A Model(led) Minority: Socioeconomics Transforming Korean Diasporic Identities in China, Japan, and Germany

By | November 19, 2021 | No Comments

A function of its colonial origins, Korea’s century-old focus on ethnicity as a, if not the, core component of what it means to “be Korean” carries within it a logic whereby diasporic Korean communities around the world all ought to share identit(ies) with their ethnic kin living on the peninsula. After all, “blood is blood.” And certainly, while it is also demonstrably hierarchical — giving preference to some diasporic Koreans over others, with a focus on wealth, status, and cultural similarity — Korea’s visa systems and citizenship laws serve in many ways to reify this logic. 

However, the notion of shared ethnic Korean identities is complicated, even as a rule of thumb. The logic of ethnic nationalism, which holds that Koreaness is ascribed at birth, is a powerful idea and useful concept, but it has limits. It does not always align with how states define people or how individuals understand themselves. Indeed, decades spent in third countries have led diasporic communities in radically different directions, driven by factors that are more immediately impactful on people’s lives than bloodline. In a previous essay published on Sino-NK, Bella Didigova explored related issues with reference to a pair of Koryoin sibling YouTubers. Here, in a new piece, Leiden University BA Chinese Studies and MA Asian Studies graduate Victor de Valk takes a break from interning at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael to consider the impact of socioeconomics on identity formation across three countries. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

A Model(led) Minority: Socioeconomics Transforming Korean Diasporic Identities in China, Japan, and Germany

by Victor de Valk

Moving Out and Settling In | One could argue that contemporary, large-scale Korean outward migration was initiated with the Joseonjok-to-be’s traversal of the Sino-Joseon border in the latter half of the 19th century.1)李光奎 [Li Guangkui,], 在中韓人: 人類學的 接近. 初版 [People in China and Korea: Anthropological Approach], 서울 特別市: 一潮閣, 1994, 17-18. Although this migratory flow started with a mere trickle, the Korean peninsula’s compounding unfavorable agricultural, political, and socioeconomic circumstances resulted in an ever-increasing number of people bidding the country farewell for greener pastures elsewhere. As such, the quantity of Korean outward migration increasing exponentially throughout the early-to-mid 20th century.

This pattern of foreign resettlement and the consequent birth of ethnic2)The term “ethnic” is used to refer to “those who share biological, or imagined, descent and a certain degree of culture,” see: Bumsoo Kim, “Bringing Class Back In: The Changing Basis of Inequality and the Korean Minority in Japan,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31, no. 5 (2008): 871-898, 894. Koreans beyond the Korean peninsula gave rise to several sizeable Korean communities all around the globe – also known as “diasporas” – several of which have been rather successful socioeconomically. As a matter of fact, many ethnic Korean communities have, notwithstanding challenges, achieved virtual socioeconomic parity with the ethnic majority population of their respective new home countries. These communities include the ethnic Korean diasporas in China, Japan, and Germany, all of which will be explored in this article.3)For a more detailed account of these communities’ socioeconomic history and identificatory transformations, please refer to the longer essay linked here.

While these groups are often thought of as simply and inherently Korean – for instance in the sense of a monolithic (and arguably problematic) “model minority” – the ways in which the communities’ members identify themselves are nowhere near as cut and dried. In fact, the aforementioned socioeconomic developments have played a rather significant role in identity formation within these Korean diasporas.

“The Baichuan community wishes the fatherland a better tomorrow and a more glorious future” | Source: Yanji News [延吉新闻]. “白川社区唱响《我和我的祖国》献礼建国70周年.” 延吉新闻网, July 15, 2019.

“Rising Tides:” the Zainichi and the Joseonjok | Take the Zainichi, the ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Although the majority of those who comprise this group arrived in the early 20th century, their employment in the formal Japanese economy was only normalized roughly half a century thereafter. Whereas the Zainichi were previously treated as a differentiated, second-class populace and consistently exploited as contingent labor4)Ken Kawashima, The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan. Asia-Pacific (Duke University Press, 2009), 12., the Japanese labor shortage of the 1960s meant that Japanese employers had little choice but to employ all potential workers at hand; this included many Zainichi.

This development resulted in a major identificatory shift amongst these Zainichi: whereas the group previously exhibited a pervasive identity of essentialized Koreanness, many suddenly embraced identities which incorporated significant elements commonly attributed to the Japanese majority as idiosyncratic identifiers. As the Zainichi’s socioeconomic status was no longer tied to their ethnic origin, the importance of their Korean ethnicity diminished sharply. This resulted in the manifestation of individualized, chimeric Korean-Japanese identities.5)David Chapman, “The Third Way and Beyond: Zainichi Korean Identity and the Politics of Belonging,” Japanese Studies 24, no. 1 (2004): 29-44, 38-39.

Many members of China’s ethnic Korean community, the Joseonjok, also display a socioeconomically contingent relationship vis-à-vis their personal identities. For those who are engaged in the ethnically Korean enclave economy, a hybrid yet mostly Korean-based identity presents itself as an asset. Others, who perceive socioeconomic opportunity in South Korea, might choose to emphasize their ethnic Korean side; this was a particularly common phenomenon in the late 1980s and early 1990s.6)Yihua Hong, Changzoo Song, and Julie Park, “Korean, Chinese, or What? Identity Transformations of Joseonjok (Korean Chinese) Migrant Brides in South Korea,” Asian Ethnicity 14, no. 1 (2013): 29-51, 35.

However, such Koreanized identities seem to be of little value to many younger Joseonjok. Instead, it is currently China’s own economic growth which is perceived to offer the greatest, most accessible opportunities for socioeconomic advancement by many Joseonjok in their 20s and 30s. As one can anticipate, many of these younger Joseonjok who seek to participate in China’s urban economy decide to adopt correspondingly Sinicized identities.7)Hyejin Kim, International Ethnic Networks and Intra-ethnic Conflict: Koreans in China. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 45-46. Sino-NK editors, Steven Denney and Christopher Green, also write about the changes to Korean Chiense identity based on their fieldwork. While some might still decide to emphasize their ethnic identity in accordance with their own unique, personal circumstances, the process of Sinicization appears to be the most dominant force in Joseonjok identity formation today.

Migrant South Korean nurse (left) and miner (right) sharing a picnic in an unspecified West German park in the film “Ode to my Father” [국제시장]. | Source: Wikicommons

Autobahn-Worthy: the German-Koreans’ Fast-Tracked Identity Transformation | Whereas the Joseonjok and Zainichi communities have both experienced rather turbulent collective histories, one could say the opposite is true of the ethnic Koreans in Germany.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the West German government sought to bring in South Korean women and men to work as nurses and miners respectively, which was done in order to address two pressing labor shortages throttling the economy. This meant that, unlike with the aforementioned Chinese and Japanese cases, the South Koreans in West Germany were immediately engaged in the formal, nationally integrated economy.

In a sense, this encouraged a dynamic similar to that experienced by the Zainichi during those very same decades; since a Korean identity was of no particular value within their new home’s formal economy, the socioeconomic importance of the individual’s ethnic identity was significantly reduced.

Moreover, South Korean migration to West Germany was generally of a voluntary nature; the vast majority of those who decided to sojourn in West Germany did so because this presented a greater socioeconomic opportunity than was – in their view – available to them in South Korea.8)Helen Kim, “Making homes here and away: Korean German nurses and practices of diasporic belonging,” Journal of Cultural Geography 36, no. 3 (2019): 251-270, 251. This was arguably even more so the case for those who decided to stay in West Germany beyond the previously allotted timeframe of three years.9)Subject to extension, but ultimately finite by design; it was a fierce political campaign which resulted in the possibility of naturalization for South Koreans in West Germany. In combination with the stable nature of the Koreans’ West German employment, this meant that those who did decide to leave for West Germany – and to eventually remain there – perceived themselves to be better off in West Germany than they would have been in South Korea. All of these factors together paved the way for the adoption of German identificatory elements and eventually even German-based identities amongst ethnic Koreans in the Bundesrepublik.

Identity transformations as a result of socioeconomic advancement were particularly noticeable among the group’s nurses, many of whom led the charge in incorporating their new environment into their identity, and subsequently identifying with West German society at large. For the nurses in particular, this identity transformation included the adoption of a completely reformed perspective on gender.10)Suin Roberts, “Writing Zuhause: identity construction of the Korean-German,” Asian Women 26, no. 4 (2010): 27-59, 45.

The miners, on the contrary, were not as quick to adopt German-based identities, and thus personally identify with West Germany. This discrepancy coincides with the fact that the miners were not afforded nearly as many socioeconomic opportunities as the nurses, in accordance with the two professions’ differentiated barriers of entry and thus differences in societally perceived communal and economic value.11)유정숙 [Yoo Jeong-sook], 독일 속의 한국계 이민자들: 이해관계 대변과 자치조직 연구 [Korean immigrants in Germany: a study of stakeholder representation and self-governing organizations]. Translated by 김인건. 서울 특별시: 당대, 2017, 75. Nowadays, one-and-a-half and second generation German-Koreans have mostly adopted hybridized yet primarily German-based identities, congruent with their opportunities in the formal German economy.

Gokōdōri Chūō (御幸通中央) in Osaka’s Ikuno Korea Town (大阪生野コリアタウン), Japan. | Source: Wikicommons

Age and Identity on the Individual Level | Since the process is based entirely on personal circumstances, it is unfair to argue pars pro toto. After all, the aforementioned “parity” should not be construed to mean “equality;” rather, it implies socioeconomic stratification in the image of the native majority population, and thus the convergence of socioeconomic inequality among and between groups. This socioeconomic diversification has also given rise to many new, personal identities, including those characterized by reinvented essentialism and post-diasporic chimerism, all of which coexist and draw on first-hand experiences and imagined communities in ever-evolving ways.

One interesting form of stratification is the differences in identity by age: whereas the majority of younger ethnic Koreans in China, Japan, and Germany adopt primarily state- or territory-based identities (that which we might say is derived of a civic nationalism), older members of these Korean communities are more likely to display an identity which still emphasizes their ethnicity.12)The definition of “older” depends on the community discussed; for instance, the current wave of Joseonjok Sinicization is a significantly more recent phenomenon than the adoption of German-based identities amongst ethnic Koreans in (West) Germany. For the Joseonjok, the cut-off could be argued to be as young as forty years old, whereas for the German Koreans it appears to be around the mid-fifties. This partially coincides with their limited need for a state-based identity for socioeconomic purposes; take, for instance, the middle-aged Joseonjok’s relatively high level of involvement in the ethnic enclave economy when compared to those in their 20s and 30s.

Nevertheless, age does not present a definitive divide. For instance, contemporary young diasporic Koreans who perceive socioeconomic opportunity in South Korea are observed to stake a claim to a Korean-based identity: one which has greater socioeconomic value in South Korea than one based on their nation of birth. Whether this perception of opportunity approaches verisimilitude then defines whether the individual maintains this ethnic identity or whether they decide to reject it.

Expectations, Experiences, and Voluntary Identity Commodification | If the individual is more successful than they would have hypothetically been had they remained in their nation of birth, the perceived value of an ethnicity-based identity is reinforced accordingly. However, if one has cause to believe that the departure for South Korea has resulted in a socioeconomic downgrade of sorts, then the individual is more likely to reject their Korean identity and embrace a national identity associated with their diasporic home.

This process of internal “othering” on the basis of a (perceived) lack of socioeconomic opportunity strongly resembles what happened on a large scale among the Zainichi before the 1960s. Depending on the individual’s circumstances, this issue can be exacerbated through societal exclusion as well as discrimination on the basis of the ethnic return migrant’s origins and poor socioeconomic standing. Whether a member of the Korean diasporas chooses to adopt an essentialized or hybridized identity, it is hard to deny the influence of one’s socioeconomic expectations, perceived opportunities, and lived experiences in this process.13)Other matters of influence include upbringing, family connections, local community ties and ethnic discrimination. While important to keep in mind, the research seems to suggest that these aspects play second fiddle to one’s socioeconomic circumstances.

Then, the relative socioeconomic value of different identities plays a major role in deciding which identity the member of the Korean diaspora decides to adopt; a true “negotiation” of identity, one might say. In other words, their identity is not merely a product of one’s socioeconomic circumstances, but is actively molded by the individual in order to maximize socioeconomic opportunity in accordance with their personal circumstances. This results in many different possible manifestations of identity within the same diasporic community, both between and beyond the national or ethnic. As such, the commodification of identity is not considered problematic per se, as long as the adopted identity presents itself as an asset to the individual.

Indeed, in all investigated Korean diasporas, identity commodification is embraced by the individual if they believe they will benefit from it. However, if one believes their socioeconomic circumstances to be poor and – more importantly static, they are likely to “other” themselves vis-à-vis their country of residence’s ethnic majority or the imagined Korean community, depending on their circumstances (or both, if they happen to find themselves in South Korea). Rather than being passively bestowed with one’s identity, the individual has an active and transformative ownership of their identity.

Conclusion: No Such Thing as a “Fish”14)“Incredible as it may sound, there is no such thing as a ‘fish.’ The concept is merely a convenient umbrella term to describe an aquatic vertebrate that is not a mammal, a turtle, or anything else. […] The relationship between a lamprey and a shark is no closer than that between a salamander and a camel.” See: Keith E. Banister and John Dawes. “Fish, What is a?.” In The Encyclopaedia of Underwater Life.: Oxford University Press, 2005. | Although other factors do play a role in the process of identity formation, socioeconomic conditions explain a surprising amount of tendencies among members of Korean communities around the world. Moreover, the socioeconomic diversification within the Korean communities in China, Japan, and Germany has resulted in a plethora of new identities which are rich in individual complexity; in some cases even moving beyond the spectrum of nationality and ethnicity. With regards to these countries, it is therefore impossible to speak of homogenous Korean diasporas, even in the sense of a supposed “model minority.”

If these developments continue, one could start to question the validity of describing the people of ethnic Korean descent as unified diasporic groups. By critically assessing the validity of the “Korean diaspora” as a concept in the Chinese, Japanese, and German contexts, further research could hopefully elucidate us on whether this is merely a convenient – but ultimately incorrect – umbrella term, or whether the concept retains its supposed value.

Notes

Notes
1 李光奎 [Li Guangkui,], 在中韓人: 人類學的 接近. 初版 [People in China and Korea: Anthropological Approach], 서울 特別市: 一潮閣, 1994, 17-18.
2 The term “ethnic” is used to refer to “those who share biological, or imagined, descent and a certain degree of culture,” see: Bumsoo Kim, “Bringing Class Back In: The Changing Basis of Inequality and the Korean Minority in Japan,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31, no. 5 (2008): 871-898, 894.
3 For a more detailed account of these communities’ socioeconomic history and identificatory transformations, please refer to the longer essay linked here.
4 Ken Kawashima, The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan. Asia-Pacific (Duke University Press, 2009), 12.
5 David Chapman, “The Third Way and Beyond: Zainichi Korean Identity and the Politics of Belonging,” Japanese Studies 24, no. 1 (2004): 29-44, 38-39.
6 Yihua Hong, Changzoo Song, and Julie Park, “Korean, Chinese, or What? Identity Transformations of Joseonjok (Korean Chinese) Migrant Brides in South Korea,” Asian Ethnicity 14, no. 1 (2013): 29-51, 35.
7 Hyejin Kim, International Ethnic Networks and Intra-ethnic Conflict: Koreans in China. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 45-46. Sino-NK editors, Steven Denney and Christopher Green, also write about the changes to Korean Chiense identity based on their fieldwork.
8 Helen Kim, “Making homes here and away: Korean German nurses and practices of diasporic belonging,” Journal of Cultural Geography 36, no. 3 (2019): 251-270, 251.
9 Subject to extension, but ultimately finite by design; it was a fierce political campaign which resulted in the possibility of naturalization for South Koreans in West Germany.
10 Suin Roberts, “Writing Zuhause: identity construction of the Korean-German,” Asian Women 26, no. 4 (2010): 27-59, 45.
11 유정숙 [Yoo Jeong-sook], 독일 속의 한국계 이민자들: 이해관계 대변과 자치조직 연구 [Korean immigrants in Germany: a study of stakeholder representation and self-governing organizations]. Translated by 김인건. 서울 특별시: 당대, 2017, 75.
12 The definition of “older” depends on the community discussed; for instance, the current wave of Joseonjok Sinicization is a significantly more recent phenomenon than the adoption of German-based identities amongst ethnic Koreans in (West) Germany. For the Joseonjok, the cut-off could be argued to be as young as forty years old, whereas for the German Koreans it appears to be around the mid-fifties.
13 Other matters of influence include upbringing, family connections, local community ties and ethnic discrimination. While important to keep in mind, the research seems to suggest that these aspects play second fiddle to one’s socioeconomic circumstances.
14 “Incredible as it may sound, there is no such thing as a ‘fish.’ The concept is merely a convenient umbrella term to describe an aquatic vertebrate that is not a mammal, a turtle, or anything else. […] The relationship between a lamprey and a shark is no closer than that between a salamander and a camel.” See: Keith E. Banister and John Dawes. “Fish, What is a?.” In The Encyclopaedia of Underwater Life.: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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