2020 Holland Prize

The Making of Post-Socialist Citizens in South Korea?: The Case of Border Crossers from North Korea

Jaeyoun Won

Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea

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Pacific Affairs is pleased to announce that the nineteenth William L. Holland Prize for the best article published in Volume 93 (2020) of Pacific Affairs  has been awarded to Jaeyoun Won for his article published in Volume 93, No. 3 (September 2020).

How are North Koreans border crossers re-made into citizens upon their arrival in South Korea? Jaeyoun Won’s Holland Prize-winning article addresses this question through a focus on the re-education process undertaken at the Hanawon, officially known as the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees. Combining a rich base of empirical information, gathered via long-term interactions with North Korean border crossers, deep dives into South Korean government documents, and engagement with a judicious range of secondary sources; a clearly outlined conceptual framework; and an explicit methodological approach, it provides insights on the specifics of “individual resilience” preached in the Hanawon, and also flags the larger implications of normalization of core values in the process of citizen-making in general.

Dr. Jaeyoun Won teaches sociology at Yonsei University. He holds a Ph.D. degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. He has been a visiting scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute, National Taiwan University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Academy of Social Science, and Northeast Normal University. His publications include “Withering Away of Iron Rice Bowl? The Reemployment Project of Post-Socialist China,” “The Making of the Post-Proletariat in China,” and “Post-Socialist China: Labour Relations in Korean-Managed Factories.” He also co-edited and contributed to a book, Laid-off Workers in a Workers’ State: Unemployment with Chinese Characteristics (Palgrave Macmillan).

2020 Shortlist


Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

I am a student of post-socialist subjectivity, and this paper is a part of the trilogy that I have been studying for a while. My first project dealt with post-socialist mind for unemployed workers in China who could not rely on the state or work-unit for their survival in the market economy. My second project was about post-socialist body for Chinese workers in the transnational factories, where the disciplinary nature of labor relations is operating. This third project was supposedly about post-socialist soul in the initial stage, but I failed to discuss “soul” in the paper in the end. Instead, I could only discuss the cultural learning of resilience for post-socialist citizens. It would have been nice to have mind, body and soul for trilogy of post-socialist subjectivity, but “soul” was missing. Maybe post-socialist transformation is more about mind and body, not so much about soul. Or maybe it is the reflection of the current situation where the world has become more disenchanted and soulless.

What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

In a nutshell, this paper tries to understand how socialist North Koreans are remade as capitalist South Koreans. “Normal” North Koreans become abnormal once they arrive in South Korea, where South Korean culture is considered universal, normative, and even superior. Rather than accept these normative assumptions as given and natural, I have attempted to uncover hidden assumptions and problematize the arbitrariness of such assumptions as the notion of individual resilience. This paper challenges and demystifies the meaning of rational, free, resilient, and normative behaviors that tend to be taken for granted. What appears “normal” can be actually accidental and socially constructed.

Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of on-the-ground research?

Conducting fieldwork was always an exciting adventure and a very humbling learning experience.  I am very grateful to the informants who shared their life stories and experiences with me. As a matter of fact, they are not only informants for the research, but also teachers and educators who have awakened me, and opened my eyes for the things that I was not aware of.  During the interviews, sometimes I did not receive the precise answers that I had anticipated, but those questions are actually mine, not theirs. These are precious moments of the truth, when I had to face my own prejudices, naïveté and erroneous assumptions. What they said about their situations in their words matter more than what I asked them. Also, how they said something with their emotions was also very revealing. Thus, these kinds of dynamics required some improvisation on my part, and I learned the most when I became just a listener.

What might be some of the implications of your argument and research for studies of citizenship (and/or other subjects) beyond South Korea to other parts of Asia and the world?

As a student of post-socialist subjectivity, I have been working on post-socialist transformation in China for a while. I started my academic career as a sinologist. Naturally, it is my job to go beyond methodological nationalism and to reach into transversality to understand interdependence of human experiences and intertwined histories.

In addition, this paper is not only about crossing and borders, but also about citizenship politics. Maybe some of the implications from this research is to overcome arbitrary binary opposition between us versus them, and to embrace the diversity and differences in our world. As Edward Said stated in his masterpiece, Orientalism, “The task for the scholar is not to separate one struggle from another, but to connect them.”