Making and Faking Kinship: Marriage and Labor Migration between China and South Korea
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In the years leading up to and directly following rapprochement with China in 1992, the South Korean government looked to ethnic Korean (Chosǒnjok) brides and laborers from northeastern China to restore productivity to its industries and countryside. South Korean officials and the media celebrated these overtures not only as a pragmatic solution to population problems but also as a patriotic project of reuniting ethnic Koreans after nearly fifty years of Cold War separation.
As Caren Freeman's fieldwork in China and South Korea shows, the attempt to bridge the geopolitical divide in the name of Korean kinship proved more difficult than any of the parties involved could have imagined. Discriminatory treatment, artificially suppressed wages, clashing gender logics, and the criminalization of so-called runaway brides and undocumented workers tarnished the myth of ethnic homogeneity and exposed the contradictions at the heart of South Korea's transnational kin-making project.
Unlike migrant brides who could acquire citizenship, migrant workers were denied the rights of long-term settlement, and stringent quotas restricted their entry. As a result, many Chosǒnjok migrants arranged paper marriages and fabricated familial ties to South Korean citizens to bypass the state apparatus of border control. Making and Faking Kinship depicts acts of "counterfeit kinship," false documents, and the leaving behind of spouses and children as strategies implemented by disenfranchised people to gain mobility within the region's changing political economy.
Although the symbiotic needs served by the back-and-forth movement of people between the two countries were clearly important in explaining the surge of Choso˘njok brides (and other migrants) into South Korea, some empirical questions prompted me to undertake this research. What exactly was entailed in a “marriage tour,” and why would the South Korean government promote and facilitate this type of transnational matchmaking? Even more perplexing, why would large numbers of Choso˘njok women opt to
consequences of their marital decisions. A member of the bride’s family, either a South Korean relative or a Choso˘njok relative sojourning in South Korea, might be called upon to investigate the circumstances of the groom. One man recounted how, before he had even laid eyes upon his Choso˘njok wife, the bride’s parents, who were working illegally in South Korea at the time, stayed at his house for three days to assess his marriage potential for their daughter. It was only after he passed muster
norms, as Yunsik’s quote above suggests. It is not difficult to imagine how weighty familial responsibilities on both sides and clashing ideologies of kinship and gender can create volatile tensions for Choso˘njok women and South Korean men, a topic I explore in greater depth in the following chapter. As discussed in the previous chapter, many South Korean men who traveled to China in search of a bride were motivated by the desire to find a compliant wife who would live under the same roof with
believe?” I explained that my research objectives were not so much a matter of determining the truth as presenting different perspectives on the issue. He seemed not to understand my point. He looked at me hard and said, “When talking to Choso˘njok women, believe no more than fifty percent.” Was I naive to believe Hyunsuk’s tale of deception? Why would she have agreed to share the personal details of her marital history with a foreign anthropologist if not to set the record straight and vindicate
Choso˘njok and South Koreans as they do about the immorality of individual Choso˘njok women. Placing public concern about Choso˘njok women and the purity of their motives in the broader socioeconomic context in which it occurs allows us to see how the particular expressions of ambivalence toward Choso˘njok brides are symptomatic of a broader uneasiness among South Koreans regarding their place in a world of rapid historical change, transnational travel, and global economic opportunism. As South