Let us imagine the following situation: One day you learn that you have three fathers. Each of them insists that he is the true and only father, and demands that you choose him over the other two. The status of Zainichi, or Koreans in Japan, may be compared to such an unlikely and even absurd situation, but this scenario of having three fathers may be a plausible condition that will enable us to articulate the multiple identities we find in the work of Kim Insook, a third-generation Zainichi Korean artist who now divides her time between South Korea and Japan.

The important context of Kim Insook’s early work is Chongryun, which is the Korean abbreviation for the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. Chongryun, founded in 1955, is its own umbrella organization that oversees a multitude of Korean ethnic organizations in political, social, commercial, and educational sectors. Among its myriad functions is to operate its own schools, from kindergarten to university. In contrast to Mindan, the pro–South Korean organization, Chongryun has made public its allegiance with North Korea, and taught children about North Korea as their fatherland and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il as their leaders. Kim Insook has attended Chongryun schools, and is intimately familiar with their environment.

But why Zainichi Korean, especially North Koreans in Japan? I am compelled by the profound paradox of their existence. To begin with, the term itself is a contradiction. North Koreans living in Japan consider themselves “overseas nationals” of North Korea, when in fact a vast majority of Koreans in Japan were born in Japan. Virtually all of those who originally came from Korea during the Japanese occupation trace their roots to what is now South Korea. As the Chongryun- and Cambridge-trained scholar Sonia Ryang succinctly puts it, “There can be no North Koreans in Japan, for the Japanese government makes no diplomatic acknowledgment of North Korea,”[1] and “North Korean identity in this sense is not geoculturally pre-given; it is Chongryun’s political projection.”[2] The Japanese government sees Chongryun Koreans as resident aliens, rather than North Korean nationals. Moreover, in case of an emergency, Chongryun Koreans could not expect protection from North Korea.[3]

Zainichi Koreans have undergone a radical transformation, from being stateless, having overnight lost their citizenship in the 1952 postwar peace treaty and being subject to pervasive discrimination for decades, to assimilation and successful integration into mainstream Japanese society today. Although Koreans in Japan continue to face discrimination in both legal and civil matters, the identities of the younger generation of Zainichi have become rather diverse.

Kim Insook’s photography articulates identities other than those of her predecessors, who faced constant systemic discrimination or found themselves vulnerable under the threat of deportation. Her work represents the postcolonial identity of Zainichi Koreans in its diversity and individualities that are “fractured and even ephemeral,” set in the context of diasporic nationalism and a yearning for the homeland. She portrays the subjects in her photographs not as victims of ideology, but rather as ordinary people whose lives are full of ambiguities and complexities.[4] Indeed, the lives of the third and fourth generations of Zainichi cannot be explained simply in terms of the first generation’s experience of “bare life” in the colonial period and during the Cold War. Instead, their lives and identities were always complex and in flux. Thus, Kim Insook resists reception of her work solely in terms of her identity as a Zainichi, or as a Japanese woman, as some Koreans tend to see her, for she considers the “three fathers” of Japan and two Koreas to be equally important parts of her complex identity.

In some sense, Kim’s work is a yearning for home, however provisional that may be. The succession of her projects reveals the artist’s increasingly sophisticated awareness of the intricacies of diasporic subjectivity. Her work seems to follow a complex trajectory in correspondence with her own changing understanding of diaspora: initially as a celebration of her Chongryon school as what she regards to be her true and only home, then as a way “to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement,” or “the condition of terminal loss”[5] of home when she fails to locate home in her journey, and, subsequently, reflecting on the Zainichi society from a long distance after having settled in South Korea. In short, the sense of loss of homeland gradually changes into a recognition that one simply moves on, making home where one can. This enables her to reassess her home left behind. And it appears that she would like to move again.[6]

sweet hours (2001–)

sweet hours, an ongoing project the artist began in 2001, takes place at Kita Osaka Korean School, one of many Chongryun schools. The context of the work may be characterized as an “outsider’s school,” which has been sustained in part by aid from North Korea, at the same time subject to trepidation and even contempt from mainstream Japanese society. The students, however, are primarily descendants of South Koreans. In the case of Kim Insook, her mother is Japanese and her father is a second-generation Zainichi whose homeland is Jeju Island, South Korea. Most third-generation Zainichi, including Kim, learn “our language,”[7] which is the Chongryun version of Korean, but also speak Japanese as their mother tongue. Since their inception, Chongryun schools have implemented a curriculum that prioritizes North Korean ideology and history. Within Kita Osaka Korean School, there coexist multiple ethnic origins as well as cultural, linguistic, and ideological elements of Japan, North Korea, and South Korea. It is precisely for this reason that Kim identifies the school as the true and only “homeland.” That is, her origins are diverse, and for many Chongryun students, like her, to be coerced to choose a single motherland or nationality would be nothing short of absurd.

As Kim emphasizes, photography for her is “an act of connecting” with others. She shuns what she considers the ethically irresponsible mode of “documentary” photography in which representation of human subjects can easily result in their exploitation, especially when they are vulnerable. Instead, she steadfastly maintains her principles: she makes photographs only through empathic solidarity with others. While sustaining sweet hours for the past thirteen years, Kim has been documenting the young students at Kita Osaka Korean School during relaxed, ordinary moments of the everyday.

Kim Insook intends to show her photographs in the form of installation art, in which she will present multiple images of many students simultaneously, as if to underscore the significance of individuals who make up a “community,” that is, if somewhat literally, as an accumulation of individualities.[8] Presented as accumulations of memories, they are an invocation of collective memory, a “gift” of collected memories to be offered to the next generation.

Interestingly, Kim Insook represents the children mostly in upbeat moods in their daily life at the Chongryun school. She does so despite the fact that the double portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il dominate the front wall of the classroom. Her intention is to portray the children as ordinary school kids who exude an enthusiastic sense of curiosity and wonder and like to play with their friends, rather than as victims of ideology and racial discrimination.

If there is an aspect that was initially challenging for me to accept in Kim’s work, it is her representation of the children almost exclusively in a positive light. But because of the negative image of North Korea pervasive in the media and in the public psyche, it is refreshing to encounter the positive images of children in a North Korean school in Japan. Universally shared experiences of childhood bliss must also exist in Chongryun schools. It is through Kim Insook’s photographs that we finally get a glimpse of children’s genuinely cheerful personalities. The image of happiness one sees in Kim’s work is quite different from the contrived look of happiness one finds in picture-perfect children in Pyongyang.

But, then, there still remains the risk of exploiting the children, for children are actually not innocent. Most people would agree that school experiences are not always happy; bullying, for example, is common. Hence, sweet hours appears to romanticize the long-ago years of childhood memories. If the Chongryun students are like children elsewhere, they must also experience at least some challenges and pain. The Chongryun schools are ghettoized, and, as such, insulated from outside pressure, which can also yield negative experiences. It is well known that Chongryun teenagers, especially female students donning traditional Korean dress as their uniform, were targets of violent attacks in 2002 after North Korea’s admission of the abduction of Japanese citizens.

Thus, the complexities of historical and political contexts seem understated in Kim’s work, to say the least. In fact, the artist adamantly rejects reading of her images in terms of politics and ideology.

But in this age of nationalism, is it possible to see portraits of people completely free of their ethnicity, nationhood, and the social context in which they are taken? I think not. As Étienne Balibar writes, “All identity is individual, but there is no individual identity that is not historical or . . . constructed within a field of social values, norms of behavior and collective symbols,” and one never obtains an “isolated identity.” Balibar then suggests, “[T]he real question is how the dominant reference points of individual identity change over time and with the changing institutional environment.”[9]

So how do we interpret the artist’s insistence that her images be viewed without politics? In some sense, she is asking for an impossible task: to see the children under the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il double portraits but free of North Korea and to see them simply as children when the school teaches them that they are overseas nationals of North Korea.

One can speculate about factors that may have informed or influenced the way Kim represents the children. For example, her position may be symptomatic of the third-generation Zainichi Korean’s (dis)regard for their tie to North Korea, or of its weakening, and may reflect the diverse individualities that are formed in negotiation with the tidal changes.

As it turns out, the children in Kim’s photographs were not officially taught to be Kim Il Sung’s loyal children.[10] Importantly, after four decades of strict dogmatism in instilling the Juche ideology of North Korea, from 1993 to 1995 Chongryun schools initiated a major curriculum reform, which coincided with the death of Kim Il Sung. The new curriculum broadened the knowledge base by incorporating subjects other than Chongryun and North Korea, such as spoken Korean language, Chinese folklore, Japanese fairy tales, American literature, and Greek mythology.[11] In the shifting geopolitical climate, the near simultaneous loss of Kim Il Sung and the Chongryun’s decision to deemphasize his legacy not only meant “the sense of social loss,” but also brought about identity crises among the Chongryun Koreans, who began to express skepticism about the relevance of Chongryun ideology in Japan.[12] In short, the de-emphasis of Kim Il Sung signaled the loss of fundamental values of Chongryun identity.

The new curriculum helped students prepare for Japanese universities and integration into Japanese society. In addition, now Chongryun schools’ implementation of ideological indoctrination is much more lax than it had been. They have stopped screening propaganda films in praise of Kim Il Sung, control students only within school, no longer interfere in after-school hours, and even take Japanese holidays.[13]

In the end, it may be Kim’s internalized diasporic nationalism, or long-distance nationalism, that explains her representation of children always in a positive light. Believing in national history allows people to establish a radically different form of “reality” in the midst of dire hardships, so as to redeem themselves through faith.[14] For Kim, whether or not she accepts it, North Korean national history and curriculum seem to have performed such a role. Chongryun school was the “homeland,” a haven removed from the tyranny of prejudiced and at times hostile Japanese mainstream society — which is also, paradoxically, part of her home — that enabled such a mechanism to materialize. Kim seems to have found empowerment, even if inadvertently, through national history.

the school yard, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 22 September 2003, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. the school yard, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 22 September 2003, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.
girls, 35x50cm, Digital C print, 15 January 2005, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. girls, 35x50cm, Digital C print, 15 January 2005, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.
HeeSa, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 22 September 2003, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. HeeSa, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 22 September 2003, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.
classroom, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 7 June 2002, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. classroom, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 7 June 2002, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.
dancing girls, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 18 May 2002, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. dancing girls, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 18 May 2002, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.
girls, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 28 June 2001, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. girls, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 28 June 2001, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.
boy and girls, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 17 February 2005, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art. boy and girls, 60x90cm, Digital C print, 17 February 2005, courtesy of Ha Jung-woong Collection, Gwangju Museum of art.

Journey Home

Letter to you (2004) comprises hundreds of photographs and a video, documented and presented in a diary-like, somewhat confessional, even “selfie”-like manner. In 2004, Kim Insook embarked on a journey to locate the “essence” of her motherland by visiting her parents’ hometown in Jeju Island, as well as Yanbian, in China, and the demilitarized zone that bisects the two Koreas. Not surprisingly, she failed to locate an “essence” of Korea.

For a person who has long regarded the two Koreas and Japan as her homeland, one can imagine the palpable sense of her disillusionment when she confronted the brutal reality: the divided homeland, which she has of course “known” cerebrally but witnessed and felt in person as her schizophrenic self.

But I must ask: Is it not possible to regard South Korea, North Korea, Yanbian, and Zainichi society in Japan — however imperfect and incomplete each of these may be — as variants of the “essence” of the motherland she longed for?

Sonia Ryang offers an insightful comparison of the Chongryun generations. For members of the first generation, there was a sense of kohyang and choguk separation: that is, between homeland and nation. Even if their hometown was in a southern province, they regarded North Korea as their nation proper, as they saw South Korea as a collaborator with and protectorate of US imperialism, hence deemed not legitimate as the rightful fatherland. The first generation harbored a utopian dream of repatriating to North Korea after reunification. However, the kohyang–choguk separation, or hometown–nation dichotomy, failed to have significant meaning for the next generation. “It was simply impossible,” writes Ryang, “for the second generation to think of Kyongju, Seoul, Pusan, or [J]eju in South Korea as their hometown when they were actually born in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka.”[15] The second generation saw a clear distinction between North Korea as the fatherland and Japan as their living space. Today, most of Chongryun Koreans who consider themselves “overseas nationals” intend to remain overseas.[16]

For Kim Insook to set out on a journey to locate her homeland in South Korea, then, may be considered unusual in that her generation has little interest in returning to either Korea; they regard Japan as their home. But Kim has voluntarily migrated to South Korea and been living in Seoul for more than a decade, thereby giving up the psychological stability that comes with being part of her generation. Kim has explained that her decision to live in South Korea was to “redress the balance of Korea and Japan inside me.”[17] The founding premise of Chongryun may be likened to “diasporic nationalism,” that is, to uphold North Korea as overseas nationals.[18]

Kim’s journey, however, was a search for home, or homeland. For her, the distinction between the two, kohyang and choguk, or nation and homeland, was not so clear cut. What she was looking for, perhaps, was for her true diasporic self. But “[w]hat is the true self of a diasporic subject?” asks Ryang. “Is there such thing as an authentic diasporic subject?”[19]

Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable sizes, 2004, courtesy the artist.
Letter to NIM (you), variable dimensions, mixed media, 2004, courtesy the artist. Letter to NIM (you), variable dimensions, mixed media, 2004, courtesy the artist.

SAIESEO (in between), 2008–2012

The emotionally shattering awakening brought on by her initial journey eventually helped Kim realize that the “essence” of her motherland is to be found in the everyday, the immediate surroundings, without relying on the master narrative of the Korean race or reunification of the peninsula. Some time after her journey, Kim Insook began to document Zainichi Koreans in their private spaces, that is, outside the influence of the Chongryun sphere. These portraits are of individuals, or of family gatherings, in their everyday situations, as well as on traditional Korean holidays. Whereas sweet hours was set in a space isolated from the mainstream Japanese society, in SAIESEO (in between), the effects of both Korean and Japanese cultures and customs permeate and influence each other. Sometimes one sees culturally specific objects — a tatami (mat), a Korean screen, traditional garments, a map of the Korean peninsula, for example — but one cannot always tell the ethnicity of the homeowners simply by looking at the décor and the objects that occupy the space.

The photograph of five men dressed in white garments before or after the Confucian ritual of Jesa is revealing: By focusing on the traditional Japanese décor, one may assume there is a tatami beneath the Korean-style bamboo floor mat, which they have placed for the commemorative occasion. In another photograph, which shows an old woman sitting in the center, a Japanese wardrobe and a stack of Korean-style bedding occupy the geometric spatial divisions often found in Japanese architecture. The kitsch comforter on the floor bears an image of two tigers, unmistakably derived from an anonymous folk painting from the Joseon dynasty, effectively turning the woman into a stand-in for the missing deity who oversees the beasts.

If the children depicted in sweet hours seem to be carefree despite the ideologically charged space they inhabit, SAIESEO presents Zainichi Koreans situated between cultures as they negotiate what it means to be Korean in Japan. In SAIESEO, Kim seems to explore whether a hybrid identity is possible for Zainichi Koreans.[20]

Great-grandmother and I, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist. Great-grandmother and I, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist.
To ancestors, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist. To ancestors, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist.
Everyday life, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist. Everyday life, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist.
Everyday life, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist. Everyday life, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist.
Sisters and I, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist. Sisters and I, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2008, courtesy the artist.
Coming-of-age ceremony, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2010, courtesy the artist. Coming-of-age ceremony, 118 x 150cm, Digital C print, 2010, courtesy the artist.

Diaspora and “True Home”

Simone Weil, in 1943, made a prescient observation about exile, especially relevant to the experience of Chongryun Koreans: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”[21] Edward Said reflects on this and elaborates: “[Although] most remedies for uprootedness . . . are almost as dangerous as what they purportedly remedy . . . the state is one of the most insidious, since worship of the state tends to supplant all other human bonds.”[22]

Although Kim’s departure from Japan was a voluntary one, making her more of an émigré, she is also a descendent of migrants, or exiles, who in the postwar years became incarcerated within the Japanese archipelago. The efficacy of Chongryon ideology has become considerably weakened, but Zainichi identity lives on, despite the fast pace of naturalization. As mentioned earlier, Kim’s practice begins as a way of connecting with others, and her photographs emerge out of long-term relationships. It is human relationships that Kim is committed to represent, and to position them within what she regards as her homeland, in lieu of the state worship she had learned in her Chongryun years.

Sonia Ryang posits that there are two models of diaspora. The first is the politico-classical model — the Jewish and Armenian diasporas, for example —categorized by ethnic persecution resulting in the deprivation of a homeland. The second model, the personal-modern, arises, Ryang says, from “ontological insecurity and an ongoing crisis of identity.” In reality, though, these models are not entirely distinct, and most diasporas have components of both.[23] The plight of the first generation of Zainichi Koreans in Japan may perhaps be considered to be the politico-modern type; the journey of Kim Insook exemplifies the personal-modern model, representing voluntary transnational migration.

However, people continue to move from one place to another, voluntarily or due to circumstances that necessitate a move, and never cease to evolve as human beings. The trajectory of a diaspora, or narratives of transnational itinerant lives, cannot be mapped out neatly in conventional cartography.[24] Diasporic subjects continue to oscillate between their yearnings for homeland and their desire to make their current place home. In the process, they develop multiple identities, and learn to feel at home with themselves and how to live with uncertainties and all the complexity and ambiguity that life in diaspora entails.

The homes that Kim depicts in SAIESEO are never “authentic,” but they bear indices of what I will call cultural impurities. Writes Ryang: “Singular authenticity is a luxury that only people with a secure homeland can afford. . . . People without a homeland by contrast are forever in exile, wandering, in search of home, land, and security.”[25] Diaspora, she writes, “is an ongoing search for self, and as such, the journey of self-creation knows no end.”[26]


Young Min Moon is an artist, critic, and Associate Professor in the Department of Art at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His work has been exhibited in the U.S., Canada, and South Korea. He has published numerous essays on contemporary Korean art, and was Guest Editor of Issue 3.1 of the TAP Review, entitled The Aftereffects of War in Asia: Histories, Pictures and Anxieties (Fall 2012).

Notes

    1. Sonia Ryang, “Introduction,” in Diaspora without Homeland, Sonia Ryang and John Lie, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 9.return to text

    2. Sonia Ryang, North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology, and Identity (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997), 3.return to text

    3. Ibid., 124.return to text

    4. John Lie, Zainichi: Diasporic Nationalism and Postcolonial Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). return to text

    5. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 173. return to text

    6. In August 2014, during a conversation with the artist after she returned to Seoul from a three-month residency in Germany, she expressed her desire to move to another country to live for a period of time. I interpret this wish to be not only her desire to develop her artistic career but also to gain deeper insight from living in places away from her adopted “home,” encountering other diasporic subjects. return to text

    7. The artist explained that the reason it is appropriate to call the language Zainichi taught at Kita Osaka Korean School “our language”— as opposed to Korean — is that it is a hybrid language of South Korean, North Korean, and that which has been used for translating Japanese. return to text

    8. Kim Insook, “The Start of Individuality,” in Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through Children (Tokyo: Mori Art Museum, 2014).return to text

    9. Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991), 94.return to text

    10. Ryang, North Koreans in Japan, 205.return to text

    11. Ibid., 56.return to text

    12. Ibid., p. 204.return to text

    13. Ibid., p. 180.return to text

    14. Pride and Prejudice: Dialogue between Naoki Sakai and Jihyun Lim [Omangwa Pyungyeon] (Seoul: Humanist, 2003), 373.return to text

    15. Ryang, North Koreans in Japan, 172.return to text

    16. Ibid., 204.return to text

    17. Kim Insook, “The Start of Individuality.”return to text

    18. Here I borrow the title of John Lie’s book, mentioned above.return to text

    19. Ryang, Diaspora without Homeland, 13–15. return to text

    20. Ryang, “Introduction,” in Diaspora without Homeland, 18. In the same volume, see Youngmi Lim’s chapter, “Reinventing Korean Roots and Zainichi Routes,” which probes the micro-politics of everyday life of naturalized Zainichi. return to text

    21. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 183.return to text

    22. Ibid.return to text

    23. Ryang, Writing Selves in Diaspora: Ethnography of Autobiographics of Korean Women in Japan and the United States (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), xv.return to text

    24. Ryang, ibid., 164.return to text

    25. Ryang, Diaspora without Homeland, 15.return to text

    26. Ibid., 14. return to text