What the Resocialization of North Korean Immigrants Tells us about Changes in National Identity in Contemporary South Korea
What the Resocialization of Ethnic Korean Migrants Tells us about National Identity Change in Contemporary South Korea Working Paper For Academy of Korean Studies Colloquium August 26, 2016
This working paper presents preliminary research findings from surveys that measure the national identity of resettled North Korean migrants in South Korea, focusing on the salience of ethnicity. Using the same questionnaire as the one used to measure the national identity of the South Korean population, this research considers competing hypotheses of national identity change and finds that neither exposure to South Korea, nor time spent in North Korea prior to defection, explains the variation in the data. Instead, this research finds evidence that ethnicity’s salience is a function of aging (i.e., life-cycle effects). The findings have implications for Korean Studies and the comparative study of nationalism and national identity.
INTRODUCTION In addition to the political changes accompanying South Korea’s democratic transition in 1987, the two decades since have seen significant demographic changes: an influx in foreigners, foreign brides, overseas Koreans, and migrant workers. More than three percent of all residents in Korea were born elsewhere and projections show that by 2030 nearly 10 percent of the population will be constituted by immigrants and those not ethnically Korean (Korea Immigration Service 2015; Moon 2015). Despite long being understood as an ethnically homogenous nation, “few observers can now state with much conviction or cogency that contemporary south Korea is a monocultural and monoethnic society,” writes John Lie, in his introduction to the edited volume Multicultural Korea? (2014, 1). For a nation where race, or ethnicity, has long been the most salient and celebrated feature of national identity, (Shin 2006) these demographic changes have precipitated a new conversation on Korean nationhood, especially the notion that (South) Korea is, or ought to be, an ethnically homogenous nation. Public opinion data suggest a decline in the salience of ethnicity. Moon Chung-in (2012), reading 2007 data from the Ministry of Gender and Family Affairs, finds that it “reveals changing aspects of South Korean ethnic national identity.” (222) Specifically, the data show that, out of a total of 1,000 respondents, “72.6 percent… answered that Korean people do not have to insist on pure blood or the oneness of the Korean race, and 79.4 percent showed a favorable attitude toward foreigners who married Koreans, making a sharp contrast with the past.” (223) If real and lasting, this change, nothing short of a transformation, comes at a time when scholars of nationalism, reflecting on the historical relationship between ethnicity and nationality in an era of increased international migrant flows and rapidly changing demographics, anticipate a revival of ethnic nationalism in societies where a significant change in the ethnic makeup is occurring (Smith 1998; Shin 2006). Given this theoretical expectation and the history of Korean nationalism, a decline in ethnic nationalism is both notable and puzzling. In other words, worthy of investigation.
Cross-sectional data support Moon’s conclusions. Using data collected at three points in time over the last eight years (2005, 2010, and 2013), Kim Jiyoon finds that among the preconditions for “Koreaness” (i.e., a South Korean national identity), those associated with ethnic nationalism, namely “being born in Korea” and “having the Korean bloodline,” have declined in importance. But ethnicity’s decline does not hold for all age groups. A breakdown by age cohort (see Graph 1) for the 2013 data indicates a clear gap between the 50s age cohort and the 60s (and older) and everyone younger, but especially between the 20s age cohort and everyone older. In other words, ethnicity appears to be a less salient feature of national identity for young(er) South Koreans. The reason for the variation across time and within the South Korean population, Kim argues, is due to the rise in the number of migrants to South Korea and the broader demographic changes cited above. Others agree with Kim that ethnic nationalism is waning or on the verge of being eclipsed, positing its replacement by a civic or political nationalism (Kang and Lee 2011; Moon 2012), or some form of globalized-cultural nationalism (Campbell 2015). Others do not specify an alternative nationalism, but find evidence that ethnicity is being contested as the defining characteristic of South Korean nationalism (Lee 2009). Similarly, some are unsure what a new South Korean nationalism de-linked from ethnicity might look like, even though they see a clear de-linking of the two (Lee 2010). What all approaches indicate, even if only indirectly, is that there is something different to the developmental experiences in 21st century South Korea, especially for South Koreans who spent all or some of their formative years in times very different from that of their grandparents, parents, and older co-workers – i.e., South Korean youth.
THEORETICAL IMPLICATIONS AND METHODOLOGICAL CONCERNS The argument that the type of nationalism that exists in South Korea is undergoing a fundamental transition has significant theoretical implications. But due to space constraints, we will not address these here. What we will address, however, is the serious shortcoming in the extant literature regarding the mechanism(s) of change in South Korean national identity, specifically the salience of ethnicity. Studies which purport to pinpoint recent changes and variation in South Korean national identity by studying South Koreans come up against a formidable methodological hurdle: disaggregating age from experience. The average South Korean is born in the country, goes to school there, gets married there, finds a job there, and lives life from birth to death in, for all intents and purposes, the same country. South Koreans, in other words, exist in a silo (as do the vast majority of any given national population). One cannot determine whether a fundamental change has occurred in South Korean national identity by looking only at data on youth opinion (e.g., Kim 2014), or by speaking only with university-age students (Campbell 2015). The impact of exposure to contemporary South Korea cannot actually be determined, and one cannot say with any degree of certainty what mechanism explains the variation across age cohorts, or why young people seemingly think differently from their elders. Is the variation due to generational effects, as the existing literature suggest (Kim 2014; Campbell 2015)? This is to say that younger people are more likely to see ethnicity as a less salient feature of national identity because of the conditions under which they are coming of age, implying that this new identity, or predisposition towards the nation, will be enduring over the life-cycle. It is hard to say for sure, and arguments in the literature come up short. Indeed, the data reproduced in Table 1 above, which is used to make the claim that ethnic nationalism is on the decline indicates that the variation is more likely explained by life-cycle effects, which is to suggest that the natural propensity for people to grow more conservative as they age is positively correlated with an increase in ethnicity’s salience. This methodological shortcoming confounds conclusions about changes in South Korean national identity using data on South Koreans. It is hard to say what, exactly, is causing the observed variation. It is not unreasonable to claim that those coming of coming of age in structural and historical conditions different from older cohorts, or generations, engenders new and enduring political orientations and identities that remain basically entrenched throughout the life-cycle. The conditions under which young(er) people are coming of age are easily distinguishable from older people in South Korean society, and the generational effects argument does indeed find support in classical socialization theory. (Mannheim 1928; Jennings 1987; Chang and Wang 2005; Rigger 2006) At least one study (Jones and Smith 2001) indicates that post-industrial transitions and economic openness promote more inclusive national identities – i.e., those not based on exclusive characteristics, like ethnicity. But if age and experience are perfectly correlated, it is extremely difficult to test whether the observed effect is actually due to generational effects or some other effect. How, then, can age be de-coupled from exposure for the Korean population? In other words, how can we measure the impact that living in South Korea has on national identity, particularly the saliency of ethnicity?
“Natural experiments” and the study of resettled North Korean migrants in South Korea The answer is to look at a sub-group within South Korean society for whom age is not perfectly correlated with exposure. Such a group exists. There are currently more than 29,000 resettled North Korean migrants living permanently in South Korea as South Korean citizens. For this group, nearly all of whom spent at least some, and for many most, of their life in North Korea, age can be disaggregated form their experience living in South Korea; having recently arrived, the exposure is new and its impact measurable. In other words, by looking at resettled North Korean migrants we are able to measure the effect that living in South Korea has on the ethnic and national identities of ethnic Koreans who were born and grew up (at least partially) elsewhere. It matters that the country of origins for this group is North Korea. The division of the peninsula and the subsequent divergent paths of development taken have created conditions of a (quasi-) natural experiment. We can consider how divergent socioeconomic and political conditions affect national identity, using the opinions of North Korean migrants as reflective of national identities developed, at least in part, in an environment very different from South Korea’s. Comparative theoretical and empirical studies of ethnic and civic nationalisms (Smith 1998; Smith and Jones 2001) indicate that in closed and internationally disconnected polities experiencing economic hardships – e.g., North Korea -- ethnic nationalism is likely to be strong. The study of Korean nationalism in North and South Korea (Shin et al. 1999; Myers 2010) supports this comparative and theoretical claim. So, too, does a reading of contemporary state discourse in North Korea (Daily NK 2006). In short, evidence indicates that given the contrast in social, political, and demographic conditions, ethnic nationalism is a relatively stronger force in North Korea than the South. It stands to reason, then, that ethnicity will be salient across all age cohorts among those having grown up in North Korea. People coming of age in contemporary North Korea are doing so under conditions not altogether different from those that existed during South Korea’s early- to late-development years (1961-1990), and it is under such conditions that ethnicity can and indeed was instrumentalized as the defining feature of the nation by national elites (Shin et al. 2006). While it is risky to conflate elite opinion with mass opinion, the former certainly has more influence over discourse than the latter. It thus stands to reason, from a generational perspective, that ethnicity will be salient across all age cohorts of North Korean migrants. The study of the national identity of resettled North Korean migrants leads us to a set of questions and a helpful body of theoretical literature. Research into the political resocialization of migrants finds that they do indeed adjust, over time, becoming more like their host-country compatriots. (White et al. 2008) And research findings in other disciplines suggest resettled North Korean migrants do take on, at least in part, South Korean identities (Cheon 2004; Cho 2006; Choo 2006; Cheon et al. 2011). Findings for Korea are, however, still preliminary and limited mainly to the ethnographic field; in other words, the picture is only partially painted. If coming of age in South Korea today actually explains the variation in ethnicity’s salience, then we can expect to find support for this claim in the response from resettled North Korean migrants. What, then, is the impact (if any at all) on national identity for North Korean migrants resettling in South Korea? This research proposes to use survey data, supported by interviews and focus groups, to more systematically probe two identity-related questions: 1) Do ethnic Korean migrants adjust? Do prior experiences affect how they see themselves in their new country? Do these migrants learn from their new environment to be more like South Koreans, or do they resist change? And 2) How influential are previous socialization experiences to the patterns of change?