Yongusil 94: Decoding the Sino-North Korean Borderlands

By , and | July 09, 2018 | No Comments

The Sino-North Korean border at Tumen-Namyang | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Scholars who focus on borders and “borderlands” find their work to be in relatively high public demand at the moment. For a case in point, look no further than Reese Jones, the University of Hawaii-based author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. As the United States is going through another Trump-induced paroxysm of immigration policy changes, controversy, and drama, conscientious readers are looking for writing and approaches that offer the chance to understand the broader dimensions and elements of border controls and find policies that heighten rather than alleviate human suffering.

The Chinese-North Korean border, paradoxically, has in recent years become far less of a symbol of precisely these agonizing issues of migration and citizenship. The focus on the border foremost as a portal for North Korean escapees into China has relented somewhat since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. Simultaneously, the famine of the late 1990s has begun to recede into memory, as a new generation emerges that did not share that collective experience. US and United Nations pressures on China and North Korea on the freedom of movement issue, or the exodus of North Koreans, seem to have abated substantially, even in the wake of a major UN commission report of 2014 which was intended to galvanize change.

Some published narratives of North Korean escapees have even taken a slightly different approach, and fewer readers or authors looking at North Korea seem obsessed with the possibility of North Korean state collapse and its potential impacts in the border area. Pressing human rights concerns have not been forgotten, but the master narrative about the border region tends instead to emphasize China’s relatively high degree of economic engagement with North Korea, and its opposite — namely, the border as the foremost means of the “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions enforcement against the DPRK.

In this context, the editors of Sino-NK have been working with Amsterdam University Press to produce an edited volume which deals with some of these issues and contradictions, bringing migration and economic questions into holistic dialogue. Entitled Decoding the Sino-North Korean Borderlands, we center our analytical focus on the northern frontier of the DPRK and the northeastern edge of China, attempting to do justice to the region in both respective national contexts as well as the unique dynamics that are created when the two come into contact.

AUP press is an excellent fit for us, due to their growing and prestigious series of titles on Asian borderlands. Adding to the attraction of the press was AUP’s commitment to open-access capability, meaning that our work can be read outside of libraries and without navigating onerous paywalls.

Decoding the Sino-North Korean Borderlands? | Capturing the full breadth of interactions, potential, disconnection, and unresolved history in the border region is a high-order goal. As editors, our aim is to use our own experiences and respective disciplinary toolkits to bring together the disparate chapters in this volume, and to reflect and consolidate the wide spectrum of work being done on the region.

As such, several sets of questions bind together the publication. First, about the region and the regional and world order. Namely, has the post-Cold War regional configuration changed both the nature of social relations for peoples in the borderlands and the nature of Sino-DPRK and ROK-DPRK interstate relations, both of which, at least in the context of trade, are conducted across that frontier? Hyun Ok Park’s book The Capitalist Unconscious has, we believe, put forward some provocative questions along these lines, which we intend to explore. Or, contrary to the macro-transformational school of thought, have things remained largely the same, including for North Koreans in the border region whose interaction with markets and other peoples may in fact be long-standing rather than novel?

Second, with respect to refugees and migration. The refugees/migrants making the flight from the DPRK through China constitute a new interstate political development and migratory pattern for peoples of North Korea, but are these developments truly sufficient to reshape the nature of Sino-DPRK social and political relations? Relatedly, how has the movement of people in and through the Chinese frontier region changed the social and national identification of ethnic Koreans living there?

Lastly, how have state and individual priorities changed over time, given the evolution of Sino-North Korea and Sino-South Korea relations? To what extent are our interest and understanding of Sino-DPRK relations and peoples based on a nostalgic for an era of socialist solidarity that never actually existed, and how might we overcome this bias? How divergent from both Chinese and Korean national histories are the post-1945 experiences of the Chosunjok, or Chinese Koreans? The historical element provides our text with a novel and important means, we believe, of achieving something new.

This volume is therefore interdisciplinary, and planned for a 2019 release. It pulls together data, theories, and perspectives from various sources on the region, drawing from multilingual sources and fieldwork to decode the politics of the Sino-DPRK border region. Bringing Sinologist and Koreanist strands into dialogue, it emphasizes the link between theory, methodology and practice in the fields of Chinese and Korean Studies, anthropology, and the social sciences. Lastly, it fosters collaboration and grows the community borne of our efforts here at SinoNK.com to provide meaningful, timely, and rigorous analysis. Watch out for more on this project in the coming months.

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