On the Korean peninsula today, globalization is rapidly redefining both economic relations and nationalism, as South Korean economic development strategies are transcending national boundaries to North Korea and beyond.

    Koreans who had been scattered across East Asia are returning to a problematic welcome, constituting 40 percent of "foreign" migrant workers in the South. These global and transnational features of South Korean capitalism transcend Korea's five-decade-long national division and ideological antagonisms, even if the political division between South and North Korea remains intact. Border-crossing transactions involving both capital and labor have brought globalization home to Korea, while transforming earlier layers of ideological nationalism into ethnicity-based nationalism. The Korean experience not only expresses various courses and limits of globalized movements of capital and labor, but also suggests how seemingly borderless economic relations may beget new forms of nationalism.

    Globalization and the Korean diaspora

    Two decades after the achievement of vast industrialization through export-oriented development, South Korea is making still another "winning" adjustment to the global market and to post-cold war world politics. This time, South Korea is a transnational investor, establishing factories and expanding markets abroad. This expansion of South Korean overseas investment constitutes the first process of globalization. Before 1987, South Korean capital was strictly controlled by an authoritarian state; in the 1990s, capital has become the beneficiary of a democratization process that it did little to hasten. Militant labor strikes in the late 1980s, labor shortages, and wage increases have magnified the pressure on Korean capital to invest abroad. Korean capital has moved labor- intensive processing or assembling to less developed countries in Asia, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Korean investments in North America and Europe have increased for different reasons — often to bypass protectionist legislation in attractive markets — but the effects are the same: for the first time, the South Korean state no longer retains full control over the large conglomerates it helped create, and South Korean capital has become global.

    Concomitantly, a growing presence of foreign workers in Korea has brought globalization home. Capital movement has not created domestic unemployment; on the contrary, a shortage of labor has become a chronic problem in the manufacturing sector, especially for small companies which often act as subcontractors for larger conglomerates. The New Labor Policy was implemented in 1992 to expand casual hourly employment and temporary work, widening economic opportunities for married women and foreign migrant workers. In late 1991, a group of foreign workers was invited to visit and work in the booming field of housing construction. According to unofficial estimates, the number of workers from northeast China, the Philippines, and elsewhere swelled to 160,000 by the summer of 1996. Although this figure represents only six percent of the manufacturing work force, the numbers are politically significant, and are, furthermore, likely to continue to grow.

    Under the law which limits the employment of foreigners to teach or learn technology in South Korea, foreign migrant workers are legally named "industry technician interns," entitled to a maximum two-year employment period. Despite the legal titles, most foreign migrant workers are assigned by government agencies to small, labor-intensive factories involving low-skilled employment in high-risk settings, such as cutting timber for the paper industry, assembling parts in electronic companies, handling chemicals in dye factories and shoe factories, and making clothes in dust-filled rooms.

    Since their legal status as interns defines their wages at a level far lower than those of regular workers, they often leave their original work sites for different factories. Given that these small factories suffer from labor shortages, the government looks the other way as companies hire "illegal" migrant workers. Reflecting this incongruence of the law and labor market, the number of undocumented migrant workers in Korea has increased rapidly, comprising more than 75 percent of all foreign migrant workers. Although labor unions have demanded that unemployed Koreans should be brought into these jobs, and with better work conditions and wages, the state and industries recently revealed plans to invite more foreign workers to ease the labor shortage in labor-intensive industries where Korea's international competitiveness is challenged by newly industrializing countries.

    Koreans from northeast China comprise roughly 40 percent of South Korea's "foreign" workforce, and constitute the largest group of the Korean diaspora who are recently visiting or "returning." They resume the interrupted itinerary of the Korean transnational migration which began during Japanese colonial rule (1910 to 1945) under which more than three million Koreans were conscripted or lured into mines, construction sites, factories, and agricultural fields in Japan and other Japanese colonies including Manchuria and Sakhalin. Despite the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, half of the Koreans in northeast China and most Koreans in other areas, including Sakhalin and Japan, have remained outside the Korean peninsula until recently. The issue of their return to Korea was excluded from post-war negotiations between the Americans and the Soviets. The political turmoil in the south, the rapid change in the north, and the Korean War, discouraged their return, but even when they attempted to return their requests were thwarted by their host countries. The predicament of overseas Koreans in East Asia languished for decades amidst the ideological showdown between South Korea and North Korea and their patron states.

    Beyond the DMZ

    Globalization has led to an unspoken reintegration across or beyond previous ideological borders. While globalization is a world-wide phenomena, a unique aspect of Korean globalization involves North Korea as well as the Korean diaspora. Counterpoised to the recent tensions surrounding North Korea's ambitious nuclear program and recurrent rumors of North Korean plans to invade the South, South Korean conglomerates have pursued opportunities in North Korean development projects with such zeal that the South Korean press have called it the "North Korea Rush."

    Between 1992 and 1994, North Korea adopted a series of new economic policies with new foreign investment laws and free trade zones in the Rajin and Sonbon area on the northeast coast along the border with China and Russia. Setting aside previous competition with the South, North Korea has instead been pushing cooperation with South Korea, recently even asking South Korea to initiate an international drive to lend capital. South Korean investments in North Korea range widely from textile and electronics factories, to oil pipelines which traverse North Korea from Siberia to feed South Korea markets, to food processing factories, to railways and communication systems, to resort area developments.

    Importantly, Korean Americans have helped link South Korean capital and North Korean labor. Korean Americans travel to North Korea, delivering first-hand information about families and acting as subcontractors for South Korean companies. North Korea apparently expects Korean Americans to invest in its new free economic zones, to connect North Korea with foreign businesses, and to mediate between North and South Korea. These mediating roles of Korean Americans differ from those of diasporic Chinese whose own investments have brought an economic boom to mainland China's coastal regions. This participation of Korean Americans in the North Korean economy differs from the previous activity of Korean Japanese who dominated foreign investment in North Korea, but concentrated in agriculture. Reflecting this trend, North Korea has recently committed itself to working on economic projects with Korean Americans, instead of the previous emphasis on politics. As a first step toward establishing an economic relationship with the United States, North Korea agreed to exchange consular-level liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington.

    A new national community

    These new relationships among the two Koreas and the Korean diaspora reconfigure nationalism in South Korea. The previous anti-communist, anti-North Korean nationalism [1] consolidated for the last four decades has begun to be replaced with a new language of nationalism, segyehwa. Although segyehwa is the official term for "globalization," which in the U.S. denotes internationalization of economic relations, this phrase in Korea evokes strong nationalist sentiment, calling for national unity in order to survive and gain leadership in the international community. What segyehwa represents is a de-territorialized national community among Koreans. It seems similar to Benedict Anderson's "long- distance nationalism," particularly in the ways that new technologies of communication and frequent traveling between home and diverse sub-communities may engender a border- transcending sense of belonging. [2] Segyehwa policies include new approaches and policies and new attitudes toward ethnic Koreans living abroad: kyopo (Koreans residing in foreign countries) is replaced with tongpo (blood- kin, compatriots). [3] Kyopo signifies their separation from those who remain in Korea; tongpo as an integrative and inclusive concept, according to the government authorities, conjures up fraternal ties and fellow-feeling. To undergird the tongpo concept — to establish firm cultural and mental roots in Korea — the South Korean state recently announced its plan to install a new "Committee for Koreans Abroad."

    Beneath the surface of this inclusive language in South Korea is, however, not a homogeneous and borderless identity, but rather the footing of a hierarchical community which reflects colonial experiences and postcolonial developments. The political struggles over rights and citizenship of Korean-speaking visitors — "returnees" or workers — reveals a logic of inclusion and exclusion in making a new nation. The experience of Korean Chinese has undergone a significant shift from "mutual attraction" to "accusation and humiliation."[4] From 1978 until 1988, only 441 Korean Chinese came to Korea; they were classified as "defectors" from the Communist bloc, were naturalized as South Korean citizens, and thereby became entitled to residence, job, and annual monetary support. With the political liberalization in both China and South Korea in 1985, thousands of Korean Chinese from northeast China came to South Korea with different purposes and were met by different welcomes. Their visits were often prompted by a "Korean dream": they brought herb medicines to sell, or found work for one or two years. They then returned to northeast China, where they hoped to establish firms to trade with South Korea, or open new restaurants, karaoke bars, or small factories. No longer defectors from communism, they were treated by South Koreans as "home visitors" [kohyang pangmundan]. Relatives and the public in South Korea welcomed them as long-lost relatives or blood-kin [tongjok or hyoryuk]. The South Korean government eased entry procedures, expanding the number of Korean Chinese visitors from 9,047 in 1988 to 20,925 in 1990.

    Ironically, when South Korea and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1992, this mutual attraction turned sour. The South Korean government began to crack down on Korean Chinese street peddlers, accusing them of selling bogus medicines. Many Korean Chinese went into hiding to avoid arrest, fines, and possible deportation, but above all to keep their "Korean dream" alive. They were driven to risky, low-paying work, as any other illegal foreign migrant workers would be.

    In the 1990s, the rights of Korean Chinese are no better than those of other foreign migrant workers; they have been denied residential rights and they are subject to penalties if they overstay their visas in South Korea. In vain — this community asserts its Korean identity. According to a recent court ruling, Korean Chinese should be accepted as citizens of South Korea only if they have North Korean citizenship, because the South Korean Constitution recognizes North Koreans as citizens. After initial ambivalence, labor unions developed policies to protect the rights of existing foreign workers, while pressuring the state to limit the flow of incoming foreign workers. Both labor and Christian activists have joined foreign migrant workers in protests against the delayed payment of wages and against abrogations of Korean labor law; and they have also actively provided consultation on their visa status.

    Hierarchical diaspora

    The experience of Korean Chinese migrant workers illuminates the paradoxical character of the intersection of state and nation in Korea. Although many studies of nationalism focus on how ethnicity constitutes the principle of membership in a nation-state, the relationship between ethnicity and national membership in South Korea is multifaceted and contradictory. As the official discourse of tongpo suggests, membership in the Korean nation includes all of Korean ethnicity, regardless of citizenship. In the legal realm, however, ethnicity is hardly the criterion for rights of residency. Ethnicity suffices for membership in the national economic community, since both labor and capital use ethnic ties in expanding opportunities for job and investment. But the economic community is itself hierarchical and divided.

    Such contradictions help to explain the double standard in the new South Korean labor markets, where Korean Chinese find themselves classified between "foreign migrant" workers and "domestic" workers. Compared with other foreign workers, Korean Chinese are more mobile — since help from relatives and their fluency in Korean make it easier to find jobs — but they are as vulnerable as foreign workers to cycles in the labor market. Since their wages are low and their work conditions hazardous, Korean Chinese are often inclined to take cash advances offered by companies as recruitment incentives. However, as most factory owners retain foreign workers' passports, accepting better jobs often means trading legal status for material advantage. Most Korean Chinese migrants are employed in small factories where unions are often non-existent and labor laws are not observed, are paid less than domestic workers in the same factories, and are vulnerable to the delayed payment of wages, with no compensation for work-related accidents. These conditions delay the realization of their "Korean dream," which can lead them to stay longer, change jobs more frequently, and become long-term undocumented migrant workers.

    In sharp contrast, as privileged members of the Korean diaspora, Korean Americans are perhaps closest to realizing tongpo. Previous regulation had placed Koreans' property rights on hold automatically when they emigrated. Today Korean Americans may exercise the right to dispose of land and other property, and to carry these ownership rights to the U.S. As a part of segyehwa, the South Korean government has promised to implement a policy to invite Korean Americans into government departments and other international programs. Korean Americans have even participated as candidates in national elections — in the fifteenth national election in April 1996, six Korean Americans won seats in the Korean Congress.

    Ironically, the expansion of South Korean capitalism is predicated on transcending its territorial borders, while North Korea's economic transition is based on investments by entrepreneurs who share language and ethnicity, but whose national identity has been constructed in direct opposition to the very existence of North Korea. As these new economic realities transform labor markets and social relations, the Korean diaspora is returning to South Korea as migrant workers whose status is situated between other foreign migrant workers and domestic workers. Just as the two legacies of colonialism and national partition shaped the dynamics of nationalism after World War II, these conjoined courses of globalization dispel the spatial and ideological separation among two Koreas and the Korean diaspora, and instead engender a new ethno-national community.

    Hyun Ok Park is visiting assistant professor in sociology and the Business School, and a postdoctoral fellow in Korean Studies.

      1. This bifurcated nationalism of two Koreas is traced back to different experiences of colonialism. For detailed discussion, see Hyun Ok Park, Transforming Nationalism: From Colonial Conditions to Globalization (forthcoming). return to text

      2. Benedict Anderson, "The New World Disorder," New Left Review 193 (May/June 1992). return to text

      3. According to one 1996 official report, Koreans abroad numbered 5.23 million, with 37 percent in China, 34 percent in the United States, 13 percent in Japan, 9 percent in the former Soviet territories, and 1.2 percent in Central and South America. return to text

      4. Heh-Rahn Park, "Narratives of Migration: From the Formation of Korean Chinese Nationality in the PRC to the Emergence of Korean Chinese Migrants in South Korea," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1996. return to text