[Viewpoint] Lessons from the Korean diaspora

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[Viewpoint] Lessons from the Korean diaspora

It was a long way to Yanbian. A heavy rain had ended and cornfields stretched endlessly under a cloudy sky. The southeast route from Changchun to Yanbian went through Huanren and Tonghuan and followed alongside a raging river whose level had risen after the torrential rain.

As I drove toward Yanbian, I went by a number of Goguryeo-era (37 B.C.-668) fortresses and Joseonjok (ethnic Korean) villages. I knew very well that ethnic Koreans had lived in Manchuria, but I was still surprised to see towns with Chinese names where Joseonjok people have lived for over a century. It is not just because the region had been territories under the ancient Goguryeo and Balhae (698-926) kingdoms. It was not that the political intention of the Northeast Project to establish Han Chinese supremacy had succeeded either.

The scenery outside my car window appeared to make a mockery of the concept of territory. Now about 1.5 million Joseonjok people live across Manchuria, with 850,000 in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture alone.

With so many ethnic Korean residents, is the region a foreign land although it sits on foreign soil? The mountains, rivers, fields and towns looked so familiar that I felt like I was driving through rural villages in Gangwon or Gyeongsang.

When I arrived at Jian, the old capital of Goguryeo on the banks of the Yalu River, the concept of a border felt to pieces. The Yalu River looks like a permanent border from the Korean side of the border. But when I encountered the same river on the Manchurian side, it represented the lifeline of an ancient kingdom that had once been prosperous.

Just as the Han River had supported a millennium of culture in the southern part of Korea, the Yalu River was the center of struggles for Koreans in the Manchu region and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. The people of Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) had crossed the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers frequently just as if they were visiting neighboring towns.

To them, crossing the river was not leaving their native land but instead meant connecting their hometowns with a new world beyond the river. The Yalu and the Tumen are not bloody borders but welcoming hands reaching out to tired souls with ambitions and dreams.

When we arrived at Yanbian, the boundary of ideology crumbled. With Mount Baekdu on the right, the one-lane road to Yanji contained the tragic ruins of modern Korean history. The tearful stories of patriotic efforts to attain independence and the liberation of Korea are buried here.

As I passed Cheongsan-ri, which General Kim Jwa-jin had famously defended, I approached the bases of the anti-Japanese independence army. There were numerous educational and military sites where patriots were educated and fighters were trained. Longjing, the center of Korean immigrants in China, was a neutral zone in terms of being populated with people with all sorts of ideologies and beliefs. United by the goal of liberation, nationalists, socialists and anarchists coexisted and worked together. More than 400,000 Joseonjok residents in Yanji are the descendents of the independence activists. They inherited the wisdom of coexistence, so they do not understand the tragic ideological war on the Korean Peninsula.

The movement or migration of people sharing a common ethnic identity or nationality outside their homeland is a diaspora. The Joseonjok in Yanbian are part of the Korean diaspora as they did not return to Korea and remain in the Jiandao region.

Just like K, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, “diaspora” becomes a synonym for a crisis of identity, where one longs to be at the center but exists on the periphery.

In Yanbian, I met Mr. Lee. His father was a farmer and his uncle was a former major in the Chinese People’s Army. Mr. Lee was born in Yanbian, but he spent a year in Pyongyang, another year in Busan, and another year in Beijing because of his work. His ancestors came from Cheongjin, North Hamgyeong Province. He hopes that the Yanbian soccer team will play in the premier league in China and receive sponsorship from a Korean company.

Ms. Park is a tour guide. Her ancestors came from Samsugap Mountain, North Hamgyeong Province. Her grandfather was a pastor who settled in Harbin as a missionary. Her father and uncles have lived in Manchuria, the United States, North Korea or South Korea. She grew up competing with Han Chinese. Clever and quick, she is popular among South Korean tourists.

They do not fight with one another but live peacefully together. They are live near the humble graves of ancestors buried at Mount Biam, overlooking Longjing and Ilsong Pavilions near the Haeran River. While tolerance and coexistence are the rule in Yanbian, South and North Korea can be seen as permanent wanderers separated from a common origin.

The slim passenger jet took off from the shabby Yanji Airport, leaving behind a history that overcame chasm of territory, border and ideology. Two hours later, the plane landed in Seoul, where people were busy preparing for the celebration of the 65th anniversary of Liberation. On the way back home, my party had a good dinner at a restaurant where Joseonjok women from Yanbian worked as waitresses.

All of this has made me think that although South Korea has attained glorious success, it is still an ideological diaspora.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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