BookContested Embrace

2016 Contested Embrace: Transborder Membership Politics in Twentieth-Century Korea (Stanford University Press)

  • Based on the dissertation awarded the 2013 Theda Skocpol Dissertation Award at the American Sociological Association
  • 2017 Thomas and Znaniecki Distinguished Book Award from the International Migration Section of American Sociological Association
  • 2017 Book Award on Asia/Transnational from the Asia/Asian American Section of American Sociological Association
  • 2017 Allan Sharlin Memorial Book Award from SSHA
  • 2018 James B. Palais Book Prize from AAS (Honorable Mention)

The incongruity between territory, citizenry, and nation has long preoccupied students of international migration, nationalism, and citizenship, including the state’s transborder relationship with its “external” members (e.g., emigrants, diasporas, and ethnonational “kin”). This book is a comparative, historical, and ethnographic study of the complex relationships among the states in the Korean peninsula, colonial-era Korean migrants to Japan and northeast China and their descendants, and the states in which they have resided over the course of the twentieth century. Despite a widespread, deeply-entrenched, and quasi-primordial belief in Korean ethnic nationhood, the embrace of these transborder coethnic populations by the Japanese colonial state and the two postcolonial states (North and South Korea) has been selective, shifting, and recurrently contested. Through analyses of transborder membership politics in the colonial, Cold War, and post-Cold War periods, the book explores under what circumstances and by what means the colonial and postcolonial states have sought to claim (or failed to claim) certain transborder populations as “their own,” and how transborder Koreans have themselves shaped the making, unmaking, and remaking of transborder ties as they have sought long-distance membership on their own terms. Extending the constructivist approach to nations/nationalisms and the culturalist/cognitive turn in recent theorizing on the modern state to a transnational context, the book demonstrates that being a “homeland” state or a member of the “transborder nation” is not an ethnodemographic fact, but a precarious, arduous, and revocable political achievement, mediated profoundly by the historically evolving and mutually interlinked bureaucratic practices of the state.


Peer-Reviewed Articles

Forthcoming. “Migration-Facilitating Capital: A Bourdieusian Theory of International Migration.” Sociological Theory

Abstract: Despite the centrality of the notion of “capital,” scholarship on international migration has yet to fully explore the generative potential of Bourdieu’s theory. This article “thinks with” Bourdieu to theorize how states, aspiring migrants, and migration brokers interact over the valorization, conversion, and legitimization of various types of capital for migration purposes. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theorization on the state, I identify the variegated ways in which state policies and their enactment by frontline gatekeepers constitute migration-facilitating capital. I show how an ensemble of migration brokers help migrants acquire the adequate profile of capital—or the semblance of the possession of such capital—contesting the state’s monopolistic claim over the governance of identity, qualifications, and mobility. Drawing on Bourdieu’s conceptualization of field, habitus, illusio, and symbolic violence, I analyze how migrants partake in the “organized striving” for migration-facilitating capital, the uneven distribution of which produces material and symbolic stratification.

2018. “’Ethnic Capital’ and ‘Flexible Citizenship’ in Unfavourable Legal Contexts: Stepwise Migration of the Korean Chinese within and beyond Northeast Asia.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2018.1440489

Abstract: This article examines how migrants mobilise ethnicity for migration purposes by drawing on the migration trajectories of ethnic Korean migrants from northeast China (Korean Chinese) – through various steppingstone countries, including South Korea – to the U.S. I focus on how regulatory authorities, various intermediaries, and aspiring migrants interact over the valorisation, conversion, and legitimisation of what I call ‘ethnic capital’. Drawing on ethnographic field research in China, South Korea, and the U.S., I show how multiple manifestations of ethnic capital – coethnic networks, Korean proficiency, perceived phenotypical affinities, kinship relations with South Korean citizens, and derivatively, South Korean citizenship/passports (obtained legally or illegally) – facilitate Korean Chinese stepwise migration. I also examine how the differential endowment of migration-facilitating capital (including ethnic capital) produces fine-grained material and symbolic stratification in the sending community and identify the distinctive moral economy that informs Korean Chinese navigation of global mobility regimes. By illuminating the strategies of capital-constrained migrants facing policy contexts markedly different from the much-studied European cases, this article highlights the contested process through which ethnicity is turned into migration-facilitating capital, expands our inquiry on the ‘flexible citizenship’ practices beyond the jet-setting managerial class, and deepens our comparative understanding of ethnic affinity migration and external citizenship.

2014 “The Colonial State, Migration, and Diasporic Nationhood in Korea.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56 (1): 34–66. 

Abstract: Studies of European colonialism have long documented how colonial states served as incubators of nationhood, yet the literature has limited its analytic scope largely to the encounters and ethnic mixings that took place within the territorial boundaries of colonies. This article examines a hitherto understudied phenomenon, the colonial states trans-border engagement with its subjects who left the territorial unit of the colony and its impact on the contested development of diasporic nationhood. My empirical focus is the shifting trajectories of the classification struggles over Korean migrants in Manchuria during Japans occupation of Korea. I identify the tumultuous and uneven development of specific legal, organizational, and bureaucratic infrastructures that helped the colonial state extend its trans-border reach and define and identify these migrants as its own,often against suspicion, sabotage, hostility, and resistance on the part of other states, indigenous populations, or migrants themselves. I argue that the colonial states extensive and intensive transborder engagement provided a critical institutional scaffolding for the imagined community of the Korean nation, which came to be conceived as transcending the geographical boundary of the colony. This article contributes to the comparative studies of empire, migration, diaspora, and nationhood formation by challenging the prevalent sedentary bias of the existing literature, by elucidating the critical infrastructural underpinning of the formation of diasporic nationhood, and by extending the horizon of comparison to the political dynamics and long-term ramifications engendered by the migration of, not only metropolitan settlers, but also colonial subjects, within and beyond the ambit of the empire.

2011 “Establishing Identity: Documents, Performance, and Biometric Information in Immigration Proceedings.” Law & Social Inquiry 36 (3): 760–86. 

  • 2010 Winner, Graduate and Law Student Paper Competition, Law & Social Inquiry

Abstract: This article explores the politics of identification in immigration proceedings by examining the struggles over family-based immigration in South Korea in the context of ethnic Korean “return” migration from China. It focuses on micropolitical struggles in bureaucratic settings, analyzing how migrants and immigration bureaucrats struggle to establish kinship and marital status in order to secure or limit migrants’ access to the labor market and citizenship. Drawing on fieldwork in both the sending and receiving communities, it shows how migrants and bureaucrats use various types of “identity tags” (official documents, performance, and biometric information) to establish the authenticity of family relations and to accept or reject particular understandings of personhood, belonging, and entitlement. It also highlights the multiple normative orderings that inform migrants’ strategies (including their use of “fraudulent” identity) and their implicit or explicit challenge to the criminalizing and stigmatizing view of the immigration state.

2011 (Coauthored with Rogers Brubaker) “Transborder Membership Politics in Cold War and Post-Cold War Germany and Korea.” European Journal of Sociology 52 (1): 21–75.  

Abstract: This paper examines changing German and Korean policies towards transborder coethnics (Germans in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and Koreans in Japan and China) during the high Cold War and post-Cold War eras. The paper contributes to the emerging literature on transborder forms of membership and belonging by highlighting and explaining the selective, variable, contingent, contested, and revocable nature of states’ embrace of transborder coethnics. The explanation highlights the relationship of transborder populations to predecessor polities; changing geopolitical contexts and domestic political conjunctures; the constitutive, group-making – and group-unmaking – power of state categorization practices; and the enduring institutional legacies and unintended consequences of such practices.

2009   “The Making and Unmaking of a ‘Transborder Nation’: South Korea During and After the Cold War.” Theory and Society 38 (2): 133–64.

Abstract: The burgeoning literature on transborder membership, largely focused on the thickening relationship between emigration states in the South and the postwar labor migrant populations and their descendants in North America or Western Europe, has not paid due attention to the long-term macroregional transformations that shape transborder national membership politics or to the bureaucratic practices of the state that undergird transborder claims-making. By comparing contentious transborder national membership politics in South Korea during the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras, this article seeks to overcome these limitations. In both periods, the membership status of colonial-era ethnic Korean migrants in Japan and northeast China and their descendants was the focus of contestation. The distinctiveness of the caseinvolving both a sustained period of colonial rule and a period of belated and divided nation-state building interwoven with the Cold Warhighlights the crucial importance of three factors: (1) the dynamically evolving macro-regional context, which has shaped transborder national membership politics in the region in distinctive ways; (2) the essentially political, performative, and constitutive nature of transborder nation-building; and (3) the role of state registration and documentation practices in shaping the contours of transborder national membership politics in the long run. By incorporating Koreaand East Asia more broadlyinto the comparative study of transborder nation-building, this article also lays the groundwork for future cross-regional comparative historical studies.


* Photo in the header: A placard hung in Ikaino (the Korean neighborhood in Osaka) in 1971 (Photo Credit: Jihyon Cho)