Mentors: Whitney Leeson, Professor of Anthropology; Stella Yingzi Xu, Associate Professor of History
Students: Anna Mari Ford, Brittney Ann Rowe, Carolyn Marie Marciniec, Phantesa Omenza Cri Amote Ingram, and Emily Costello
Strangers in Their Imagined Motherland: North Korean Refugees in South Korea
The refugee issue has become one of the most serious global challenges of the past few decades. In the case of South Korea, refugees arrive mainly from North Korea. Prior to the 1990s, North Korean refugees fleeing south typically came intermittently and in small numbers; only in the mid-1990s did the number of North Korean refugees seeking asylum in South Korea start to rise significantly. Currently, over 30,000 North Koreans live in South Korea.
North Korean defectors share common issues and challenges with refugees in other countries; however, historical circumstances have created unusual aspects applicable only to them. One particular difficulty for North Korean refugees adjusting to South Korean society is the prevailing belief that since South and North Koreans share common ancestry and cultural heritage, they should adjust more quickly and easily to their new circumstances. Decades of ideological propaganda and a virtual block on communication between the two populations have created a wide gap in lifestyle, values, sensibilities, and even language. North Korean refugees have encountered all sorts of barriers in South Korea, a land they previously considered part of their motherland. In many ways, the culture shock they experience when finally encountering real people and real life in South Korea is worse than expected, simply because they do not anticipate it. North Korean refugees are often frustrated because South Koreans treat them as newcomers, eternal outsiders, and occasionally as potential spies maliciously determined to undermine South Korean society’s stability and prosperity.
This collaborative research project addresses various aspects of the refugee experience in South Korea to understand the reasons and factors making resettlement in, and adjustment to, South Korean society difficult for North Koreans. Our participating students come from various academic backgrounds and will use their interdisciplinary training to conduct effective research on these issues. Two students are examining the alternative school system created for North Korean refugees; two are tracing the changing images and representation of North Koreans in South Korean films and television; one is analyzing the ways in which marriages of South Korean men and North Korean women differ from those of couples sharing a South Korean cultural background; and one is working on the role of NGOs like LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) in helping North Korean refugees assimilate.
While in South Korea, we will work closely with faculty and students from the Department of North Korean Studies at Ewha Women’s University (our exchange college in South Korea). We will visit the Ministry of Unification, various alternative schools for North Korean refugees, and NGO administrative offices. Students will hone a number of important skills in conducting field research, analyzing data, and disseminating their findings via formal research papers and reports, video and social media content, and public presentations to other students, civic organizations, and the local community. Students will also present at academic conferences (ASIANetwork annual conference 2019) not only to share information but also to gain confidence in their public speaking abilities.