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  • Valentina Saavedra

Identity of Immigrant Spouses and North Korean Refugees


Discourse and representation has a lasting effect on the way society as a whole views a community. The identity that is constructed through the conversations held in mass media can create boundaries that limits those who are constrained by those boundaries and can dictate a person’s perception of that community. In South Korea, problems of representation run through the North Korean women refugee population and the immigrant spouse population. Portrayed in often contradictory categories by both media and governmental policy, these women are reduced to one-dimensional figures instead of being regarded as a whole human being, and are often discussed as objects rather than people. The discourse that surrounds both these parties of immigrants shapes the way they are viewed in South Korea and also creates certain identities that they are forced to inhabit because of the ideology that engulfs them.

Before delving into the representation of these immigrant groups within South Korea, it is important to establish what discourse and language truly are. Language is a system, which implies rules and order, that is arbitrary and only given meaning through those that use language and assign it according to a user’s convention (Benwell 3). However, language is not just grammar. Language requires a knowledge of the context and the meaning behind each lexeme. Language is also an “emblem of groupness, a symbol, [and] a psychological rallying point” (Benwell 3). Many languages even have “intangible symbolic aspects” that are incorporated into their use in everyday life, usually deeply engrained in the “histories and cultures of those who speak it” (Benwell 3). The emblem of groupness and intangible symbolic aspects are characteristics of a language that contribute to the creation of an identity for a group or community. For example, words like ‘migrant wife’ or ‘defector’ can index an out-group identity, those who aren’t native born South Koreans, and an in-group identity, those who are native born South Koreans. However, according to Benwell, there are two contrasting views on identity and the way it is constructed (3). Identity is seen as “an essential, cognitive, socialized phenomenological or psychic phenomenon that governs human action” (Benwell 3). However, it is also described as being “a public phenomenon, a performance or construction that is interpreted by other people” (Benwell 3). As realized in this context, identity seems to be the latter, a public phenomenon that takes place in dialogue and other social and embodied conduct. (Flowerdew 81). When looking at identity as socially constructed, it is seen as multiple and malleable, created through interactions between speakers, writers, and audiences. This means that one person can embody different personas, and as Flowerdew says, “Identity is determined by a particular configuration of a social context, and the appropriate identity in a given context will rise to the top of a hierarchy of identities,” (Flowerdew 82). For example, a North Korean woman is characterized as having a different identity based on the context with which she is being viewed. A United States newspaper portrays these women differently than South Korean newspaper because of the different social context with which they are being regarded. Though the social perception might be similar with limited groups in both societies, the identity that rises to the top of the hierarchy will be different.

While language is governed by context and identity is multiple, it is important to understand that language can have an influence across long stretches of time. An identity can remain attached to a community regardless of time passed, especially because of continued use. For example, if the identity of an immigrant spouse is connected to a person of low economic status, then that identity will continue to be synonymous with migrant wives if people continue to speak about them in this framework.

The central discussion that surrounds North Korean women refugees within South Korea deals with the background of human rights and sex trafficking. In Trafficking Women’s Human Rights, the author mentions how important the language around trafficking and human rights truly is, and how that language can affect the way a person thinks about the topic. Hua states, “The language, images, and conceptual frames-discourse- that describe and convey a phenomenon like sex trafficking not only circulated between sites such as government documents, media coverage… but also establishes discursive parameters,” (Hua xvii).

These discursive parameters, or frameworks, affect the way people think and talk about human rights concerns, such as the sex trafficking mentioned in the article. The Divided World also touches on the fact that we have to battle the way we come to understand the people involved in these situations as well. Being exposed to only certain ideologies blurs reality with perception and creates an identity which can be detrimental because it only concerns itself with the impositions of social institutions. Institutes like the government and mass media “participate in setting the terms through which the public comes to know and understand human rights and the violations to it” (Williams xvi). The South Korean governmental documents, along with aspects of mass media such as television, newspapers, and media coverage, have set terms with which South Korean citizens view Northern women.

Looking more specifically at the exact parameters that constrain the North Korean women refugees’ representation in South Korea, the main discourse presents them as occupying three identities: the traditional female archetype, the asexual being, and the sexual object (Kim 80). As the romanticized female archetype, women from North Korea are seen as the epitome of femininity. Because of North Korea’s seclusion and the nostalgia that is intertwined with the country, there is a hyper-idealization of women that come from North Korea. They are seen as traditional women who evoke images of fertile mothers and innocence that contrast South Korean women that have not been forced to conform to the same patriarchal constraints (Kim 81). Mass media has been seen to perpetuate this identity, like television shows that make fun of the naivety of North Korean women or newspaper articles written about the beautifully innocent women of the North.

Not only are these women linked to the traditional female archetype, they are also associated with the identity of a victimized, asexual being. This identity arose because of the dialogue that surrounds fund-raising for Northern women in NGOs (Kim 83). These organizations were turning women into money-making objects to complement their fund-raising strategy. NGOs resorted to a begging technique to raise donations that framed these women solely as victims, publishing articles that depicted them quite unethically and showing pictures of a woman with bare skeletal breasts and infected lesions on her legs (Kim 84). This discursive framework turned these women into helpless objects that were not capable of taking care of themselves. This also forces them to inhabit the identity of a diseases body and an asexual being rather than being viewed as a whole person. Without the discourse in place in the fund-raising strategies of NGOs, an asexual object would not be related to the representation of a North Korean woman refugee.

Lastly, these women are linked to occupying the identity of a sexual object. South Koreans have also been seen to display northern women in a sexualized context. Because of the discourse that surrounded Kim Jong-il’s supposed “pleasure unit”, North Korean women are represented as a sexual fantasy inhabiting characteristics like promiscuous and calculating sexual predators (Kim 86). The erotic fantasy that surrounds these women is compounded by the fact that they sometimes arrive in South Korea pregnant and can then be easily represented as sexually active (Kim 87). Despite the fact that these identities contrast each other, because identities are multiple, they can all coexist in the same context.

Though these personas to not accurately represent Northern women, they continue to be perpetuated through mass media. The language and ideology that surrounds these women indexes them as an out-group and creates identities that continue to separate them from the rest of the country. Though the creation of these identities may seem harmless to those outside of that context, those within it can easily perceive how a joke about a North Korean woman’s innocence can continue to perpetuate the idea that she belongs in a premodern era and cannot come to grips with society. It creates her as incompetent, when despite the representation, these women have been able to rise to higher socioeconomic and sociopolitical status. In this situation, it is integral to remember that identity is socially constructed and can continue to represent a community with repeated use despite the falsehood.

Similarly, the construction of the immigrant spouse identity has roots in the representation and discourse that surrounds them, portrayed mostly through governmental policies, documents and polls. The question of identity seems to be defined for an immigrant woman moving to South Korea. Pidgeon-holed into three categories, immigrant spouses are characterized by the way the government would like to assimilate them and “erase” their differences, place them in a patriarchal context, and describe them using a nationalistic stance that regards them as inferior (Belanger 1110). Ideologies of nationalism, population homogeneity, ethnicity, and citizenship affect the way these migrant wives are portrayed in both mass media and governmental bodies, which in turn affects the discourse that surrounds them (Belanger 1109).

As time has passed, South Korea, which qualifies as an “ethnic nationalist regime” that does not consider itself an “immigration country”, has had a growing number of ethnic minorities establish permanent residence (Belanger 1112). Because this is a new issue, the South Korean government has only just started to pay attention to what they call the “international family issue”, allocating funds and resources to what the government considers a necessity (Belanger 1113). However, this has created a sense of inferiority and “otherness” felt by those who emigrated. This is due, in part, to the fact that assimilation and control have been the primary objectives in regard to immigration policy, with “nationalism and ideologies of homogeneity competing with emerging discourses around multiculturalism’ (Belanger 1117). Both ideologies are competing for hierarchical order, which in turn shape the identity that will rise to the top of the hierarchy. In this case, homogeneity and nationalism seem to be the dominant ideologies that allow for the dialogue cited here to create immigrant spouses as needing to be assimilated and subtractive in nature. Officials and governmental bodies often perpetuate the negative social perceptions by demeaning the population by insinuating that they are a harm to the population and a potential harm to their children, who could face discrimination and educational setbacks because of their ethnicity or race (Belanger 1115, 1122). The fact that the government condones this type of rhetoric means that the population as a whole sees migrant wives in this context which marries them to this identity as less than.

Coupled with this portrayal is the perception that migrant wives are opportunists that use marriage as a way to migrate internationally (Belanger 1115). Often there is an oversimplification as to the reason why they emigrated. Other narratives surrounding these women are those of victimization, where they are portrayed as helpless victims of sexual trafficking and violence (Belanger 1115). Women are considered vulnerable to domestic violence and are often patronized for this reason. They are only seen in a patriarchal light, which strips the of their agency and of their ability to contribute to any other part of society (Belanger 1125). It has also been revealed that the immigrant population tends to be seen as universally belonging to lower social classes (Belanger 1122).

All of these stereotypes are due to the discourse that surrounds these women and migrant wives, which includes mass media and governmental treatment. Forced into these contexts, the women are no longer whole human beings but rather one-dimensional version of themselves. Though South Korea wants to uphold an ideology of multiculturalism, their representations do not allow for this ideology to be upheld. Instead, ethnic minorities such as these immigrant spouses are not portrayed as additive to the population but rather subtractive in their nature, which affects the ways they are able to live their lives and continues to associate them with this identity.

Though some will say that words are simply words and nothing more, the discourse and representation that surrounds North Korean refugee women and immigrant spouses is evidence that semantics carry meaning. Forced to inhabit certain identities that are created through dialogue, these women have been reduced to static and flat characters that are viewed in a negative light because of the discursive parameters that mass media and governmental documents impose. All in all, discourse can create highly polarized discussions of people groups, which is why it is important to create language that frames all human beings in the correct context.

Works Cited

Bélanger, Danièle, et al. “Ethnic diversity and statistics in East Asia: ‘foreign brides’ surveys in Taiwan and South Korea.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 33, no. 6, 2010, pp. 1108– 1130., doi:10.1080/01419870903427507.

Benwell, Bethan, and Elizabeth Stokoe. Discourse and Identity. Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Flowerdew, John, and Simon Ho Wang. “Identity in Academic Discourse | Annual Review of Applied Linguistics.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 13 Mar. 2015, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/annual-review-of-applied-linguistics/article/identity- in-academic-discourse/DA727F3CA75F2E67A5ADE28627B4932E.

Hua, Julietta. Trafficking Women's Human Rights . University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Kim, Mikyoung. Securitization of human rights North Korean refugees in East Asia. Praeger, 2012.


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