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Voices in Exile: Panoptic Perspectives

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on March 26th, 2013

Director Park talks to SBS (Photo credit: vanessa Danielson)

Markus Bell, The Australian National University.

March 22nd marked the final evening of the film event Voices in Exile: Panoptic Perspectives. This event, three months in the making, was the brain-child of Professor Kyungmook Kim of Chukyo university, Japan. Organized by Professor Kim, postgraduate students from the Australian National University and Sydney University, the purpose of the event was to offer the public new ways of understanding a complex and oft-misunderstood subject – North Korea.

Over three nights, in ANU and Sydney venues, audiences were treated to four different films –A Schoolgirl’s Diary, Yodok Stories, The Journal of Musan and Under a Different Sky. The highlight of each evening was undoubtedly the chance for discussion with experts in the field of North Korean studies and Mr. Jungbum Park, the director of the award-winning film The Journal of Musan. In an interview with ANU PhD candidate, Markus Bell, Mr. Park explained:

In The Journal of Musan I tried to depict the hardships faced by many North Koreans in South Korea. The feeling of being a frog trapped at the bottom of a well and the inevitable isolation that many of these individuals suffer from.

Honestly, when I was making this film I was on a very tight budget and focused on creating something that would make an impact on a domestic [Korean] audience. It is a film that depicts poverty and loneliness, but it also is a film of hope, showing that for these people [from North Korea] anything is possible.

In terms of North Koreans living in South Korea, their backgrounds are so different and they are also very different from South Koreans. For a new arrival in South Korea, a period of up to ten years is required for adaptation, during which time education and the acquisition of practical skills is required to ensure effective resettlement in their new home.

Ultimately, this film is about people who are on the margins, who are suffering. North Koreans are not unique in these experiences; handicapped people, minorities and the laboring classes are also people who share in a story of struggle. I hope this movie is understood by the audience as a humanistic film, depicting the confrontation between weak and strong.


Audiences that totaled over 230 people over the three nights were highly receptive to the films screened and Mr. Park’s message of hope, donating over $1600 to the development of the North Korean Transmigration Supporting Association. This NPO, created by Professor Kim and members of the Korean community in Sydney, aims to bring several North Korean migrants living in Seoul, to Sydney to give them the chance to study English. With the first such student already arrived, it seems the grassroots movement for supporting North Koreans is alive and well in Australia. 

Voices in Exile: Panoptic Perspectives, would not have been possible without support from the ANU Korea Institute, The Toyota Foundation, UTS:CCS and the North Korean Transmigration Supporting Association. With any luck, this will be just the first of many such successful collaborations.

VOICES FROM EXILE : Panoptic Perspectives

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on February 11th, 2013

Reflections on Yodok Stories 

Directed by Andrzej Fidyk. Released South Korea 2008

Christopher Richardson

Art and power have an uneasy relationship. Whether now revered, like Michelangelo, or reviled, like Leni Riefenstahl, many of the greatest artists in history created for the glory of Caesar, Pope, King, or Fuhrer. Their works have roused people to worship, or called them to war. Today, most states rely on the tropes of advertising for propaganda, or “public service announcements” as they are usually called; yet the North Koreans are traditionalists. As both General and artist, Kim Jong Il oversaw the production of thousands of films, songs, paintings, and stories. In treatises, such as On The Art of the Cinema, he unashamedly championed the connection between art and power for the advancement of the revolution. Under Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung, artists and performers were elevated like soldiers to heroes of the republic, but only if they adhered to the conventions of the courtly style. In that sense, North Korea resembles the feudal kingdoms of pre-modern Korea more than any of its former Marxist-Leninst allies. Until the recent advent of DVD and USB smuggling, these were the only arts a North Korean could expect to encounter.

Yet for just as long as art has reinforced power, so has it challenged and exposed its ideational hegemony. The South Korean film, The King and the Clown, brilliantly captures how this occurred even under the Chosun Kings. As Hamlet would have it, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” For every artist whose career has advanced under the patronage of power, another risked life and reputation to present alternatives to the narratives of the state, whether through graffiti, subversive songs, paintings, or plays. But in North Korea, where social life is characterized by almost all-prevailing surveillance and control, such examples are rare. As far as we know, there is nothing so grand as a North Korean equivalent to the Belarus Free Theatre. For now, the next best thing is the art of exile, created by those who have left the state behind. Yodok Stories, first staged in 2006, is perhaps the most famous such example.

Even today, the phenomenon of North Korean defection remains rare, rarer still when Yodok Stories entered production. Its genesis was during the era of South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy”, the governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun seeking reconciliation with Pyongyang, sometimes at the expense of defectors who felt their stories marginalized in the name of expediency. In other words, this was a story crying out to be told: a concentration camp, in the early 21st Century, in the heart of East Asia. Although the idea for the musical came from Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Fidyk, its strength comes from the creative participation of so many North Koreans. Yodok Stories is a powerful corrective to the stereotype of defectors as passive victims, or welfare dependent castaways. Behind-the-scenes footage reveals individuals of incredible passion and courage, a far cry from the clichéd image of North Koreans as stunted automatons, waiting to receive orders from above.

Although the bombast, blood and thunder of Yodok Stories might initially seem bizarre, or kitsch, to Western audiences, the musical powerfully evokes the aesthetic of North Korean arts, notably the revolutionary operas The Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. Such operas seek to arouse patriotic emotion, reminding North Koreans of the glory days of revolution, when they defied Japanese occupation and won independence under Kim Il Sung. Yodok Stories drags that aesthetic into the present, showing how bankrupt has become this vision of an idealized past, whilst re-claiming a popular North Korean medium for real lives lived in the present.

Even so, I’ll admit, when I first saw Yodok Stories I was afraid the medium of musical theatre would prove an obstacle to seriousness. Yet Jung Sung San has created something less like The Producers, and more like Les Miserables. Of course, like Les Miserables, one’s ability to connect with the material partially relies upon the ability to accept the reduction of historical memory to archetypes, and personally harrowing experiences to show-tunes. Whether “reduced” is the right word depends entirely upon one’s feelings towards musical theatre in general, and the vexed relationship between art and real-life. Perhaps distilled is a better word. Yet these are complex burdens to place on a musical achieving precisely what it sets out to do, and a documentary that captures a moment in time when the North Korean community in exile started to find its voice. There are more than 24 million North Koreans alive today, and at least as many stories. Both at home and abroad, it is time they were told.

VOICES FROM EXILE : Panoptic Perspectives

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on February 11th, 2013

“The Schoolgirl’s Diary” [Han nyŏhaksaeng-ŭi ilgi]: A synopsis.

(2006, Director: Jang In-hak, 93 min. No subtitles, Explanatory synopsis in English)

Dr. Leonid Petrov.

One of the most recent and successful films produced in North Korea, “The Schoolgirl’s Diary” is an attempt to resolve the growing conflict between selfish individualism and patriotic self-sacrifice. It chronicles a girl’s life through her school years, full of peer pressure and family problems, much the same as it is everywhere in the world.

The main character, Suryon, is an ordinary high school student who dreams about a new apartment. Before making a decision on what to do with herself after finishing school, Suryon analyses her childhood and her parents’ difficult life: her family lives in a rundown house, her mother is suffering from cancer, and her father is a scholar-workaholic who spends days and nights at work. This also affects her relationships with her peers at school.  

An appealing alternative does exist, though, and is emphasised in the film. Suryon’s uncle, for example, represents the emerging group of market traders or business entrepreneurs. He is driven in a company car, brings colourful presents and spends time and money taking children to the amusement park. The families of Suryon’s schoolmates also demonstrate success, as they live in new apartments; bring nice foreign food to school for lunch; and boast of their parents’ achievements.

Naturally, Suryon gets increasingly frustrated with her poor and overworked parents. Her protests may appear naïve and immature but the symptoms reveal a bigger problem. In one scene, where Suryon fights with her younger sister over the quality of her lunchbox food, her blouse and skirt also show aggressive colours – the combination of stars and stripes resembling the US flag. Is this a new vogue in Pyongyang? Many people still argue that Socialism in the USSR was defeated by blue jeans and rock-n-roll music.

Echoing the Russian film Courrier [Kurier] (1986), which struck a chord in Perestroika-stricken Soviet Union, the North Korean Schoolgirl’s Diary employs the convenient method of viewing the grim realities of life through the eyes of a teenager. If something in the film turns out to be politically unpalatable, the immaturity of youth is at fault – not the film director.

At some stage, Suryon begins to believe that her father is a pathetic looser who had never even been photographed next to Kim Jong-il. The irony here is that probably everyone in North Korea has had a chance in their lifetime to be photographed in the company of the ubiquitous Father-Leader. Nevertheless, for the young girl who is longing for fatherly love, this emptiness seems particularly traumatic. Frustrated, Suryon does the unthinkable – she condemns her father and leaves him without saying good-bye. No other North Korean film has gone so far as to show such overtly un-Confucian actions on the screen.

Interestingly, the musical score in the Schoolgirl’s Diary is also about “the father”. When Suryon plays guitar and sings about the Great Marshal-Father, most probably she is thinking about her own paternal figure. This duality, once again, helped the North Korean filmmakers to foster a sense of intimacy between the Leader and the People. An unusual point to note, however, is that the ubiquitous “Song of Kim Jong-il” in this film is redolent of a peaceful lullaby or Christmas carol, missing the typically overwhelming marching rhythm.

Despite the agony of selfish whims, all the characters enjoy a predictably happy ending. Following her father’s career, Suryon is admitted to the prestigious Polytechnic University in Pyongyang [Rikwa Taehak]. Her father also achieves a breakthrough with his experimentation work at the Academy of Sciences and receives universal recognition. Kim Jong-il personally comes to congratulate him at the Kusong Machine Tool Plant, a mammoth enterprise which survived the ordeals of the “Arduous March” and has upgraded its technology base. Added to this, the North Korean doctors cure Suryon’s mother, although the name of Pyongyang Maternity Hospital is not mentioned in the list of sponsors like the University, the Academy and the Tool Plant.

For a cash-starving North Korea, which economises on everything, this film was an instant success. Viewed by some 8 million people in 2006, it received high praise at the international film festivals in Pyongyang and Cannes. A distribution company, ‘Pretty Pictures’, bought the screening rights and released the film in France in 2007. A work of export quality, this film neatly fit a market niche and even took steps towards opening a new dimension to the “Korean Wave” phenomenon.



VOICES FROM EXILE : Panoptic Perspectives

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on February 11th, 2013

The Journal of Musan: Film synopsis

Directed by Park Jung Bum. Released South Korea 2011.

Markus Bell

The Journals of Musan (무산 일기) is a film produced, directed, written and starred in by South Korean director Park Jung Bum (박정범) in 2011. Park has said in interviews that he based the main character, Seung-Chul (성철) on a North Korean friend he met while at university.

The film highlights several important themes concerning the lives of North Korean refugees. Firstly, that arrival in South Korea is not the end of their struggle to find safety and security; Seung-Chul is a character with few friends, no stable employment and few, if any prospects. Secondly, for many North Koreans in the South, connections back home are maintained with information and money sent via brokers in China; Seung-Chul’s friend, Kyung-Chol, has an uncle in China through whom other North Korean refugees send money to their families. Thirdly, that ignorance is at the root of much of the prejudice that exists against North Koreans; throughout the film, South Koreans are portrayed as having little or no understanding of the situation of North Koreans living in South Korea.

For those without an understanding of the complex and highly politicized issues surrounding North Koreans in South Korea, this film may leave them with more questions than answers, perhaps no bad thing. Nevertheless, The Journals of Musan is important in that, for the first time, the South Korean public is offered a window into the lives of a few of the 24,000 North Koreans residing in South Korea, many of whom have been through indescribable hardships to arrive in their new home.

It is my hope that this film represents the beginnings of a new field of work, in scholarly circles, the film industry and beyond, that shed light on the lives of North Korean refugees, and act as a starting point for encouraging mutual understanding between these new arrivals and the host society.


VOICES FROM EXILE : Panoptic Perspectives

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on February 11th, 2013

‘Panoptic Perspectives': A special film event.

March 21st – 22nd, 2013. Sydney.

Cheil Church, Concord and University of Sydney.

˜Panoptic Perspectives is the title of a two-day film event, organized by scholars from institutions in Sydney and Canberra, to be held in venues at Sydney University and Strathfield, Sydney.

˜The purpose of this event is to offer different perspectives on a phenomenon much discussed in the popular media, but rarely considered beyond the singular, highly politicized and bi-polemic story of good and evil, right and wrong – North Korea.

Through the medium of film, and the discussion by guest speakers that will precede and follow each screening, it is hoped the audience will gain a more nuanced understanding of some of the issues surrounding ‘North Korea’ and the North Korean people.

Over two nights, the following three films will be screened:

The Journal of Musan (2011). Directed by Park Jung-Bum

A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2007). Directed by Jang In-hak

Yodok Stories (2008). Directed by  Andrzej Fidyk

Each screening is preceded by a short talk introducing the key themes of the film. Each film will also be followed by a questions and answers session for the benefit of the audience.

Guest speakers include Park Jung Bum, director of The Journal of Musan

Admission (access all screenings):  Student $5     Adult $10

Final Confirmation of University of Sydney and Strathfield venues and screening times coming soon.

For more information please contact:

Kyungmook Kim:

Markus Bell:

This event is made possible by the kind support of the Toyota Foundation, UTS, the ANU Korea Institute, the University of Sydney, and the North Korean Transnational Supporting Association.


Sixth Edition: Concepts of Caste in Contemporary South Korea: The case of North Korean re-migration

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on January 16th, 2013

Markus Bell

The South Korean nation-state has, since its founding in 1948, espoused the bio-political precept of ethnic homogeneity and unity among the globally dispersed Korean diaspora. According to this ideal, Koreans, as one people, enjoy use of a unique mother tongue, a commitment to Confucian values and cultural traditions, a unique diet, and a unique bloodline.[1] Accordingly, South Korea, in its bid to lay claim to being the sole, legitimate heir to some five thousand years of history, granted special rights and privileges to ‘returning brothers’, such as ethnic Koreans who grew up in other countries and North Koreans.[2] Despite this, recent events have consistently highlighted the hollow nature of this rhetoric and scholars have continued to point to a reality for these ‘returnees’ that is marked by anything but cordial feelings from the wider South Korean society.[3]

This article will offer insight into the latest example of what I refer to as ‘failed ethnic familiarity’, highlighting the case of North Korean refugees and the recent phenomenon of onward-migration from South Korea. This article argues that South Korea is a deeply divided country, along class and cultural lines, and the spectre of a past before modernization, as embodied in the recent influx of North Korean refugees, disturbs the hegemonic discourse of the nation-state. In reality, returning Koreans are often relegated to a second-class citizens in a caste-divided society.

Caren Freeman explains, in regards to ethnic Korean-Chinese in Seoul,

[They] were angered by the apparent incongruities between the South Korean government’s rhetoric of blood, kinship, and homecoming on the one hand and the realities of its exclusionary immigration policies and harsh crackdown on migrant labor on the other.[4]

It is the gap between the reality and the ideal that caused the ethnic Korean-Chinese whom Freeman interviewed distress during their time in South Korea, and it is this same incongruity that lies at the heart of the main push factors motivating many North Koreans to leave South Korea in search of improved living conditions.

The ideal, as the hegemonic discourse in South Korea would have us believe, and as touched on above, is that a kind of global, pan-Korean community exists. Whether separated and dispersed through conflict, commerce, adoption or political dissidence, it is proclaimed that Koreans from all over the world have a home in South Korea, the state that has, according to this same rhetoric, inherited the true spirit of the Korean people, as passed down through the ages.[5] In the last 15 or so years, however, as the political system in South Korea stabilized and more ethnic Koreans took the chance to return to a ‘home’ many of them had never seen, it has become clear that many South Koreans regards these returnees as somehow ‘less Korean’ than themselves.

According to the hierarchy of the caste system, as explained to me on numerous occasions by South Koreans and North Koreans alike, Korean-Americans are considered as somewhere near the top of the ethnic ladder, ethnic Koreans from other, predominantly white societies, (Canada, Australia, European nations) slightly below them, while Korean-Japanese exist on the next rung down. They are followed by Korean-Chinese and, at the bottom of the list, North Korean refugees.

Many Korean-studies scholars may point out that the presence of a caste system is far from revelatory news. In a recent article by Gianluca Spezza, he noted that the Chulshin Songbun (출신성분) social system in North Korea is akin to a caste system, ascribing inherited status and restrictions on various individuals and families.[6] South Korea, however, is a country that espouses an ideal embracing unity and equality, at least amongst ethnic Koreans near and far. It is this ideal, made tangible in the policy of handing passports to North Koreans who made it to an embassy outside of their home country that, for a long time, made South Korea such a desirable destination. Fuelled by the winds of South Korean pop culture – and this was before the styles of Gangnam – the number of arrivals from North Korea has continued to grow exponentially.

Over ten years have passed since the beginning of this latest wave of arrivals from North Korea and time is proving itself apt at revealing a great many flaws in the fabric of South Korean society. Most significantly, the gaping chasm between the pan-Korean ideal and the reality of a caste system that limits North Koreans in terms of employment opportunities, marriage opportunities, social mobility and education.[7]

The harsh reality – that no matter how well they speak the standard dialect or wear the latest brands they will never be South Korean –­­ conspires to leave many North Koreans who have left their friends and family above the 38th parallel feeling, at best, second-rate citizens. As one young North Korean who arrived in South Korea in 2004 expressed to me, “The past always follows me, I will always be talbukin, I will always be on the outside, and this is how I feel.” This, in turn, acts as one of the strongest ‘push factors’ driving the onward-migration of North Koreans to third countries.

Whether, upon arrival in countries such as Australia or Canada, these onward-migrants feel a peace that was denied them in South Korea is yet to be seen. It is also significant to ask if the same gendered-logics will play out in the lives of re-migrants, female re-migrants often being doubly discriminated against in South Korea – as North Koreans and as women. What is clear however, looking at the case of Canada, which had 385 asylum claims[8] from North Koreans in 2011, up from 26 in 2006,[9] is that this is only the beginning of the onward-migration. Perhaps it would benefit the South Korean state, North Korean refugees, and nations such as Australia and Canada, if the gap between the ideal and reality for North Koreans in South Korea was addressed, with a view to eradicating elements of an archaic and discriminatory ethnic Korean caste system?


[1] Kim and Choi. 1998. Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism. Routledge. New York and London.

Miyoshi Jager. 2003. Narratives of Nation Building in Korea: A Genealogy of Patriotism. An East Gate Book. Armonk, New York, London.

Freeman. 2011. Making and Faking Kinship: Marriage and Labor Migration between China and South Korea. Cornell University Press. Ithaca and London.

[2] Freeman:2011

[3] ibid

[4] ibid:105

[5] Miyoshi Jager:2003

[7] Hosaniak, NKHR Briefing Report: 2011

Fifth Edition: Welcome to Australia: Questions of North Korean Onward-migration

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on December 9th, 2012

Peter Walis

The movement of North Korean refugees, from North Korea, through China and, for the most part, on to South Korea is, by now, becoming a relatively well documented phenomenon. Less well known is the latest developing feature of the northeast Asian migrant population, a phenomenon yet to catch the eye of either the popular media or scholarly circles, that of onward-migration or secondary migration as it applies to North Korean refugees. This article describes a meeting with two individuals whose situations render these forms of transnational movement more tangible, and asks a number of timely questions probing at the structural and social conditions in which such movement is embedded.

Just outside of central Sydney, lies a peaceful, unassuming suburb that could be mistaken for any other in the outlying areas of Australia’s largest city, with its collection of Middle Eastern and Chinese takeaways, the ubiquitous pizzeria and an assortment of small businesses. This particular suburb, however, is (in)famous across Australia, for this is home to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VIDC).[1] VIDC, like many others across Australia, is built to house migrants who, for whatever reason, have been apprehended by the state and whose status, as legal persons in Australia is in question. In the last two years this particular centre has been the scene of rioting and ongoing protests, by both detainees and activists.[2] Most recently, two security guards were suspended after accusations of assault once again put VIDC in the spotlight.[3] It was with this in mind that we arrived at VIDC to meet with two detainees waiting for decisions on their applications for asylum.

After making our way through security, a feat far less daunting than travelling through any international airport, we were led through an interim area and, upon showing our passes, gained access to the visitor’s area of the complex. I think it is fair to say that my colleague and I had imagined something a little more daunting, perhaps a few hunger strikers clinging to life, a burning bed or two and at least one or two burly guards keeping the peace– we were disappointed. On one side of the large, well-kept grassed area, a group of Chinese were gathered around a long table, debating something with great gusto as they shared a meal from home. Just past them a gathering of Middle Eastern men were greeting each other, while, nearby, a young man escorted his pregnant girlfriend up the steps of the sheltered area.

Our guide for the day, a representative from the Salvation Army, presently returned with two companions following close behind. We navigated our way over to a set of light-blue painted steel tables, flanked on one side by a small children’s park and on the other by the Chinese, now making short work of their meal.

Bowing deeply and offering a hand to shake, Mr. Park, a man in his late forties, with a robust, slightly weathered face and large hands he would frequently wring together, was the first to introduce himself and apologise for keeping us waiting. Ms. Cho, a more reserved women perhaps in her early forties, with a scar that ran across one side of her cheek, bowed and, with eyes slightly lowered, softly exclaimed that she, also, was very pleased we had come to visit.

Following further introductions and inquiries into the general health of Mr. Park and Ms. Cho, we tentatively asked if they would tell their story; “You know, I’ve lived outside of North Korea for over twenty years,” Mr. Park, alternating between wringing his hands and picking at the newly painted table, exclaimed in a heavy Korean-Chinese accent.

Leathery brow creasing, he continued,

I’ve already been in Villawood for just over two years. I arrived at the airport in Sydney and was immediately picked up by security. Originally, I’m from Yanggang Province, North Korea, up near the border with China. When I was younger I lived in a village surrounded by fruit farms. I left my home, my wife and new born son, in 1989 and crossed over into Jillin province [Northeast China]. I was in my mid-twenties then. I knew that China would be the easiest place for me to get work and sure enough, within a short time I was working on a construction site.

I worked there for almost twenty years before I felt it was time to move on, things are hard in China because the police are always looking for North Koreans who have crossed over illegally. I’d heard from a friend that Australia is a good country to live in. Using the money I’d saved I managed to get a [fake] passport and I bought a ticket to Australia. I’d heard it was a good place to live and there were many Koreans here.

The big problem, however, now that I’m here in Australia, is that I have no proof that I’m North Korean, in fact I can’t even describe the area I am from very well because I left so long ago and when I was there, I didn’t socialize with my neighbours much. If they deport me, they will send me to South Korea, but I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to work as a construction worker there. If I can stay here in Australia, I will work in construction. Look over there, [motioning to the adjacent construction site] it’s the middle of the day but no one is working. If this was China, people would be working a lot harder. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I want to stay here, in Australia.

Ms Cho, her frame appearing diminutive next to the larger Mr Park, smiled nervously and explained that, unlike Mr Park, she was ethnically Korean-Chinese. In a voice approaching a whisper, she continued;

I’ve lived in Australia for about eight years. Of course, I was living here illegally. I was working as a kitchen hand in a restaurant in Sydney. I was picked up by the police earlier this year [2012] and brought here, to Villawood. For most of the time I was in Australia, I was with my husband, at the time I was arrested, however, he left and I haven’t heard from him since. I heard he went back to China.

I’m a Christian and I’m applying for refuge on religious grounds, if I go back to China I fear I will be persecuted. I have a daughter, who is in Sydney at the moment, she is here on a student visa and I worry about her as she is alone.

The situations of Mr Park and Ms. Cho are far from unique. On a basic level, as with many individuals moving transnationally in a form of self-imposed exile, they felt their lives under threat in their home countries and chose to take great risks to try and improve their lot. What is unique about their cases, however, is that both of these individuals chose to come to Australia and live as illegal immigrants, rather than going to South Korea, a nation-state where, at least in the case of Mr Park, they could have been granted South Korean citizenship. This prompts us to ask why are more and more North Koreans leaving by means legal and otherwiseand on-migrating to third countries, in this case Australia? What combination of push and pull factors exist to make life in Toronto or Sydney more promising than Seoul or Daegu? Furthermore, how is it that a man such as Mr Park, who spent the last twenty years working on construction sites across northeast China, is exposed to information on what Germans in the early 1990’s referred to as ‘Mein Traumland’[4]. How are brokers, individuals who flout the borders of nation-states as a means of making a living, influential in aiding and encouraging North Koreans and ethnic Korean-Chinese alike to choose countries other than South Korea as their preferred new home? These questions are all pertinent in establishing a basic understanding of onward-migration within and beyond Northeast Asia.

As our meeting drew to a close, Mr Park looked pensive, commenting that he felt anxious about his immediate future. Ms. Cho, lightly fingering the sliver crucifix, asked us to contact her daughter and see if there was anything she needed. In the meantime, Mr Park and Ms Cho would continue waiting, caught in a liminal state, detained at her Majesty’s pleasure. Rising to our feet, we exchanged bows and handshakes and assured them we would visit again. In the meantime, they would continue to receive visits from members of the Korean Christian community. As we exited the visitor’s area of the facility, the Chinese banqueters were packing up the remains of their lunch, by the fence two guards were going over the results of the local football match, their dark sunglasses reflecting the low-lying afternoon sun.

[1] The Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) is located 27 kilometres from the CBD. Villawood IDC mainly caters for people who have over-stayed their visa permit or those who had their visa cancelled because they have failed to comply with their visa conditions. For more information see

[2] The Sydney Morning Herald. Buildings set alight in Villawood detention centre rooftop protest

[4] ‘Mein Traumland’ means ‘My Dreamland’ and was how many Germans at the beginning of the 1990’s referred to Australia.

Fourth Edition: The Wave of Globalization

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on November 29th, 2012


Professor Kyungmook Kim

Chukyo University

Australia is a huge land. The land is vast, the population, however, is small; a point which hits home each time you travel the roads outside of one of the few large cities, the further you travel the more difficult it is to see people. It’s possible to drive for hours without meeting another car, a strange feeling indeed for those of us used to a more bustling environment. Driving into an inhabited area can sometimes feel like stumbling across an oasis in the desert. That’s not to say, however, that rural life is all predictable.

As one quickly realises, the local shopping mall is usually teeming with life; if there’s one thing you can count on, in these rural pastures, it’s the presence of a Woolworths, Coles or a Westfield. Whether it’s in the sprawling centres of Sydney and Melbourne, or in an oasis of inland New South Wales, the presence of multi-national supermarket chains is quite astonishing. For many small Australian towns, these giant stores have all but replaced the smaller, family stores of bygone years. ‘A-town’ (all names appearing in this article are pseudonyms), of New South Wales, is no exception.


While you were sleeping

It’s a Sunday night, approaching midnight, out of the darkness of the A-town night emerges a large, slightly beaten-up car. It pulls into the car park of the shopping mall and comes to a stop, the headlights shutting down, once again allowing the shadows to move in. The air is cool, perhaps that’s the reason the bars are closed and the drunks gone home. The town is silent– there’s nobody around. Three figures emerge from the car. Without hesitation all three move silently to the delivery entry of the supermarket’s far side and, in moments, they have breached the building. As the lights of the interior illuminate the three mysterious men it is possible to see they are Asian, middle aged, and uniform clad. In any rural Australian town finding migrants is a difficult task, so immediately one has to ask, who on earth are these men? What could they possibly be doing in the middle of Australia? And what brings them here in the middle of the night?

Times passes, the sparrows start chirping and the magpies begin to screech, the first rays of the morning sun start to creep over the buildings, like an old man slowly reaching for the morning paper. It’s just turned 8 o’clock and again the three men emerge. Climbing back into their car, the engine roars to life and moments later they have disappeared over the horizon.

Again, that same night, they arrive again in the car park of the shopping mall and the process repeats itself. Every night, while others are sleeping, these three men enter the shopping mall and, without fail, begin the process of cleaning the giant supermarket. As others are waking up, they are preparing to leave and return home. Every night of every day, 365 days a year, these three men work to make the shopping environment more comfortable for consumers.

At home with the strangers from A-town

About an hour has passed since they arrived home. Parked outside their home, which is located not 4 or so kilometres from the supermarket, is the same slightly beat-up car which sits in the mall car park each night. Propped up against the fence which demarcates pavement from garden is a white and blue sign boldly proclaiming that the property is FOR SALE! From the outside it’s impossible to distinguish if the house is occupied or not. The property itself seems well enough maintained, the weeds growing in the garden give no clues as to who lives within. There are some signs of life, the front door; opening to the hallway is slightly ajar. Through the gap it’s possible to discern the figures of the three men glimpsed leaving the mall. Gathered around the kitchen table they are sharing what appears to be a plastic container of crispy kimchee, a medium size pan-fried fish and a smaller, green bowl of bean curd paste. Breakfast is being washed down with a bottle of Jim Beam Black– neat. For our three mysterious cleaners, this is the end of another hard day. A few cups of 40% bourbon will bring some much welcome sleep.

The three of them harbour indescribable stories. Life before arrival in this small town was hard, very hard. Even once they arrived, if it hadn’t been for the help of the ethnic Korean churches, they might never have made it this far. As everyone knows, industrial cleaning is a vital part of every society’s existence. It’s possible to see in the larger cities too, Korean men and women, wrapped in fluorescent overalls, cleaning the floors and bumpers of each of the supermarket chains. Unshaven with dark skin and bags under their eyes: another tell-tale sign of the working holiday labourer. Back in their homes, whether in a suburb of Sydney or inner city Melbourne, most of them will have a ‘wo-hol visa’ tucked safely in the pages of their passport.

In the rural areas, out where the taxis don’t ride, it’s unusual to find the likes of these three men, working the jobs others don’t want. So who are these men? Two are recent arrivals from North Korea who settled in South Korea. After a short time in South Korea they once again left for new shores, this time Australia. The third man is from China, he is ethnic Korean-Chinese. These men share several characteristics; all are fathers and all have wives and children who remain in South Korea.

Why did you leave South Korea?

After arriving in South Korea Mr Chul Kim set up a new life for himself in the South-eastern province of Gyeongsang. Here he lived for six years until, in his own words, “South Korean society just become too much for me.”

South Korean society just became intolerable. South Koreans have no loyalty. If a friend gets in trouble, no one cares. Everyone pretends to help, but no one actually does anything. I saw this kind of situation so often.

For my son it’s been hard too. He went to school in South Korea for a while and it was tough for him. Then he came to Australia with me and attended school here, but he couldn’t adapt well so he went back to Korea. Now, thankfully, he’s doing much better in Seoul and seems to be enjoying school.

While dad has clearly found life in South Korea very tough, his son seems to be making friends and enjoying life now. For Mr. Kim, however, things haven’t got easier, as he is separated from his family. As his son reaches his teenage years, it’s unknown whether he will continue to enjoy life in South Korea. What is for certain, for Mr Kim, is that he desperately wants to avoid going back living with ‘people without loyalty’, a trait he feels he could never understand.

Each month Mr Kim makes about 4 thousand dollars. The cleaning company pays for their accommodation so each month it’s possible to send back about two thousand dollars to his son and wife. In order to do this, however, Mr Kim lives with severe restrictions on the kind of life he can lead. Outdoor activities are limited to fishing at the nearby beach, while the remaining time is often passed watching Korean dramas, downloaded whenever required. Smoking, a luxury previously enjoyed by all three men, is now only done on occasion, the price of cigarettes in Australia causing the men to put a lid on their habits. For the three of them, their bodies may be in Australia, but their minds are elsewhere, “Honestly, no matter how you look at it, our lives were probably better back in North Korea. There’s nothing we can do about that now. I do know something though, I never want to go back to South Korea” emphasizes Mr Kim.

What should we do now?

In the future, it’s fair to say that more North Koreans will re-migrate from South Korea. Among those, if the situation doesn’t improve for North Koreans in South Korea, we may further see the increase in individuals return-migrating to North Korea. It’s then likely that we will see a rise in the number of North Koreans picked up by immigration in countries such as Canada and Australia, having failed in their attempts to enter as asylum seekers.

It’s reported that there are already over 1000 North Koreans who have migrated to North America and Europe. It wasn’t long ago that the Australian media reported that more than 70 North Koreans had already been deported from Australia. It’s fast becoming clear that the plight of North Korean defectors is no longer someone else’s problem, it’s now everyone’s.

Third Edition: Sydney and Soju: The Korean Community in Australia

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on November 19th, 2012


Markus Bell

It’s a Friday afternoon, perhaps approaching 4pm. Next to me, crowded around a small, white table, five Korean teenage boys are sharing kebabs, across from them several Korean girls, also clad in school uniform, are making short work of their smoothies. Mall shoppers are gliding back and forth in and around the tables; white noise fills the air, wrestling with the smells of various ethnic snacks for the attention of potential customers. This could be any mall in South Korea, these could be any students in South Korea, taking a break between English hagwon and Taekwondo lessons. Except, I realise as I come to my senses, this is Australia. To be more precise, this is Strathfield.

It has been almost a year since I was in Yanji, Northeast China, a place which left a deep impression on me because of the overwhelming Korean influence in the foods served in the restaurants, the music played in the bars and the neon signs flashing Hangul script that lit up the evenings. I hadn’t expected to find such an equally impressive display of Korean cultural expression in Australasia.

The history of  this small, inner-West suburb of Sydney goes back to the late 18th century, when the land was claimed by English settlers, no doubt much to the surprise of the Aboriginals who had occupied the Sydney basin area for a long time prior. Perhaps the most fascinating period emerged following the end of ‘White Australia’ Immigration policies and the gradual movement of migrants from various Asian countries to the area. The 2006 census of Strathfield reported that out of a total population of just over 20,400 persons, over 50% were born overseas, making this one of the most culturally diverse suburbs of Sydney. Of particular interest to me, as I order a second cup of green tea and tried my best not to eavesdrop on the conversation of the five Korean ajumma who had occupied several tables without making even a conciliatory attempt to order anything, is the fact that migrants born in South Korea make up the largest contingent of ‘outsider’s on the inside’. The fact that 8.6% of the population of the ‘Strass’ (스트라스), as it is known by Koreans, is South Korean born, that the streets are lined with beauty parlours (미용실, 네일 케어숍) and BBQ houses (삼겹살집) makes me wonder, what kind of Korean community exists in Australia?

Without falling into derivative essentialisms of an ethnic group, and taking care to avoid such problematic theories as the ‘Model minority’ used to describe Koreans in the US., it is worth considering how such an area came to earn the unofficial epithet of ‘Korea Town’ and what kind of relationship Koreans in Australia have with the wider community?

The numbers of Koreans in Australia has continued to grow since the 1970s when a census recorded less than 500 Koreans nationwide. The mid-1970s saw the first ‘waves’ of Korean migration, primarily concentrated in Sydney. A majority of migrants in these cases were either ‘Amnesty migrants’– over-stayers who were granted residency and stayed in Australia working a variety of ‘3-D jobs’, or so-called ‘Container migrants’, who arrived with skills and quickly started businesses in the Sydney area.[i]

Following on the heels of the recovery of the Korean economy at the beginning of the new millennium, Australia has proven a desirable destination for young Koreans taking advantage of the one year working visa and/or the study visa offered by the Australian government. Migration theorists may argue that the contemporary character of the Korean community in Sydney is far more transient than it used to be, with Australia viewed as a one to two year English language experience rather than a place to settle long term. Yet the ubiquitousness of the Korean-owned Japanese sushi house or the prevalence of K-pop in the air in several of Sydney’s inner suburbs speaks to the stability of this migrant community.

Christianity, as with Korean migrant communities all over the world, has played an important role in both encouraging migrants to come to Australia and permitting a smoother settlement for those unwilling or unable to ‘go-native.’ Recent estimates put the number of Korean Protestant churches in Sydney at over 150.[ii] Acting as a bridge between the sending community, Korea, and the receiving country, Australia, these organisations provide theological training, material and emotional support, and loans and scholarships to members of the Korean community in Sydney.

The Korean community, as with any minority that begins to move out of the shadows, has attracted both sunshine and storms; several reports in the Australian media threw light on the ‘growing number of Korean prostitutes’ working in Sydney,[iii] while other stories have highlighted the success of Koreans in small businesses.[iv] Certainly, as Koreans continue to make a deeper footprint in Australian society, more attention, good and bad, will come the way of this community.

Several waves of migration from Korea to Sydney, facilitated by a liberalising of Australian immigration laws for ‘Amnesty seeker’s and ‘Entrepreneurial immigrants’ and the effects of ongoing chain migration have undoubtedly contributed to the scene I described at the beginning of this article. For better or worse, the Korean community in Sydney appears to be both vibrant and growing. Critics may argue that the ‘Strass’ is evidence Koreans are not assimilating/integrating with the wider community, and perhaps that is true. Given the contribution of Koreans in Sydney to the fields of commerce, food and culture, and religion, however, one has to wonder if it really matters if Mr. Kim from Strathfield doesn’t yet know the words to Waltzing Matilda, and struggles to recall how many snags are needed for the perfect barbeque.

[i] Joy Han and Gil-Soo Han. The Koreans in Sydney. Sydney Journal. 2(2)2010 ISSN 1835—0151 p.2

[ii] Ibid p.7.

[iii] ABC News February 6th 2012.

The Telegraph February 6th 2012.

2nd Edition: K-cinema and North Korean defectors

Posted in Ethnic Korean Diaspora: North Korean re-migration on November 15th, 2012

Professor Kyungmook Kim

Chukyo University.



The ‘K-wave’, or hallyu, as it is known in Korean, has recently been elevated to the heights of worldwide phenomenon. It has been almost 10 years since Korean drama and K-pop started catching the attention of large audiences throughout Asia. This year, the K-wave phenomenon traversed the boundaries of Asia, causing a stir in countries from the United States to London, when a 35 year-old entertainer known as ‘PSY’ stunned the world with ‘Gangnam Style’. This catchy tune, along with the funky dance moves that accompany it, has, as of November 2012, netted over 600,000,000 views on YouTube. This stands as a YouTube record and ensures that this pop song will certainly go down in music history as a phenomenon.

Together with K-drama and K-pop, K-cinema has been playing a pivotal role in initiating today’s K-wave boom. Unlike K-drama or K-pop, however,  the cinematic genre offers what could perhaps be described as a more polished taste of Korean creativity, in terms of structured storytelling and an industry that tests boundaries of acceptability in Korea and beyond.

Understanding Inter-Korean relations using K-cinema

I often find it useful to use K-cinema as a lens through which to view the ebb and flow of South Korea’s fast-changing trends. From this I can act as a walking Wikipedia for my foreign friends, informing them on the latest from South Korea. I think it’s fair to say that the cultural contents of films, more often than not, reflect some of the problems that every society faces. When trying to compare different films by time periods, one should be able to understand some of problems of each era- the ‘ Zeitgeist’ of a time, if you will. Watching a film, therefore, can be a good educational tool to viewing social issues, the tensions between the two Koreas is no exception.

Many of the recent films on the topic of inter-Korean relations differ noticeably from those made prior to the 1990s, an era which saw a strengthened civil society and a toppling of authoritative governments in South Korea. Indeed, these earlier films tended to be used as a form of propaganda, expressing thinly veiled anti-communist orientations and anti-North Korean ideology.

Shiri (1999), JSA (2002), Brotherhood (2003) and Silmido (2003) are typical examples of a new voice prevalent in K-cinema. In these films, the audience finds humanism, even amongst those characters portrayed as enemies of the Korean peninsula; these films also encourage the audience to feel the collective pain of a people who have endured half a century of war, division, and ongoing violence.

This noticeable change in direction in terms of the content and ‘ethos’ of Korean cinematography can be assessed as a remarkable product of a concerted effort to understand “ another North Korea”, initiated by both the Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Mu-Hyun administrations under the name of the ‘Sunshine policy’. This approach was, more or less, adapted to the politics of the progressives, this did not preclude,  however, a bubbling undercurrent of criticism in regards to what was often labelled ‘appeasement politics’. It is interesting to note that the conservatives tarred the sunshine policy as naïve or pro-North Korean. In other words, even South Korea has experienced division into two polarized camps on the subject of Inter-Korean issues.

Socialization of North Korean defector issues

As mentioned above, most of the cultural content of contemporary South Korean cinematography reflects social issues that, previously, would probably have been considered taboo, this is also true with regards to the issue of North Korean defectors. Recent films such as, South of the border (2006), Crossing (2008), and The Journal of Musan (2010) are iconic films on North Korean defectors that have been, on the whole, well received by the South Korean public.

North Korean defector issues emerged on the radar of the international community in the mid 1990s. Since then, the number of North Koreans crossing the Sino-North Korean border seeking food, jobs, and security, has steadily risen. Some are asylum-seekers, others are opportunist migrants, what is clear is that there is no clear cut definition as to who is leaving North Korea and why. Their final destination, in most cases, is the southern half of the peninsula. As of 2012, over 24,000 North Koreans had arrived in South Korea. More people are waiting for their chance, staying in underground locations in China, Mongolia and Southeast Asia; some dreaming of freedom, others simply hoping to improve their lives.

Propaganda or Awareness raising?

These films are far from regarded as politically neutral. Indeed, as a film is a form of social media, a director attempts to deliver a certain message to the audience, whether covertly or, in some cases, without any overtures to neutrality. Regardless of the message embedded in each piece of work, different perspectives bring different interpretations and it is fair to say that no right answer has ever existed in terms of how such forms of media should be understood.

Unfortunately, sometimes concerned parties use North Korean defectors to pursue their own ends. Religious groups, journalists, public servants, brokers, academics and even human rights activists all have their own agenda. Inevitably, as the old saying goes, too many cooks can often spoil the broth and, with so many different groups involved, all out for their piece of the pie, things can get complicated. Indeed, Koreans may be more familiar with the over-staffed ship being coxed up the mountain (사공이 많으면 배가 산으로 간다), however you might express it, films on North Korean defectors are often “double-edged swords”–used as political propaganda on the one hand, and awareness raising tools on the other.

Crossing (2008), in my view, is the best film for those seeking an entry into North Korean defector issues. However, it is often misunderstood as a propaganda film. Although it would seem clear that the film itself is far away from politicized trumpeting, due to that fact that it is often hijacked by anti-North Korean activists it has garned a great deal of unfavourable attention. It is unfortunate that the film is often under-evaluated and misunderstood in this way. The film touches on a broad range of issues related to North Korean defectors, given that many of these are often interpreted through the gaze of a larger political agenda, this is perhaps both its strength and weakness. Let us, for a moment, consider the main points of this film:

The hero in Crossing, after overcoming a number of adversities, arrives in South Korea. Guided by brokers, NGOs, and church groups he had fled to a foreign embassy in China. Arrival in South Korea, however, marks the beginning of a further set of tragedies as our hero’s family is displaced and forever sundered. Who takes responsibility? Church groups? Brokers? Governments? The answer, sadly, is none of the above. Maybe it is our own responsibility. Also, we should bear in mind that sometimes, no matter how good the intentions, the results fail to live up to the expectations.

South of the border (2006) is a good indication of emerging new patterns of strategic chain migration for North Korean defectors. Many defectors try to bring their family members after them once they settle in the South. This often means incurring large debts to brokers with high risks; money to pay these costs come from settlement funds received from the South Korean government. It is important to ask here, how, exactly, do they contact and bring their family after them?

Thanks to the well documented effects of globalization, it is possible for many North Korean defectors to contact their family using mobile phones. Moreover, these networks appear to be incredibly diverse, encompassing transnational characteristics. Although there is not yet a great deal know about these border crossing networks, it seems apparent that these are the key channels linking North Koreans to the outside world. As moving within these networks, however, involves high risks, there is inevitably trouble between brokers and the clients.

So we might ask now, considering all the effort it takes to make it through China and onto South Korea, are they happy once they arrive? Perhaps one should start from the question of what happiness is. Without becoming too involved in existential back and forths, my answer to this is both YES and NO. YES in terms of physical improvements and NO if we are to consider the psychological aspects of settlement in the South. They came to South Korea for a better life, but they often discover that South Korea cannot fulfil their desires.

 The Journal of Musan is a must-see film. This 2010 production implicitly criticizes the indifference and hypocritical attitudes of South Koreans to their new arrivals. In his film, the director and hero, Park Jung-Bum, refrains from saying too many words, despite this, the film speaks volumes as to the difficulties that plague North Koreans after their arrival below the 38th parallel.

About half of the defectors are supported by government welfare. Although they are able to receive free higher education until college, their graduation diplomas are often less value than the paper they are printed on in the competitive South Korean job market. Indeed, until recently, the social security numbers of North Korean defectors indicated their origins, marking them as outsiders and ensuring that they would have to be satisfied as second class citizens working in ‘3D industries’ (dirty, dangerous and difficult). Sadly, many South Koreans continue to hold the attitude that North Korean defectors should be grateful and simply endure these hardships, after all, it’s all on the tax payer’s coin.


In The Journal of Musan, the hero’s friend pleads with him; “I have to go to the United States, Seung-Chul… I have to go. You know I have to…”

Nowadays, more North Koreans who have settled in South Korea are trying their luck in overseas countries as ‘re-migrants’. This is the newest phenomenon we are privy to as watchers of the Korean diaspora. Their re-/ onward migration surely indicates to us that something is not quite right, that there are some serious difficulties facing North Korean defectors in South Korea. I strongly believe that there are many things to be learned from understanding these unprecedented problems using the kaleidoscopic lens of the Korean wave.