Biocultural imperialism among Korea’s diasporic social bodies

Amelia Schubert, PhD Candidate
University of Colorado at Boulder

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s world of empires, Korea was the shrimp between whales.  But since the 1960s, South Korea has emerged into the new world of nation-states as a member in good standing.  The ROK is ostensibly the shining example of 21st century liberal democracy in East Asia, unlike autocratic China, mafia-esque North Korea, or stagnant Japan.  Yet as South Korea’s star has risen, its relationship with diasporic Koreans now show patterns of imperial mimicry.  In particular, the ROK has adeptly deployed biopolitical techniques of cultural and economic imperialism to further its interests abroad.  In this paper, I offer a theoretical argument about South Korea’s attempts to enforce a normative relationship with its diasporic social bodies.  I illustrate this with a case study of how South Korea’s ambitious reach into China since the 1990s has displayed imperialist tendencies, setting up South Koreans as idealized global citizens in contrast to the ethnic Korean minority in northeast China.

This paper explores three channels through which South Korea deploys biopolitical discourse among diasporic Koreans in China.  First, through emphasizing biological descent and race-based conceptions of loyalty, South Korea claims the status of ethnic homeland for the global Korean diaspora.  Second, South Korea defines and regulates ‘correctly’ gendered bodily practices through state-subsidized and internationally-promoted popular media, like television dramas, K-pop singers, and spin-off products like plastic surgery and health foods. Third, by expropriating discourse on public health and disease (like MERS, anthrax, and hwa-byung) the South Korean government defines bodily normality and abnormality.  By examining specific instances when these discourses were encountered by diasporic Koreans in China, drawn from fieldwork between 2012 and 2015 in Yanbian Prefecture, I demonstrate how these three thematic interventions work to delineate normative conceptual, institutional, and social performances required for membership in the Korean nation.

Keywords: Biopower, diaspora, Korean Chinese

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