Soo-Jung LEE

Thesis: Making and unmaking the Korean national division: Separated families in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras (2006)


This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Korean national division and the subjects it produced. It analyzes how the division and its subjects have been structured by the global Cold War and, in turn, how they have been transformed in the so-called “Post-Cold War era.”

Focusing on the issues of separated families who have functioned metonymically as emblems of national division, I analyze the workings of South Korean politics based on the state of emergency it sustained and its current faltering. I argue that the category of “separated family” itself was a product of South Korean division politics, and that the discourse of “separated families” was a South Korean narrative strategy to construct anticommunist citizen-subjects so as to bolster the legitimacy of South Korean regimes in competition with North Korea.

My thesis also demonstrates how two groups of separated families were differently produced through division politics. While Silhyangmin have been publicly fostered as “enunciating subjects” who speak for the anticommunist state, Wo lbukcha families have been silenced as the families of “the enemy.” My dissertation elaborates the various mechanisms through which both Silhyangmin and Wo lbukcha families have been produced as “division subjects” burdened with an extreme insecurity and a self-censoring mechanism based on a binary Cold War logic. In this way, my dissertation highlights the concrete effects of the Cold War world order, in the context of local cultural forms and institutions in South Korea.

My dissertation also explores the diverse effects of the Post-Cold War transformation on separated family members. It demonstrates how the issue of separated families have again been mobilized, but in a different configuration, to promote a new nation-building project in the era of “national reconciliation” and “neoliberal global competition.” It examines how diverse separated family members are reinterpreting their histories and repositioning themselves at this contemporary historical juncture. By doing so, I highlight the social process of change from the perspective of these national subjects in relation to ongoing social and political transformation. I examine this transformation not as a linear movement between two exclusive states but as a reconfiguration of a social field.