Refugee, returnee, borderland: the accidental activists and Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean
ABSTRACT Working through the entanglements of diaspora, national identification, and minority formation in the protracted aftermath of the Korean War, this article intends to take the dyadic subject of North Korean defector/refugee as an entry point for unpacking the rhetoric of freedom and salvation. The defector/refugee figure often rests upon a transpacific passage from Asia to North America and is embedded in the inter-Asian history of the Cold War. The co-mingling of transpacific and inter-Asian factors provides us with a comparative lens to view the transnational minority formation of the Asian American in relation to borderland subjects such as the North Korean defector/refugee and the Joseonjok (Korean Chinese) who have remained invisible to them until now. Taking a cultural studies approach that regards literature as a terrain of political engagement for reconsidering the narratives of freedom in relation to the hierarchy of nationhood embedded in the protracted Cold War in Asia, I examine Krys Lee’s novel How I Became a North Korean (2016), an Asian American text that weaves together the story of an Asian American returnee with those of North Korean refugees in the North Korean-China borderland. Conflating refugee and returnee, Lee’s novel occasions an exploration of the ethics of co-presence that undergirded Asian American studies, to consider both the predicaments of North Korean refugees and the linkage between Asian America and Asia. Taking literature as a form of activism, this article furthermore seeks to reflect on the promise of activism by asking how the demands for the right for return may complicate the orthodox of humanitarian imagination, and render a moment for relational thinking beyond representation.
KEYWORDS: North Korea; refugee; returnee; Cold War; Asian American; Krys Lee; geopolitics of relation; ethics of co-presence
Notes on contributor
Chih-ming Wang is associate research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. He is the author of Transpacific Articulations: Student Migration and the Remaking of Asian America (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013); co-editor of Precarious Belongings: Affect and Nationalism in Asia (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017); and guest-editor of the “Asian American Studies in Asia” special issue for Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (June 2012). His research focuses on Asian American literature and cultural studies in transpacific and inter-Asian contexts. His articles have appeared in American Quarterly, Amerasia Journal, Cultural Studies, positions, Boundary 2 and Chinese America: History and Perspectives.