Telling and Selling Your Story: Rightful Citizenship, Profit, and Belonging in the North Korean Migrant Community Open Access

Bohn, Mary (Spring 2020)

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This thesis explores how North Korean migrants craft and publicly present their stories of “escape” from North Korea and discuss their backgrounds as “escapees” (t’albukcha) in South Korea. South Korean public perception of the over 33,000 North Korean migrants living in South Korea as of April 2020 defines migrants as ideologically significant, at-times foreboding and at-times intriguing, “Others.” While existing scholarship explores how South Koreans perceive and represent migrants in society and popular culture, little attention has been paid to how North Korean migrants have gone about the work of self-representation within their unique societal context. This thesis uncovers how migrants work within and outside of South Korean conventions and expectations to publicly tell and sell their stories. I approach this issue through analysis of migrants’ self-representations in YouTube videos and ethnographic fieldwork. Each of the thesis’s chapters explores one of three prominent physical and virtual “spaces” in order to demonstrates how historical and social context as well as the medium of representation affect migrants’ personal narratives. The first chapter explores migrants’ testimonials in evangelical churches where migrants’ testimonies have been used to demonstrate South Korea’s superiority over North Korea for decades. The second chapter analyzes the variety television show Now on My Way to Meet You (2011—present) that encourages migrants to propagate South Korean “multiculturalism” and “tolerance.” The third chapter explores popular YouTube channels (mid-2010s—present) where migrants commodify their North Koreanness for South Korean audiences.

My findings demonstrate that migrants’ self-representations result from a negotiation between South Korean actors and influences and migrants’ own goals. I argue that North Korean migrants work within hegemonic nationalism and citizenship to argue for their right to traverse borders of nation and class. Through publicly sharing their stories, migrants position themselves as mobile agents and bearers of cultural and monetary capital. This thesis suggests that digital media provides migrants new spaces to not just reproduce, but also disrupt South Korean nativist hegemony as they tell and profit from the stories about themselves that they want to tell and find ways to move themselves upward through stratified social structures. 

Table of Contents

Introduction, 1

Chapter 1: Narrating Salvation, Upward Mobility, and Righteous Belonging in Migrants’ Church Testimonials, 22

Chapter 2: Meaningful Encounters on Now on My Way to Meet You, 48

Chapter 3: The Work of Self-Representation in North Korean Migrants’ YouTube Channels, 81

Conclusion, 102

Bibliography, 106 

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