Jacob Reidhead (KASC 1) with the North Korea immigrant community in a Fulbright year

Jacob Reidhead (KASC 1) is currently doing language training at Chengdu, China and will be going to doctoral program in sociology at Stanford University in Fall 2012. The following article is a report about the North Korea immigrant community when he stayed in South Korea. Let’s check out his article and learn more about his project.

A Fulbright Year Studying the South’s Emerging North Korean Immigrant Community
By Jacob Reidhead

Last year, I was fortunate to be awarded a Fulbright Junior Research Fellowship to conduct research in South Korea throughout the 2011-2012 academic year.  In a few brief paragraphs, I would like to share a few thoughts about conducting research in South Korea and what I learned about the North Korean immigrant community.

Prior to arriving in Korea last summer, I established a relationship with the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU).  Before I arrived, I had also set some goals: 1) complete my MA thesis, 2) become familiar with the North Korean immigrant community living in South Korea, and 3) collect some data and develop insights that would hopefully lead me closer to a topic for my PhD dissertation.  Upon arriving in Korea, I began associating with a number of college student groups, NGOs, and service projects centered on North Korean immigrants.  Through these various associations, I was able to make friends, network across organizations, and have conversations with Seoul’s NK immigrant community, as well as those South Koreans and foreigners who interact closely with that community.  I wanted to observe and listen before blindly implementing a project based on assumptions and second-hand information; so, for the first few months I attended events, conducted very general interviews, and surveyed websites, reports, and other published material to see what was already out there.

During the course of this exploratory research, I became increasingly interested in South Korea’s public discourse about North Korea and NK immigrants – and the diverse political, economic, and social networks that underlie that discourse.  In the last few months, I have directed my research toward the new wave of organizations being created by NK immigrants.  I am trying to understand the degree to which these organizations 1) fulfill unmet needs within the NK immigrant community, and 2) empower NK immigrants to join and shape SK’s discourse about NK, as well as the extent to which they are co-opted and instrumentalized by special interests outside of the NK immigrant community.  While my results are preliminary, I have found that few NK immigrant organizations are well integrated into pre-existing South Korean NGO and social networks.  This separation offers the advantages of relative autonomy and a protective enclave effect, but also gives rise to such disadvantages as outsider identities and weak engagement and influence within the mainstream.  Furthermore, I have also observed that the identity struggles faced by most NK immigrants when they first arrive in South Korea parallel the identity crisis faced by many NK immigrant organizations as they too struggle to find their distinct purpose, direction, and voice in South Korean society.

My Fulbright grant period has nearly ended, and yet I feel that my research has only begun to scratch the surface.  I will spend the next two months studying Mandarin Chinese at Sichuan University in Chengdu before entering Stanford University this fall to begin a PhD in sociology.  At Stanford, it is my plan to build on the results and intuition I acquired this year and to dig deeper into related domains of ethnic and national identity, NK-SK-U.S. relations, and contrasting capitalist and socialist modernities across the divided Koreas, Vietnams, and Chinas.  For those of you thinking about graduate school, research, or fellowships, or simply share my curiosity about any of these topics, feel free to email me at seouljake@gmail.com.  I am always on the look-out for future colleagues, collaborators, and Korea-hands.


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