Contested Embrace
Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea
Jaeeun Kim



Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Transborder Ties

When I visited Chin-t’ae’s house in Japan in 2009, two framed photos hung on the living room wall.1 One was a group photo taken with the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung during Chin-t’ae’s 1988 visit to North Korea. Chin-t’ae pointed himself out—a slender, serious-looking man in a dark suit, among twenty-two similarly dressed “fatherland visitors” posing for a picture with the “Great Leader.” The other was a 2006 photo of Chin-t’ae and his wife, taken in their hometown in South Korea. In it, they faced the camera dressed in splendid traditional Korean wedding garments, which gleamed in stark contrast to the gray hair, wrinkled faces, and stooped backs of the two beaming octogenarians.

Chin-t’ae was born in 1923 in Cheju, an island at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. He followed his father to Osaka at the age of fourteen and worked in various manufacturing jobs until the end of the Pacific War in 1945. Although his family members joined the massive repatriation flow back to the Korean peninsula, Chin-t’ae postponed his return, in part because he had heard about the political turmoil sweeping across newly liberated Korea. At that time, he had no inkling that it would be almost seventy years before he could return to his hometown. Chin-t’ae became a supporter of a pro–North Korea organization in Japan, and the South Korean government banned his return, though he managed to send remittances and letters to his family secretly through friends and neighbors.

MAP I.1. Northeast Asia in the late 1930s: Expansion of the Japanese Empire.

When the South Korean consular office finally issued temporary travel permits to Chin-t’ae and his wife in 2006, they visited their parents’ graves in their hometown for the first time in more than seven decades. They also held a long overdue wedding ceremony, commemorated by the photo in the living room, with the blessings of their reunited families.2 After returning to Japan, the couple finally changed the nationality category in their foreigner’s registries from “North” to “South” Korea3 and subsequently applied for South Korean passports. These enabled them to complete the belated registration of their marriage and their children’s and grandchildren’s births in the South Korean family registries (the basic civil registration system in South Korea, implemented initially by the Japanese colonial state).4 While showing me their new passports and family registration documents, Chin-t’ae glanced toward the bedroom, where his ailing wife lay in bed, and said with a quiet smile, “Now that we have these papers that document our marriage, my wife is not going to die a spinster.” He added that, although it was unlikely that his wife would have another chance to visit South Korea with her newly issued South Korean passport, the change in registration would still mean a lot to their sons and daughters: “Having South Korean passports and family registration documents will make it much easier for them to travel overseas and handle family property left in South Korea.”

MAP I.2. Northeast Asia from the early 1950s to the present: Decolonization and the Cold War.

Kil-yong had a different story to tell about a photo of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung when I met him in northeast China in 2009. A fourth-generation Korean migrant, he was born in 1942 in Dunhua, Manchuria (the disputed borderland in northeast China), which had been under Japan’s control since 1932. His family did not join the massive wave of repatriation after the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945. Instead, his father became actively involved in the Chinese civil war as a communist and later became a high-ranking official in the newly minted People’s Republic of China. The government dispatched his father on the official Chinese goodwill mission to North Korea in 1948 to celebrate the establishment of its socialist ally. His father returned from this trip with a photo of himself being greeted by Kim Il-sung, with no way of knowing how that photograph would affect his family in the years to come.

In 1961, Kil-yong, a college dropout, managed to land a job as a teacher at a technical high school in Yanji (the capital city of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, home to the majority of ethnic Koreans in China), and this brought him the privileged city-dweller status.5 Several months later, however, a government directive ordered the closure of his school. This left him unemployed, jeopardized his hard-won city-dweller status, and darkened his future prospects overall. The deepening radicalization of the Communist Party leadership also concerned him; a mocking remark he made about the agricultural collectivization project had been publicly criticized during the Anti-Rightist Movement a few years prior. Encouraged by the rumor that North Korea provided coethnic “returnees” with jobs, higher education, and citizenship, Kil-yong crossed the China–North Korea border one night in January 1962. He and several friends knocked down the Chinese border guards, ran across the bridge between Tumen (China) and Namyang (North Korea), and were welcomed by North Korean border guards at the end of the bridge with a salute: “Welcome to the socialist fatherland!” Although many other Korean Chinese “repatriates” were assigned to factories or mines near the border area, Kil-yong secured a teaching job in a developed port city, Wonsan. He suspected that the photo of his father and Kim Il-sung he showed North Korean officials during the intake interview was helpful.

The photo, however, became a liability after Kil-yong returned to China a few years later at his parents’ tearful request. As the Cultural Revolution threw China into turmoil, the Red Guards accused Kil-yong’s father of having secretly served the “revisionist agenda” of North Korea, and the photo was presented as critical evidence. Kil-yong’s unauthorized venture to North Korea was painted as part of his father’s espionage activities. Because both his father and Kil-yong were labeled “antirevolutionaries,” his family not only lost their city-dweller status but were discriminated against in every aspect of their lives: they were not rationed white rice; their home was not supplied electricity; even their pig, branded an “antirevolutionary pig,” was denied its share of rationed feed! Kil-yong’s younger brothers and sisters were not allowed to join the Communist Youth League—not even if they openly denounced and disowned their father and elder brother. It was ten years before Kil-yong could teach at a school again.

Yŏng-il was born in Heilongjiang in northeast China in 1947, the second son of his first-generation immigrant parents. Unlike Kil-yong’s family, whose settlement in Manchuria dates back to the late nineteenth century, it was as late as 1938 that Yŏng-il’s father left his poverty-stricken hometown at the southwestern end of the Korean peninsula to find work in Japan-occupied Manchuria. He returned to his hometown briefly to marry Yŏng-il’s mother and took her back to Manchuria right after the wedding. When the couple sent a letter to their families in Korea in the spring of 1945, delivering the news of the birth of their first son, they had no idea that the collapse of the Japanese Empire, the occupation of Manchuria by the Soviet army, and the ensuing civil wars in China and Korea would effectively prohibit their return before their deaths in the mid-1980s.

Although Yŏng-il was not highly educated, he managed to join the army and then the Communist Party in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. This helped his career as a rural cadre. But when he first visited South Korea in 1989 in his early forties, Yŏng-il found that peddling Chinese medicines or working at construction sites in South Korea could bring him at least ten times the income he was earning as a low-level government official in China. His South Korean relatives were initially terrified by the unexpected visit of their long-forgotten relative from the “evil” communist country. But they eventually agreed to list him in the family genealogy book and wrote several letters of invitation so that he and his wife could obtain entry visas to South Korea to earn money. The restrictive immigration policies in the early 1990s, however, made it virtually impossible for coethnic migrants from China like Yŏng-il to enter South Korea via legal channels. His elder brother, whose 1944 birth registration remained in the village archive, was able to obtain South Korean citizenship. But Yŏng-il and his younger siblings, whose births remained unregistered in the colonial-era family registries, were not.

It was only through the invitation of his divorced daughter, who had remarried a South Korean man, albeit only on paper for the sake of citizenship, that Yŏng-il and his wife were able to return to South Korea in 1997. Knowing that other opportunities to return would be scarce, the couple overstayed the designated visa term and worked as unauthorized migrants in South Korea for nine years until policy changes finally enabled them to obtain South Korean citizenship in 2006. After recounting his migration history, Yŏng-il proudly showed me his recently obtained South Korean passport and family registration document without my prompting, as Chin-t’ae in Osaka did. Yŏng-il’s son obtained South Korean citizenship as well, I also learned, although he was not interested in settling permanently in South Korea. In fact, by the time I met Yŏng-il, his son was working at a Korean restaurant in Japan without papers to make as much money as possible so that he could start his own business after returning to China. Yŏng-il explained that his son’s newly obtained South Korean citizenship facilitated his migration venture: “Without the South Korean passport, he couldn’t possibly have been exempted from the visa screening process at the Japanese consular office.”

The stories of Chin-t’ae, Kil-yong, and Yŏng-il reveal some of the common experiences of colonial-era ethnic Korean migrants and their descendants in Japan and northeast China. These experiences include a series of border crossings spanning multiple generations, forcible separation from—and neglect or persecution by—their state of origin, and a shifting sense of loyalty and belonging to the multiple states that have claimed these people or to which they’ve laid claim. Each story also describes painstaking efforts of Korean migrants and their descendants to maintain, rebuild, appropriate, or create cross-border family ties amid changing geopolitical and ethnopolitical circumstances. Other common features in their stories are the complex dealings with various official and unofficial documentation practices while attempting (for a range of reasons) to reclaim membership in their putative “homeland.” Contested Embrace is a comparative, historical, and ethnographic study of these complex relationships—as illustrated in the earlier stories—between the states in the Korean peninsula, colonial-era ethnic Korean migrants to Japan and northeast China and their descendants, and the states in which they have resided over the course of the long twentieth century.

The incongruities among territory, citizenry, and nation have long preoccupied scholars in the fields of international migration, nationalism, and citizenship. The primary focus has been the challenges that various types of internal others, such as immigrants or ethnic minorities, pose to the presumed isomorphism among state, society, and culture—the regulatory ideal of the modern nation-state system. Yet over the last decade or so, scholars have shown growing interest in the membership politics engendered by a different configuration of these incongruities, focusing on the relationship between the state and “its” external members. The most attention has been paid to the rise of what is often called emigrant citizenship, expatriate citizenship, or transnational/transborder citizenship,6 which commonly refers to the increasingly strong ties between sending/emigrant states in the South and labor migrant populations and their descendants in the North. As the influence of emigrant populations on the national economy and domestic politics has grown (via remittances, skill transfer, long-distance political participation, or the ethnic lobby targeting the host state), an increasing number of states have sought to maintain and nurture the affiliation and loyalty of emigrant populations and their descendants (to name a few: Mexico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Turkey, and the Philippines), in some cases simply by allowing or promoting dual nationality.7 Researchers have also studied a different type of transborder membership in postcommunist Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Russia, where newly nationalizing states have institutionalized membership statuses for their transborder ethnonational “kin,” who had been separated from their “mother countries” by changes in borders and polities rather than by emigration. For example, the privileged treatment of coethnics in immigration and citizenship policies—which had long been enjoyed by ethnic Germans in Central and Eastern Europe before the policy change in reunited Germany in the early 1990s—is increasingly common throughout Europe, ranging from Hungary’s treatment of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries to Russia’s treatment of Russian-speaking minorities in CIS countries.8 The relationship between states and those who were forcibly displaced and dispersed as a result of political turmoil, ethnoreligious conflicts, or outright civil wars has also gained renewed attention, expanding the hitherto limited usage of the term diaspora to a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups. The complexly evolving economic, political, cultural, and ideological relationships between “diasporas” and their fledgling homeland states have been studied in Armenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Haiti, among other cases.9

I suggest we consider this diverse range of phenomena as different manifestations of transborder membership politics. Transborder membership politics involves political claims, institutionalized practices, and discursive representations oriented to or generated by those who have durably resided outside the territory of the state, yet are perceived as belonging to that state or to the nation associated with that state. I use transborder instead of the more conventional term transnational. The claim that people located outside the territorial jurisdiction of the state nonetheless belong to the same nation—“outside the state but inside the people” (Shain and Barth 2003, 469)—is central to, even constitutive of, this politics.10 The proliferation of transborder forms of membership and belonging in this sense does not adumbrate the transcendence of nationalism or the nation-state system, as claimed by some early observers;11 rather, transborder membership politics in some cases is driven by transborder or long-distance nationalism.12 I also use the term membership rather than citizenship. The former is more useful in encompassing the variegated terms on which the state incorporates transborder populations; granting legal citizenship is only one of these multiple modes of incorporation.13 Finally, not only the movement of people over borders, but also the movement of borders over people can engender transborder configurations.14 Highlighting the historicity of what are now considered “international” borders is an important aspect of the book’s analytic approach.

Contested Embrace analyzes transborder membership politics in and around the Korean peninsula in the colonial, Cold War, and post–Cold War periods. Japan’s occupation of Korea at the turn of the twentieth century set in motion a massive out-migration of the colonial population to the Japanese archipelago (the metropole of the Japanese Empire) and Manchuria (the disputed border region between the Japanese Empire and China).15 By the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, ethnic Koreans in these two regions (over 2 million in each) comprised approximately 15 percent of the entire “Korean” population.16 Postwar repatriation left 0.6 million of these migrants in Japan and 1.2 million in (now communist) China.

The literature on ethnic Koreans in Japan and China has tended to place them squarely within the territorial boundary of postwar Japan or the People’s Republic of China, the seemingly contrasting narratives characterizing the two groups notwithstanding. Studies of ethnic relations in Japan, for instance, have shown how Japan’s transformation from a multiethnic empire to a self-stylized homogeneous nation-state entailed the transformation of its Korean residents from colonial subjects to a hidden ethnic minority that was legally disenfranchised, socially excluded, and culturally assimilated and thus rendered invisible.17 The few existing accounts of Korean Chinese history, by contrast, have uniformly highlighted the progressive integration of this “model minority” into the People’s Republic of China in a teleological and triumphalist fashion.18 Inquiries about the genealogy of Korean ethnic nationalism19 or colonial and postcolonial state building,20 for their part, have limited their analytic focus largely to the Korean peninsula. The massive outward migration that coincided with the rise of Korean nationalism and the uneven incorporation of these transborder Koreans into the colonial and postcolonial state-building processes have been largely missing or mentioned only in passing in these studies.

Contested Embrace breaks with the “methodological nationalism” (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2003) underlying these studies, that is, the prevalent tendency in social sciences to take the current nation-state as a seldom-questioned unit of analysis. I situate ethnic Koreans in Japan and China not simply at the margin of their respective state of settlement but also at the transborder margin of their states of origin, that is, the colonial and postcolonial states in the Korean peninsula.21 Despite a widespread, deeply entrenched and quasi-primordial belief in Korean ethnic nationhood, the embrace of these transborder coethnic populations by the colonial and the two postcolonial states, North and South Korea, has been selective, shifting, and recurrently contested. Contested Embrace explores under what circumstances and by what means the colonial and postcolonial states have sought to claim (or failed to claim) certain transborder populations as “their own,” and how transborder Koreans have themselves shaped the making, unmaking, and remaking of transborder ties as they have sought long-distance membership on their own terms. Building on the emerging constructivist/modernist approach to East Asian nations and nationalisms22 and the culturalist/cognitive turn in recent theorizing on the modern state, Contested Embrace illuminates the political and bureaucratic construction of ethnonational kin populations beyond the territorial boundary of the state.


1. The three ethnographic vignettes that open this book are from my multisited ethnographic research in Korea, Japan, and China. I use pseudonyms for all names cited in the book—except for a few public and historic figures—to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of my research participants. For the romanization of Korean names, see the bibliography.

2. Chin-t’ae and his wife had been together for a long time, but only in their eighties were they allowed to make the marriage “count” in South Korea. See Chapter Two for a full discussion on how the family relations of Koreans in Japan who refused to align with South Korea were complicated by various punitive actions of the South Korean state.

3. Precisely speaking, the original category in Chin-t’ae’s foreigner’s registry, Chōsen, does not mark North Korean nationality. For complex reasons that I discuss in Chapter Two, however, it has often been interpreted as such.

4. See Chapter One for more discussion.

5. The household registration system that divides the population largely into “city-dwellers” and “peasants” has long been one of the most important mechanisms of social stratification in the People’s Republic of China, along with party membership (for example, cadres versus noncadres). See Chapter Three for a further discussion.

6. See Bauböck (1994), Stalker (2000), Fox (2005), Barry (2006), and Fitzgerald (2006).

7. See Basch et al. (1994), Bosniak (2000), Faist (2000), Itzigsohn (2000), Levitt and de la Dehesa (2003), Østergaard-Nielsen (2003), Vertovec (2004), and Gamlen (2008).

8. See Brubaker (1996), King and Melvin (1998), Stewart (2003), Kántor et al. (2004), Atabaki and Mehendale (2005), Parla (2007), and Mylonas (2013).

9. See Cohen (1997), Anderson (1998), Fuglerud (1999), Skrbiŝ (1999), Panossian (2003), Shain and Barth (2003), Glick Schiller (2005), Kleist (2008), Hepner (2009), Bauböck and Faist (2010), and Betts and Jones (2012).

10. This distinction is frequently ignored in many studies of transborder membership politics. For instance, in his review of the literature on “transnational citizenship,” Jonathan Fox (2005, 172) stated that “‘transnational’ will be defined here in commonsense terms as ‘cross border’ (and therefore, technically, ‘trans-state’)” (italics mine). See also Levitt and de la Dehesa (2003) and Levitt and Jaworsky (2007). For a critique of this conceptual conflation, see Waldinger and Fitzgerald (2004).

11. Most representative of this position are Rouse (1991), Clifford (1994), Appadurai (1996), and Ong and Nonini (1997).

12. See Brubaker (1996), Anderson (1998), and Brubaker and Kim (2011).

13. I use citizenship primarily as a legal term, which designates a person’s formal and full state membership status. For the proliferation of the meaning of citizenship in contemporary academia, focusing on a broad range of relations, rights, and benefits entailed by state membership (for example, cultural citizenship, urban citizenship, sexual citizenship, ecological citizenship, and so on), see Joppke (2007).

14. I borrow this formulation from Brubaker (1996).

15. This would be a good place to explain why I exclude other transborder Korean groups, also formed in the first half of the twentieth century (in Hawaìi, the continental United States, Mexico, and maritime Russia), from the book. The emigration ban by the Japanese protectorate government (1905–1910) and the severe restriction on Asian immigration in the Western Hemisphere effectively stopped Korean migration to Hawaìi, the continental United States, and Mexico in 1907, keeping the number of Koreans in these regions at just over 10,000 throughout the first half of the twentieth century (Patterson 1988). The geopolitical conditions in these regions were also considerably different from northeast Asia (see R. Kim 2011), the focus of this book. Maritime Russia was another important migrant destination in northeast Asia, but the Japanese influence was limited, especially after 1937 when Stalin deported all Koreans (estimated at 170,000) to Central Asia. Only a few of the Koreans living there were able to repatriate to North Korea (yet not to South Korea) after the collapse of the Japanese Empire. Furthermore, despite official recognition as one of the Soviet “nationalities,” many later-generation Soviet Koreans largely assimilated culturally and linguistically into other Russian-speaking populations—more so than Korean Chinese did into Chinese-speaking populations; this cultural loss—that is, the lack of “ethnic capital” (Durand and Massey 2010)—hampered post-Soviet Koreans from “returning” en masse to South Korea in search of better opportunities in the post–Cold War era. Generally speaking, Soviet and post-Soviet Koreans have been marginal to transborder membership politics during the Cold War and the post–Cold War periods.

16. I sometimes place “Koreans” in quotes because the construction of this category, which made production of statistics on these populations possible, should be explained rather than taken for granted. Chapter One takes up this task, explicating the legal, bureaucratic, and semantic construction of the category of “Koreans.”

17. See Mitchell (1967), Lee and De Vos (1981), Fukuoka (1993), Hicks (1998), Lie (2001), and Chapman (2008).

18. Most notably, see Chungguk Chosŏn Minjok Palchach’wi Ch’ongsŏ P’yŏnjip Wiwŏnhoe (1992–1994).

19. See Grinker (1998), Em (1999), and Shin (2006).

20. See Cumings (1999), Waldner (1999), Armstrong (2004), Brazinsky (2007), and Kwon and Chung (2012).

21. A few recently published monographs on the national identity formation of different groups of transborder Koreans have begun to recognize the complexity and the importance of transborder Koreans’ relationship to their state of origin in the Korean peninsula. See, for instance, Schmid (2002), H. Park (2005), Morris-Suzuki (2007), Lie (2008), and R. Kim (2011). Contested Embrace builds on these monographs, but it is unique in its temporal-spatial scope, the comparative historical approach it adopts, and its theoretical claims.

22. These include Oguma ([1998] 2014, 2002), Lie (2001, 2004), Schmid (2002), Shin (2006), and Mullaney (2011).