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Regional Peace Building: The Korean Peninsula and North-east Asia

10 June 2010, Centre for Asian Pacific Studies, Lingnan University

Nostalgia as Counter-Hegemonic Narrative: A Discourse Analysis of North Korean Settlers in the South
Mikyoung Kim
Associate Professor, Hiroshima Peace Institute

It has been more than a decade since North Korea was struck by a massive famine and an outflow of refugees began. As of 2007 about 10,000 refugees have settled in the South. The identities of settlers are transformed under the Southern gaze being independent of the Northern settlers’ human agency. Equipped with little socio-cultural toolkits to correct the unidirectional stereotype-casting, they have few outlets to alter the widely shared prejudices against them. In this context, one of their settlement experiences, nostalgia, a longing for the past, has been ignored in academic as well as policy circles. The social construction of who and, what they are, the underprivileged group benefitting from South Korean welfare system, does not allow much room for active discussion on their nostalgic sentiments for the bygone days. My in-depth interviews with the settlers and other narratives available in public domain (i.e., “Free North Korea Radio” postings, short essays [e.g., internet blogs], poems [e.g., internet blog], films [e.g., Crossing-2008 and Typhoon-2005], book-length non-fictions [e.g., Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in North Korean Gulag, Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World's Most Repressive Country, and North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea], and novels [e.g., A Corpse in the Koryo, and Jia: A Novel of North Korea]) suggest that nostalgia is a salient emotional link between present and the past. If imposing silence on the refugees is hegemonic mnemonic praxis, feeling and expressing nostalgia constitutes counter-hegemonic narrative. The tension between silencing and voicing is about “politics of memory.” And it entails two dynamics: temporal dissonance (present vs. the past) and critical semiotics (good hardships in the North vs. problematic affluence in the South). Their “now” in the South and “then” in the North is mediated by selective retrieval of the nostalgic past. If past memories of the traumatized group are not as fleeting as they are often argued to be, it challenges the presentist approach to the negative memory. No matter how traumatic it could have been, the total negation of the past meets resistance.

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