There is great concern about the freedom of North Koreans, and this has led many to go to great lengths to help them defect via an “underground railroad.”
But are they truly free when under the supervision of those watching them, especially when it involves supervision from those with religious motives, and a long resettlement process when they arrive?
Ju Hui Judy Han, assistant professor of geography at the University of Toronto, asks some hard questions in her recent publication in Critical Asian Studies about not only this subject, but how the defectors are freed – often, its by paying a broker.
Han elaborates on these and other topics in the second of a two-part interview with NK News.
NK News: Could you elaborate on the term “political theology of custody” used by Christian networks on North Koreans in China? Is “custody” intended as in the cases of minors assigned to social services or similar instances?
Judy Han: I intend it to refer to yes, minors in custody, and also people in state custody and police custody. I started to think about the variety of meanings associated with the term “custody” as I was trying to explicate my research findings in northeast China. Being in custody means you are protected by someone, or that you are being cared for by someone, or being detained by someone. You may be getting the attention that you need, but you are also held and spatially confined in the process.
The concept of custody captures the spatial tension that exists in the shelter situation – care and control, attention and detention. As a political geographer, the space of the shelter struck me as one that relies heavily on this “political theology of custody.” And by “political theology,”
I am drawing from the wide-ranging scholarship in political theory that looks at political theology as an interaction between politics and religion, and how theological concepts shape social, political and economic discourses that may be commonly thought of as simply “secular.” Rather than drawing a sharp division between the religious and the secular, I join other scholars who see religious intentions and theological ideas underpinning politics, and likewise, political intentions and ideas underpinning religion, too.
These domains are not separate or separable, in my view, and the term “political theology” usefully captures the intertwined dynamics between religion and politics. Custody is also a useful concept that moves us towards the connections between care, containment and even incarceration.
NK News: Are North Koreans really free, then, when they leave North Korea and arrive at one of these shelters? Are they free to roam around town?
Judy Han: I would say no, they’re not free to roam around town. In my research, I have encountered some North Koreans with a bit more mobility than others, in that some attended schools, went out to buy groceries or attend church, and their mobilities were in part a result of their ability to blend with the local population. If they spoke Chinese well and if they knew the area, of course these things tended to lead to greater mobility. But for the majority of cases, they remained in hiding and strictly limited their movements to indoor spaces under the supervision of the missionaries who cared for them; it is a shelter after all, and there are risks in leaving a shelter.
‘For the majority of cases, North Koreans remained in hiding and strictly limited their movements to indoor spaces … there are risks in leaving a shelter’
Whether these conditions constitute freedom is a difficult question. Without legal status and living in fear under the watchful eye of a government that perceives their very presence as illegal, can one be truly free? Without the ability to leave and return home to North Korea as they please, and being so dependent on missionaries who shelter them, can undocumented North Koreans in China be considered free? Probably not.
NK News: You write that refugees seem to go through a constant process of custody, first under the eye of North Korean authorities, then under the brokers who smuggle them into China, then in the safe houses, and finally through the resettlement centers in South Korea, and various reintegration program. They seem to be never really free.
Judy Han: That’s exactly what I’m getting at – the impossibility of complete freedom. Are we really ever free? This isn’t just an abstract philosophical exercise, but also an ethical question. This is also where I take issues with the idea of “providing” or “giving” freedom to anyone. Of course this is not just about North Koreans but also about a great number of Americans as well, with millions of undocumented immigrants, people living in deepening poverty, and a growing number of people detained and incarcerated.
Rather than looking at North Korea or North Koreans outside of North Korea as a freakish exception, we can draw connections to a variety of political issues unfolding closer to home. North Koreans are not the only ones who lack freedom in this world, and they’re certainly not the only people who desire freedom.
So instead of looking simply at North Korean outmigration as a clear-cut pursuit of freedom, I would like to pay closer attention to the political dynamics, both short-term and long-term. As scholars, we should be able to look at North Korea as a country among others, a particular place that is fascinating in many aspects, full of complex people, histories, and contradictions. Without romanticizing or exoticizing. I would love to read more mature works of journalism and scholarship about North Korea – writings without words like “bizarre,” “mysterious,” or “weird” that only perpetuate the Orientalist representation of North Koreans as an inscrutable Other.
NK News: In the article you also mention that “(o)ne missionary even recollected rescuing several girls at once from a broker by purchasing them together at a discounted price.” How do you think this affects the women in question?
Judy Han: Many North Korean women I spoke to were painfully aware of these transactions and calculations, and I think it’s important to remember that they are not just passive, unwitting victims. The women are aware of the conditions of their captivity and rescue, and know that it can involve monetary exchange. They often make difficult decisions in difficult situations. If we take seriously the metaphor of the so-called Underground Railroad, we are alluding to a network of resistance and eventual abolition of slavery in the U.S. The practice of purchasing slaves in order to free them is controversial in part because this puts money in the pockets of slave owners and traders.
‘North Korean women are aware of the conditions of their captivity and rescue, and know that it can involve monetary exchange’
We should be troubled by these practices of purchasing people in order to rescue them, and rewarding brokers who profit from these transactions. Of course, these transactions are not limited to just Christian missionaries. There is “a larger illicit economy involving advocates, brokers, drivers, smugglers, buyers, bribe-accepting officials and all who profit from their involvement in the so-called Underground Railroad. What I want to point out is that evangelical Christian missionaries do not operate untouched by this illicit economy. Even if a missionary did not want to, they typically operate in this geography and co-exist with these other actors. Missionaries are often implicated in these networks precisely because they also work underground, and they are not immune from this political economy of rescue and care.
NK News: Another passage of your essay speaks of missionaries complaining, sort of, about North Korean women getting “adjusted to a more active sexual life” after their escape from North Korea and perhaps their experiences in China (either in marriages or being forced into prostitution), and that this is a troubling to evangelical groups in Seoul, once they rescue the girls and send them to South Korea.
Picture: Sue, Flickr Creative Commons
Judy Han: There are two things here. Certainly, there is a culture that stigmatizes and denigrates North Korean women who may have had multiple marriages or experiences in sex work. This is part of a larger moralistic attitude towards women’s sexuality, one that considers women’s chastity as a moral virtue and treats sex workers as women who have sold their bodies and damaged their dignity in the process. Such moral discourse affects how North Korean women are viewed, whether they engage in sex work or work in bars, or whether they choose marriage to a Chinese man as a survival strategy. Of course, missionaries are not the only ones who hold contempt and prejudice.
‘There is a stereotypical perception in South Korea that all North Korean women must have had experiences in the illicit and “immoral” sexual economy …’
There is a stereotypical perception in South Korea that all North Korean women must have had experiences in the illicit and “immoral” sexual economy as part of their migration trajectory, and this casts cultural stigma and sexual suspicion on North Korean women in general. Add to this the popular nostalgic notion in South Korea that North Korean women are less tainted by consumerism and feminism, that North Korean women are somehow more beautiful than their South Korean counterparts – the famous saying, namnam puknyeo – and this further sexualizes women from North Korea in a stereotypical and often sexist ways. I have seen these perceptions play out particularly in evangelical Christian discourses, intensified by religious moral codes that discipline women’s sexuality.
NK News: You mention that “(b)y acting as self-appointed custodians for vulnerable subjects who expect prosecution – and no protection – from the governments of North Korea or China … evangelical missionaries discipline their subjects into the mold of proper Christian subjects.” Does this mean that evangelization takes precedence over providing unconditional help, safety and rescue?
Judy Han: I don’t think one takes precedence over the other, per se, but I do think that many evangelical missionaries believe that Christian salvation is ultimately more important than achieving immediate economic relief or short-term political freedom. Simply exiting from North Korea, in the eyes of the missionaries, doesn’t equal true or eternal salvation unless the migrants also embrace the Christian faith. Granted, I have yet to meet a Christian missionary who outright demands conversion as a condition for food, clothing or shelter, but unequal power dynamics and vulnerabilities shape their interactions. As in all unequal power dynamics, expectations could be obvious and overbearing, or they could be subtle, even unspoken.
‘…simply exiting from North Korea, in the eyes of the missionaries, doesn’t equal true or eternal salvation unless the migrants also embrace the Christian faith’
Missionaries may try to compel conversion and discuss faith with the people they shelter, with questions like “have you heard the Good News (Christian Gospel)” or they could require daily Bible study as in the shelter I visited. I want to believe that missionaries being well-intentioned people, they would leave open the possibility that their proselytizing gestures would be unwelcome or unwanted, and that these must be choices made by the people themselves. Most missionaries are all too familiar with “rice Christians” who simply profess faith in order to receive help, and most know that conversion is not something that happens in a flash.
Conversion is a lifelong pursuit, a commitment to faith and Christians grapple constantly with doubt. I just wish more people – missionaries, advocates and scholars alike – would embrace the critical space of doubt with humility instead of charging ahead with absolute certainty, as if they know all the answers, as if their claim to compassion justify their action.
Main picture: Michael Rank, Flickr Creative Commons
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