By Joowon Park, author of Belonging in a House Divided: The Violence of the North Korean Resettlement Process
In October 2022, the decomposed skeletal remains of a 49-year-old North Korean woman were discovered in an apartment in the Yangcheon district of Seoul. Rent had not been paid for over thirteen months and the Seoul Housing & Communities Corporation authorities had forcibly opened the door as part of their eviction process. Outside, postal notices dating back to October of the previous year remained slapped on the front door. The woman had on winter clothes, hinting that she died the winter before—nearly a year had gone by without anyone noticing her absence and death.
The news of this woman’s death came as a shock to those who knew her. She escaped North Korea and resettled in South Korea alone in 2002, and she was viewed by many as a case of “successful” adaptation to South Korean society. She initially worked as a nurse and later transitioned to a job in counseling to help other North Korean defectors and refugees with their resettlement experiences. She had quit her job in December 2017, expressing interest in continuing her education. However, by December 2020, she stopped paying rent and utility fees, leading to the eventual steps for eviction between 2021-22.
This particular tragedy echoed a similar case that occurred in July 2019 while I was conducting fieldwork in Seoul. The neighbors reported a foul smell coming from the apartment, and when the police opened the door, the bodies of a 42-year-old woman and her 6-year-old son were already in a state of decomposition. Two months before, the woman had withdrawn the remaining ₩3,858 KRW, approximately $3 US dollars, from her bank account. Inside the fridge was a bag of red pepper powder and on the ground lay an empty bottle of soy sauce. Had it not been for the odor emanating from the corpses, it was possible their deaths may have gone undiscovered for much longer. The mother had been what many welfare workers would consider an exemplary case of resettlement—the woman had completed the various vocational programs sponsored by the government, found a job, and got off welfare within nine months. Yet, as the deaths of the mother and son revealed, they remained invisible to their neighbors and the resettlement system that supports North Koreans.
These victims likely died from starvation while marginalized from society—an irony, since they had left North Korea to escape repression, poverty, and hunger. My book, Belonging in a House Divided, wrestles with this irony by drawing attention to the invisible violence that resettled North Koreans experience in South Korea. The book addresses several interrelated issues, for example, how past experiences of violence contribute to an ongoing sense of alienation and othering in the form of sexualization and ethnicization. I also examine how contradictions in global and state refugee policies complicate their migration, and the politics of humanitarianism that structure discourses of North Korean suffering and deservingness (of protection).
What is the impact of the continuing militarization of the Korean peninsula on the process of resettlement? How do Cold War politics—such as the fear and suspicion that North Korean defectors may be spies—contribute to their alienation? What is the link between China’s one-child policy and the gendered migration of North Koreans? How are kinship relations stretched across the Korean Demilitarized Zone and how do these (dis)connections shape their everyday lives?
While most cases of refugee resettlement around the world present challenges related to the host country’s unenthusiastic acceptance of refugees who are culturally or ethnically dissimilar to the citizen body, Belonging in a House Divided draws attention to the accumulative and overlapping layers of violence that transpire despite the shared cultural heritage between North and South Koreans, providing significant new insights into the relationship between violence and citizenship. As a Korean raised outside the peninsula but later drafted into the South Korean military post-PhD, I weave in autoethnographic accounts from the army to provide a vivid analysis of the endlessness of war and militarization on the Korean peninsula. It is my hope that the book contributes to our understandings of the Korean conflict by untangling the bitter global politics embedded throughout this region.