Koreans to attack one another, often for colonial-era slights, a point brought out skillfully by Park in her interviews. (pp. 147-149)

Along the way, Park reveals how memories of the Cultural Revolution are lingering (often unconsciously) in South Korea, and discusses the difficulties encountered by ethnic Koreans during the collectivization leading to the Great Leap Forward. She also draws from a large number of official histories and biographies published in the mid-1980s in Yanji or Changchun, a time of relatively greater academic openness. (Fortunately for Sinologists who are not fluent in Korean, most of these materials are also available in Chinese). Some of the newest writing about Chu Dok-hae published in the northeast is not referenced, but this is to be expected in a book of this size and scope. Perhaps the Chinese state representatives will at some point make the full run of Yanbian archives available, or open a few more doors in their extraordinary museum. In the meantime, we all have more reading and re-reading to do, not least of this extraordinary chapter.


General Government Building at Gyeongbokgung, Seoul. The chief administrative building during Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, the structure was demolished upon order by the Kim Young-sam administration in the mid-1990s. | Image: Wikicommons

From Hiroshima to Seoul

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

A month or so before writing this review, I spent an eventful afternoon in Hiroshima, Japan, site of course of one of only two instances of tactical nuclear discharge in human history. I walked to the Atomic Bomb Dome, across the memorial square and rather quickly through the busy museum in the company of a South Korean citizen, for whom the terrible fact of 1945 and the atrocious deaths of so many of the towns citizens at the behest of American military strategy, pointedly and assertively did not atone for the sheer viciousness of Japan’s Imperial crimes against the Korean Peninsula. Hiroshima is ground zero of a memorial industry focused on the promotion of Japanese victimhood, and the abstraction away in part of the militarism of its colonial adventures and the ferocity of the war in the Pacific.

However similar to Auschwitz, another industrial beacon and generator of memory, and its homosexual internees, Hiroshima harbors necessarily and usefully forgotten ghosts in its narratives. Hiroshima was home the day the Enola Gay flew over, to some 20,000 Koreans, working as industrial slaves in its factories and elsewhere, many of whom died and are memorialized in a forlorn piece of architecture to the right of the main square. Those Koreans that survived were soon to be displaced by the collapse of Japanese imperialism back to the Peninsula from whence they came and again to be lost in the fabric of memory until their rediscovery by the utopian politics of a different face and time, namely North Korea who used their memory to extract reparations of a form from the Japanese government. These transnational Koreans trapped in the darkness of historical memory seemed somehow abstract and diffuse in spite of the virulent piquancy of their misfortune. This diffuse however was rapidly displaced in an acupuncture studio later that evening, when the technician, after learning of my academic interests, furtively and somewhat shamefaced, admitted to being a Zainichi Korean, rather than Japanese, but in order both not to puncture the socially and legally acceptable myth of homogeneity, and to cast aspersions on his national loyalties, preferred to keep this a secret from his friends and clientele. Koreans, it seemed, live in a history of shadows and occasional darkness, their potential and lived transnationalities hidden and buried.

Alain Delissen and others recent work on the intriguing backwaters of Korean historicity and historiography, their “Shadow Capital Cities” project lay out a fascinating alternative spatio-history of Korean nationhood. Just as the notion of Korean identity, nationhood and transnational relation is slippery at the individual level, as lost and displaced Koreans in Japan, Russia and the Central Asian republics might attest, Korea’s important and capital cities have some mobility and diffusion about them, as does the space of the geographic Korean nation itself. The present division of the peninsula of course has mean the deployment of innumerable elements and methodologies of contestation surrounding this history and the people involved. However the core notion of contemporary Korean identity, namely that there is one generic Korean ethnicity, divided between two distinct nations and a diaspora is rarely implicated or infiltrated by this slipperiness.

Until of course this ambitious and assertive new piece of work by Hyun Ok Park. Built it seems out of a careers worth of anthropological investigation, exploration, thinking and review, The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea seems to explode nearly every mythology that Korean’s are wont to tell each other and the outside of the world. While the 5,000 years of unbroken homogeneity narrative is perhaps easy to critique for its sheer unfeasibility given the shifting cultural, ethnic, linguistic and politics sands of the geo-region Korea finds itself within, modern South Korea finds itself lumbered with a modernist progressive and positivist narrative akin to those of 19th European Liberalism which were brutalized and traumatized into irrelevance and impossibility by the violence of the European Great War. South Korea has apparently been getting better and better since the collapse of Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship and the final flowering of democracy and political legitimacy in 1987. With the success of the Seoul Olympics, the technological dominance of Chaebol corporations and the cultural victories of K-Pop and Korean BBQ, Korea has won itself a distinct and local place in the twenty-first century world order, a consumer driven, social democratic lightning rod for praise and popularity, an example to others. Seoul can both forget its North Korean neighbor and gerrymander its future, unencumbered by any of the usual fears and carefully articulated exceptions surrounding regime change. Unification will be in and of its own choosing, a moment of nationalist overcoming and endeavor, the fulfillment of historical inevitability.

Hyun Ok Park, has, as the reader might have expected by now, other ideas. Rejecting almost entirely Seoul’s narrative of progress, Park identifies what we might call a narrative of betrayal. Conjoined with the semi-mystical yet determined power of global Capital, South Korea’s politicians, economists, and social movements have harnessed popular energy and desire for progress and development to serve as a vector and carrier signal for that same population’s enslavement and capture by Liberal and Neo-Liberal forces of all kinds. The ruptures of 1987 and 1997 are diminished and diffused by the co-option of the energy of democracy and modernity for the nefarious means and desires of Capital at its most assertive.

Extraordinarily Park articulates a new narrative of the relationship between Capital and nation, in which South Korean progressives are broken by the seemingly unwitting incorporation of the global and regional Korean diaspora into Capital’s fight against labour and social radicalism. In fascinating detail Park tracks the history of South Korean institutional articulation and bureaucratization of Korean nationality (or otherwise), seeing the Liberalizing of immigration, visa and residency law in the 1990s and 2000s as a methodology and technology of work place and social oppression. Korean Chinese or Chosonjok are deployed as a weapon in the arsenal of Capital to drive down wages, lessen working conditions and social rights, break labour organizations and generate neo-liberalism’s preferred social and national status quo of the precariat. The resentments generated by this are clear to see in the uneasy relationships between those who reside in South Korea as South Korean citizens, and those who are ethnically Korean yet for various reasons of history have returned from geographies and temporalities beyond its borders. The insulting and denigratory nature of South Korean discourse towards Koreans who have lived in China, Central Asia, even the United States is familiar of course to all who have seen below the shiny veneer of that discourse, Park however along with this new narrative local to South Korea offers something even more vital within this work which is an extrapolation of her analysis of South Korea’s labour and social relations.

Moving beyond the ground of South Korea, Park conceives of these difficult and sometimes divisive flows of returning or emigrant Koreas as representing something far larger and more impactful to the debate that addresses the Korean Peninsula as a whole. Rather than simply manufacturing a precarious, Neo-Liberal South Korea, Capitalist imperatives have infiltrated and inculcated themselves into the wider Korean diaspora, breaking not only the ideological barriers of the People’s Republic of China and Yanji’s Korean Autonomous Region (from which the Capitalist underclass of the Chosonjok derive), but those of Seoul’s northern neighbor as well. North Korea’s famine period of the early and mid-1990s of course demanded that its citizens adopt new social and structural forms of engagement to ensure their own physical survival. The spread of physical markets in North Korea’s periphery has of course been widely recounted by other scholars, as in a sense has the impact of social marketization on family and other relations at much more basic level. Capital’s imperatives run very deep and assertive when populations are faced with the collapse of the institutional structures which normally mediate and organize them, and works such Sandra Fahy’s recent Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea certainly have attested to this. What has not been analyzed at great depth is the diffusion of these imperatives beyond the Yalu, the Tumen or the DMZ.

Holding these new forms and processes in mind, Park asserts in The Capitalist Unconscious, that Capital’s imperatives have in fact broken the binary system of division between the two Korea’s, uniting both in a tandem flow of necessity and desire. The Korean peninsula through these means is in fact already united, both states essentializing superstructures and defenses broken and laid waste by Capitals’ urgency. Further than this act of negation, the carefully institutionalized and legalized boundaries between Korea(s) proper and its extensive diaspora are themselves diffused. Unification it seems, to Park has already occurred, there will be no grand moment of absorption and triumph by the warriors of freedom however, no victory parade into Kim Il-sung Square, no structured process of forgetting and disintegration. Capital, for Park has cheated the advocates and agitators for regime change of this moment of triumph as the merger of the two Korea’s is already a fact brought about by the collapse of Politics, into bio-politics and the post-political. Further than this though, the collapse of the binary division means that Korea’s unification is a slippage into trans-nationality, as its lost and unwanted diaspora’s come home to roost in Capital’s nest.

There is no doubt that Park’s work is highly contestable: the introductory chapter is an extraordinary, visceral piece of articulate and exciting polemic which will be subject to future extensive debate. Its analysis, linguistic, stylistic and methodological approach will be difficult for some commentators and politics to accept or even consider. But “The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea” is a grand piece of thinking, beyond, outside and around the stultifying, restrictive, artificial box of Korea’s division. One which any reader and this reviewer will be turning to for new ways to contextualize and consider the impact of Capital’s incursions into Korean nationhood either side of its current historiographic divide for perhaps years to come.

Correction: The Capitalist Unconscious was published by Columbia University Press, not Cambridge, as the review originally stated.


1 It is only the tendency of many to treat the nation-state as the only understandable ordering principle of social life that obscures this stark reality.
2 This has always been the benefit conferred by Marxist historical analysis.
3 Some, like Seoul City’s progressive mayor, Park Won-sun, are both.

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