Thesis: Free to be: North Korean migrants and the South Korean evangelical church (2010)
This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Christian conversion of North Korean migrants who arrive in South Korea by way of China in the context of a transforming Northeast Asia. In this dissertation I observe that while past anticommunist South Korean regimes have publicly celebrated North Korean defectors as national heroes and heroines, today it is only the evangelical church that invites them to criticize the North. I argue that North Korean migrants’ conversion to Christianity is a cultural project with considerable political and ideological hues that reveals the key characteristics of South Korean anticommunist evangelical nationalism.
Based on 2006-2007 ethnographic fieldwork in Seoul, South Korea, and Yanbian, China, I approach evangelical nationalism as a process of “becoming” rather than “being” South Korean Christians. Therefore I approach the Cold War legacy and the politics of global Christianity through the personal trajectories of North Korean migrants. By focusing on the re-subjectification projects of individual migrants, I am able to demonstrate the ambiguity and contested process of Christian conversion.
My ethnography asserts that the evangelical church, in concert with international anticommunist and North Korean human rights advocates, renders North Korean migrants as “freed” from the communist regime, and “revives” their religiosity by replacing Kimilsung-ism (the ideology of Kim Il-sung) with South Korean Christianity. In turn, my study examines the migrants’ evangelical conversion as a contest over what constitutes “true” or authentic Christianity and what Korean-ness should look like in a transforming East Asia.
At the heart of competing practices and discourses between North and South Korean Christians are unexpected cultural differences that undermine the myth of ethnic homogeneity and generate social discrimination. The call for spiritual integrity in turn is also complex: in the face of the decline and social critique of the South Korean church, some North Korean Christians have claimed a leadership role in “Korean” religious revival by evoking their “Christian passage,” namely a narrative of their escape from the North to the South through biblical language.