“I am well-cooked food”: survival strategies of North Korean female border-crossers and possibilities for empowerment
Sung Kyung KIM
Abstract More than the half the people who cross the North Korea-China border are women, with most leaving home to seek food, economic benefits and a more comfortable life. From the human rights perspective, it is clear that the dangerous nature of their journeys across the border and their illegal status in China place them in a very vulnerable position with regard to human trafficking and many types of sexual and physical violence. However, some women voluntarily and strategically use migration, marriage and gender as arenas of agency through which to improve their lives and empower themselves. This paper aims to reveal the complexity of these experiences, which occur where specific forms of gender, intimacy and mobility meet. In doing so, I hope to argue for the possibility of agency beyond an overly simplified victim discourse of North Korean border-crossing. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork in South Korea and China to reveal the trajectories of North Korean female border-crossers who developed survival strategies, and employed their gender and sexuality to skillfully use marriage-migration for their own purposes, empowering them to settle or keep moving on to better places. This instrumental orientation to empowerment worked alongside a more normative orientation to helping their “blood” families back in their homeland through remittances or through being able to bring along children from previous marriages. They were willing to adopt the role of temporary “wife” in order to be good “daughters,” “sisters” and “mothers” both now and later. In this sense, the North Korean women and their experiences imply an ambivalent approach to marriage and family.
Keywords: marriage migrant, North Korean woman border-crosser, family, trafficking, survival strategy, empowerment
Sung Kyung Kim currently works at the University of North Korean Studies, Seoul, Korea. She obtained her PhD at the University of Essex, Department of Sociology. Her research interests are mobility in Asia; North Korean defectors; Asian film studies; cultural geography; Asian popular culture; political economy of cultural industry in Asia and so on. Recent publications are in the field of Asian mobility, North Korean defectors, migration studies, and cultural industry.