An Oral Case Study

Flüchtlinge aus Nordkorea

Korean Social Sciences Review | Vol. 1, No. 1, 2011: 143-184

New Citizens’ Participation and ‘Struggles for Recognition’:
An Oral Case Study of Identity Construction of North Korean Defector-Residents*
Yi, Hee Young**

North Korean defectors who are settling into South Korean society are becoming a ‘meaningful’ minority. Having experienced the ideological antagonisms produced by the Cold War and now trying to make their lives in South Korea, i.e., on the other side of the political border, these actors’ biographies are of great socio-theoretical significance as a social reality mutually constructed by the individual and society. Following this perspective, this study employs a qualitative methodology to examine the socio-political identities of North Korean defector-residents as they are (re) constructed in interaction with ‘generalized others’ in Korean society.

The case study shows, firstly, that North Korean defector-residents carry out everyday recognition struggles in order to assert their civil rights which cannot be reduced to South Korean citizenship. Transcending the binary political logic of having to choose between ‘pro-North’ or ‘anti-North’ as well as going beyond the legal belonging known as ‘citizen of the Republic of Korea’, they engage in various forms of everyday struggles for recognition, from ‘devotion,’ and ‘assimilation,’ to ‘superiority’, and ‘criticism.’ This can also be understood as a process of identity (re)construction whereby North Korean defector-residents interact with the reality of being disrespected by generalized others in South Korean society—as coming from an ideologically hostile nation or as ‘food refugees’—, and through which they strive to secure their self-respect and social esteem.

Secondly, the settlement of North Korean defector-residents in South Korean society signifies the participation of new citizens with personal life stories, political belonging, and socio-cultural experiences that differ from those of other South Koreans. In particular, the various forms of ‘distancing’ based on the biographical experiences of North Korean defectorresidents do not indicate their ‘lack of adaptation’ to the dominant value system in South Korean society, but rather imply the possibility of acting as a new critical power for South Korean civil society.

Thirdly, in order to overcome the limitations of existing research on North Korean defector-residents’ ‘adaptation’, this study explores theoretical possibilities of understanding them as active subjects of a multicultural civil society. In this process, the author inquires into the discussions on identity formation based on the notion of ‘recognition struggle’ as one such possibility. At the same time, the findings show that Honneth’s ‘struggle for recognition’, which implicitly presupposes the modern nation-state as the public sphere for action, is limited in conveying the lives of migrant and other minorities that are actualized by acts of border crossings between states.

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* Translated from the published article in Korean Journal of Sociology, 44(1): 207-241, 2010 with permission from the The Korean Sociological Association.
** Professor, Department of Sociology, Daegu University