By Albina Yun
Albina Yun is an independent researcher from Uzbekistan. She holds an MA in Critical Gender Studies from the Central European University and an MA in Politics and Security from the OSCE Academy. Her areas of interest include migratory processes, ethnocentrism, grassroots activism, postcolonialism, post-Soviet theory, biopolitics, and gender studies.
Over the past few decades, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has undergone a considerable economic transformation, going from one of the poorest states in the world in the 1970s to today being one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Such a radical shift led to structural changes in the composition of the South Korean workforce, primarily increases in the mean age and the education level of workers (Kim and Kwon 2012; OECD iLibrary 2019). These changes created labor shortages in various manual and low-skilled manufacturing and construction sectors and, thus, to an influx of foreign labor. Because South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, it is vigilant regarding whom they let into the country (Lee 2010; Seol and Skrentny 2009; Shen 2017). The South Korean government has developed policies to target co‑ethnic Koreans from China and post‑Soviet countries as a source of low-skilled, cheap labor. Such policies include the H-2 visa, also known as 3D visa—dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs—which is issued exclusively to post-Soviet and Chinese ethnic Koreans for the period of three years.
Since the official statement of the H-2 visa policies stipulates that the H-2 visa holders are “to contribute to national interests,” the prevailing majority of existing academic literature asserts that the visa was created with a clear goal—to serve the economic needs of the country. Economic discourse centers on low-skilled ethnic return migration policies as cheap labor from developing Central Asian countries to minimize social tensions “that presumably arise when culturally distinct groups ‘invade’ an otherwise homogenous society” (Lim 2008, 34). Moreover, the prevailing academic literature asserts that, in South Korea, there is ethnic hierarchization, with the host society is at the top of the hierarchy, followed by American Koreans, Japanese Koreans, Chinese Koreans, and, at the bottom are post-Soviet Koreans. This accounts for the different types of ethnic return policies and visas. Despite being regarded as low-skilled, H-2 visa holders have preferential status over non-ethnic foreign labor migrants (Kim and Kwon 2012; Lim 2008; Seol and Lee 2011; Seol and Skrentny 2009). The majority of existing literature analyzes the issue of low-skilled ethnic return migration to South Korea via a top-down approach, which significantly limits a deeper investigation into the issue, specifically regarding the ways that migrants are affected by and also affect the process.
This paper aims to offer an alternative account on low-skilled ethnic return migration, particularly focusing on H-2 visa holders from Central Asian countries who are working in South Korea as low-skilled ethnic migrants. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, which includes semi-structured interviews and participant observation, in several cities of South Korea in 2019, digital ethnography, and auto-ethnography, I demonstrate how the experience under the low-skilled migration policies, shapes and/or redefines Central Asian Koreans’ sense of who they are. I use the terms post-Soviet Koreans, Central Asian Koreans, Kareitsy (Kareisky migrants), and Koryo Saram interchangeably to refer to Koreans born in the post-Soviet Republics. I render low-skilled ethnic labor status not just as a struggle, but also as an opportunity, and I examine the processes of how renegotiation of gendered and ethnic boundaries takes place in post-Soviet Koreans’ subject formation within the migration regime.
The main arguments of this paper engages with Foucault’s concepts of biopolitics and subject formation. In spite of Foucault’s works frequent deterministic use to show the complete hold by the oppressive mechanisms of the technologies of power, his concepts of biopolitics and subject formation do not contradict one another. It is within the regime/power that the subject is formed and agency is situated. Throughout his works, Foucault pointed out that subject formation takes place discursively, that is, in and through disciplinary and regulatory mechanisms of power. In today’s modern world, governmentality is at play. Governmentality refers to “the whole range of practices that constitute, define, organize, and instrumentalize the strategies that individuals in their freedom can use in dealing with each other” (Foucault cited in Skinner 2013, 908). Therefore, subjectivation does not take place only in an imperative and imposing way. Rather, subjectivation is “a process of internalization that involves taking decision about a particular type of subject” (Skinner 2013, 909).
South Korean ethnic return migration policies through the discourses of ethnic belonging and labor created a target group of post-Soviet Koreans as low-skilled co-ethnics, and thus, as inferior to other Koreans. As a result, virtually all existing academic literature on the issue renders post-Soviet low-skilled ethnic migrants as passive victims of the migration policies. Foucault’s approach to subject formation gives us the opportunity to better understand how, through the conditions and processes that ensure subordination to power, a person becomes a self-conscious subject. That is, how within the migration regime where post-Soviet Koreans are posited as low-skilled, dirty workers they actively (re)negotiate their sense of who they are.
Koryo Saram as a New Homo-Economicus
Wage inequality between the different migrant states is commonly referred to as one of the key reasons for migration (Castles et al. 2014). Indeed, all of the interviewees when asked about their reasons for coming to South Korea mentioned earning money (zarabotok). All but two interviewees referred to earning money as their primary reason. Considering the wage difference between Uzbekistan and South Korea, which in 2019 equaled, according to informal estimates and words of mouth, on average to approximately $150 (Uzbekistan) versus $1,800 (South Korea), economic motivation stands out as a strong incentive. However, rendering Koryo Saram as merely “economic opportunists” (Cook et al. 2011) would be simplistic. This sole economic rational cannot explain a certain form of subjectivity of Koryo Saram within the biopolitical regime, including racialization. I look at economics and earning money as a ground for subject formation. From this point of view, Foucault talks about migration and mobility as a choice and capacity for a better life. He outlines the following:
The mobility of a population and its ability to make choices of mobility as investment choices for improving income enable the phenomena of migration to be brought back into economic analysis, not as pure and simple effects of economic mechanisms which extend beyond individuals and which, as it were, bind them to an immense machine which they do not control, but as behavior in terms individual enterprise, of enterprise of oneself with investments and incomes. (Foucault et al. 2008, 230)
Migration comes with a cost since some financial resources will be spent on adaptation. However, this is an investment in improving one’s life, and here, the technologies of the self are also involved:
which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (Foucault et al. 1988)
Within the biopolitical regime, including biopolitical racism, migration is a way to becoming a homo-economicus as working laboring body. For the Foucauldian homo-economicus,embracing an economic mode of reasoning does not conflict with subject formation and agency; it is the way to become a proper subject within a neoliberal regime. Within this domain, Koryo Saram become homo-economicus as working labor migrants.Here, income is not a mere economic indicator that forced Koryo Saram to migrate as a low-skilled laborer, but it is a part of the process of subject formation and part of the technologies of the self.
Moreover, this mode of economic reasoning that Koryo Saram chose to be subjected to contributes to improving their lives not solely through economics Along with earning money, all interviewees mentioned comfort, stability, and security as primary reasons for why they prefer to stay in South Korea, despite performing hard, low-skilled labor:
I like it here; I like this country. I like their progress, that they are constantly developing. I like that they are doing everything for the people—parks, events, everything for the people. You enter a shop, and everyone treats you as a businessman—”annyonghaseyoe” (Hello), how can I help you, what are you looking for?’ … very attentive. Out mentality should learn from this. And of course, many people are grateful to Korea for their work and their temperament. For them work comes first, then family, then the rest. You know they literally spent nights at work. Of course, all that for a proper payment. We… you know what we earn here … I remember recently we received payroll statement (급여명세서) and our sajan (director) opened it, like really what this salary is for him, oh my god … it is one tooth (laughing)! (Oksana, 9 years in Korea)
I like it here because there are rules here. Even how to throw out trash. And all of them follow these rules, that is, no matter how hard it sometimes can be, everyone here follows the rules and so overall people live well in the country and I feel myself secure (peaceful) here.…And the work conditions are good here—you have insurance, rights, they feed you, they provide transportation, and the salary is good. (Sergey, 3.5 years in Korea)
This level of comfort, stability, and security is something Koryo Saram choose to be subjected to. The income in a form of merely bigger wage is not the sole driving force. This is especially apparent considering that, at the time of the interview, both Oksana and Sergei were unemployed for a month and more than three months, respectively. Furthermore, simple personal satisfaction and unanticipated positive impressions and impacts are crucial in self-formation and the self‑positioning process:
I dreamed to come here since I was a child by watching those doramas. You can earn here and afford to buy something you couldn’t afford in Uzbekistan. There I worked as a waitress, it was just … simply earning for food… to go somewhere or to buy something for yourself was out off question. It was difficult there for me. Here there is stability and I can buy for myself anything I want. (Nina, 13 years in Korea)
I even like the way people dress here, it’s all for comfort you know, so I can wear simply comfortable clothes. (Lyusya, 3 years in Korea)
Author: Tell me about your first impression when you arrived in Korea, airport for example?
Oksana: Oh, Albina airport is a separate topic (laughing). I didn’t see much of it but what I saw just shocked me. It (airport) was so huge, I even forgot I was at the airport. It seemed like something totally different, you know all those fountains and flowers (amusement in voice), glass everywhere. I don’t know … it seemed that I came to … I don’t know to another planet (laughing). You know I have never been anywhere except Tashkent. I liked the airport so much that whenever someone either was about to come to Korea or go home I would always say ‘I’ll accompany you to the airport’. So, for these nine years, I have explored the airport to the fullest. (Oksana, 9 years in Korea)
Here, anyway, you feel that you are among people like yourself, it’s just nice. (Sergey, 3.5 years in Korea)
Such simple yet powerful revelations are often omitted and/or neglected in academic works on biopolitics, migration, and, especially, ethnic return labor migration of Kareitsy. There are, of course, tensions between being laboring racialized bodies and homo-economicus. Performing low-skilled jobs for long hours does impact self‑perception, and there are hardships and difficulties. However, it is this same racialized laboring regime that allows Koryo Saram to become enterprises of themselves via migration and income, and to create a better and more secure, comfortable, and stable life.
It is important to look at the H-2 visa not just merely as an oppressive tool of the biopolitical regime. The existing academic literature overemphasizes this oppressive element, and there is a logic to that as the mechanisms of technologies of power produce racialization. However, Foucault mentions multiple times, though it seems it is deliberately forgotten in academic circles, that biopolitical regime has elements of life protective and creative powers, and humans, as a thinking being, influence the process. The H-2 visa, which brings certain criticisms, is simultaneously an opportunity. Indeed, all ten interviewees, despite some of them holding better visas such as F-4 and F-5, called the H-2, “an opportunity.”
One very important point must be made here. Almost all of the interviewees are originally from Uzbekistan; even if they were not born there, they lived there. All H-2 visa holders I interviewed are Uzbekistan passport holders. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asian republics developed at a slightly different pace from each other (see, for example Nessipbayeva and Dalayeva 2013; Perlman and Gleason 2007). Due to the number of natural resources (especially oil) and, arguably, more liberal politics in terms of economics and education, Kazakhstan has, on average, higher salaries and higher tertiary education enrollment than in Uzbekistan, which affected the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan, however, due to a limited number of natural resources and a rather hard authoritarian regime (until 2016), the higher education enrollment rate was quite low. This affected the Korean diaspora in Uzbekistan—there are fewer Koreans with higher education diplomas in Uzbekistan than in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, there are no official statistics on this matter due to the neglected history of Koryo Saram in the region.
Based on my ethnographic fieldwork, digital ethnography, and personal experience, the number of Kazakh Koreans with H-2 visas is considerably lower than the number of Uzbek Koreans holding H-2 visas. I personally met only two Koreans from Kazakhstan, and neither of them had H-2 visas; they both had an F-4 visa. I argue here that an H-2 visa can be an opportunity, bringing capital-ability and satisfaction for its holders. Kareitsy would have to do similar blue-collar work in Uzbekistan, but for a much lower wage and with no opportunity to be associated with a more developed country such as South Korea.
Renegotiation of Gendered and Ethnic Boundaries as a Response to Racialization
Throughout my ethnographic fieldwork, I frequently heard Kareitsy say, “We are all Koreans, all the same.” Nina specifically mentioned that she had difficulty as a migrant in Russia because of her physical appearance, whereas, in South Korea, she feels better: “In Russia you still look different from them, you know what I mean, I was even afraid to ask anyone anything in Moscow.” Yet, post-Soviet Koreans have a deep feeling of uneasiness as gender norms, coupled with cultural markers, evoke strong feelings of difference in Koryo Saram to South Koreans. As Timofei, 4th year in Korea, notes:
In general, when you talk to them, they (South Koreans) look very friendly and nice just like other people…. At my work the young ones you know bow all the time, I even sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable that they bow as soon as they see you. Plus, they know that you don’t speak Korean so they say “bye Timofey” to you just so that you could understand. But…Women are different here, the way they look, the way they dress. You know ours have our own mentality; you know Soviet one. Men here… well (a bit scornfully) men here are feminine. Honestly… they wear makeup, I mean I already ignore the fact that all of them dye their hair in brown/red or blonde. And I don’t know they are very feminine, weak compared to ours.
Lena said the following:
We are absolutely different in everything, starting from food and behaving in public places. I can’t even remember any similarities. They munch while eating, well I guess it is their culture, but we don’t do that. There is ostensibly this culture here of respecting elderly, but if you take a metro, you can see that there is no any respect. No one ever gives a seat to a near standing grandma; they all would just be sitting without a grain of shame. The mentality is different here, I guess.… Women here are simply big children! Ours in their 20s can’t allow themselves certain behavior. Here in their 50s, they (South Korean women) can stomp and scream and behave like small kids, talk in high pitch voice. And men also, just look at them, what is this, it’s so weird…. Men here wear makeup, I don’t think I have ever seen separate shops for men’s cosmetics in any other country in the world. This is so unnatural for me.
As a response to and encounter with racialization, Koryo Saram dissociate themselves from certain gendered and cultural aspects and are becoming homo-economicus. All of this takes place within the racialization regime, where Koryo Saram are expected to be a laboring body. Timofei’s and Lena’s responses are representative of how post-Soviet Koreans think of South Koreans. An important point to note is that despite the fact that all interviewees mentioned these differences, for some of them, the differences do not evoke strong emotions. They simply see these aspects as a different mentality and culture. For other, however, the “femininity” in men, munching, and aegyo (in Korean this refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through, but not limited to, a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures) cause intense negative attitudes. Due to constructed gendered norms, men and women perceive the new culture in different ways, and the consequences vary for each gender. Networks and gender are inalienable constituents in understanding migration and cultural change; cultural expectations of migrants of both sexes impact migration structure (Curran and Saguy 2001).
Koreans in South Korea have a distinct culture from post-Soviet Koreans. Due to masculinity norms it is important to take into account that, the adjustment may be harder for men, as my research suggests. Along with “feminine” men, South Korea has a widespread practice of male kinship (스킨십), “which involves draping arms over each other, sharing umbrellas, massaging each other, stroking” (Elwood 2010), that is unusual for outsiders. Throughout my visits for ethnographic fieldwork, I witnessed homophobic and obscene language from, mostly, post-Soviet Korean men towards South Korean men, and especially their employers. Undocumented, anecdotal evidence reveals that there have been violent attacks by post-Soviet ethnic male migrants on South Korean employers. Adaptation hardships can also lead to a “masculinity crisis” for men, where a man cannot cope with the pressures of the constructed gender norms (being “a real man”) (Zdravomyslova and Temkina 2012). i.e., to be the breadwinner, to be tough, to earn more money.
The masculinity crisis can, in turn, lead to domestic violence and alcohol abuse (De Visser and Smith 2007). My thesis does not focus on alcohol abuse, but this is an acute problem among post-Soviet Korean migrant men. Since my first time working in South Korea, in 2016, with people I have known since childhood, I was shocked by the amount of alcohol they consumed; and most of these people did not drink prior to coming to Korea. As all but one of them says, with such dirty and hard 12–14-hour work days, you need some form of stress relief.
Such a state of affairs makes it harder for men to adjust to a new workplace, and arguably, opens up more job opportunities for ethnic women migrants. What I have noticed throughout my experiences in South Korea is that it is usually women who are the first migrants, and it is women who, on average, speak at least some level of Korean compared to post-Soviet Korean men. Out of ten interviews, seven of the interviewees stated that, when they arrived in South Korea, either their mother or aunt met them, not their fathers or uncles. The same pattern is evident in my own relatives’ process of migration. All three of my uncles’ families, my father’s brothers, who have worked in South Korea with H-2 visas, had their wives or daughters come to South Korea before them. The husbands and/or brothers would arrive, on average, a year later.
When it comes to language, throughout my three stays and about ten different jobs, I have met many different people. Of those who had been in Korea for more than a year, a lot of men still did not know a word in Korean; whereas, all of women who had been in Korea for more than a year typically could speak some level of Korean. In addition, all of the Central Asian Koreans with F-5 visas (Permanent Residency) or citizenship that I encountered during my three stays in South Korea were women. The topic of women and their, arguably, more successful adaption was not the primary focus of my research, and, therefore, I did not ask specific questions about this during my interviews, nor do I have any conceptual assumptions or hypothesis; yet the patterns stood out as a rich area for further research.
One of the most apparent attributes in the process of subject formation in relation to ethnic return migration policies is ethnicity. The Korean government utilizes the discourse of common ethnic ancestry, and ethnicity is also important for the biopolitical regime. However, the construction of ethnicity is the outcome of both the technologies of power and the technologies of the self, that is of structure and agency. During my interviews, I had a precise question related to being of Korean ethnicity/nationality: What does it mean for you to be ethnically Korean? If an interviewee seemed completely lost by this question, I proceeded to add: I have some ideas for brainstorming: maybe its ethnic belonging and/or blood; ancestors are from the Korean peninsula; culture and language; none of the above; something else….
All interviewees noted that they had never thought about ethnicity before; and the majority were taken aback. Yet, their responses revealed a diverse and complex process of constant renegotiating:
Well, I … what to say …. I don’t even … To be honest, for me nationality/ethnicity never meant something important. The main thing is that what the person is, I never paid attention to it and no one asked me about it. Well, they can you know sometimes ask are you Korean, well it is because people are confused about me very often—Chinese think that I am Chinese, Uzbeks that I am Uzbek, only Hanguks (South Koreans) never think that I am one of them.
Author: So, when people do ask you, as you said, and you reply that you are Korean, what do you think is meant by saying I am Korean?
Artyom: Well, to be honest, nothing. Just so that people know that I am not Uzbek that I am Korean. Well, that they are wrong. They asked I answered and that is it, and nothing more. Even if I were Uzbek, I would say yes, I am Uzbek and that is it. I would not argue and insist how could you confuse me; it of course amazes me (smiling almost laughing) that they confuse me, I mean I’m like I’m a slant-eyed (laughing). So, it does not matter. (Artyom, more than 3 years in Korea)
During her responses, Oksana, 9 years in Korea, used Russian and broken Korean interchangeably, I have transliterated the Korean part and provided translation in brackets. She said the following:
Oh, such a question, I have never thought about it. Well, I always thought that even if we come here to Koreans, we will be considered strangers. well, it is sort of programmed in us that this is something we will hear here, right? So, we come here with the idea in our heads that we are not related in any way with them. Well, despite that I worked at the PCB factory with our Chinese, our Korean Chinese, very good women, older than me. You know what! … they till the very end thought that I am Uzbek (shouting with discontent)
(Me laughing out loud)
I said unnie wae (sister why) I said my surname is Lee I was telling them (still shouting). They told me we saw some people with Korean surnames but having some Uzbek father you know.
Author: ssangkeopuri (double eye lid) are yours (natural)?
Oksana: (Almost whispering) Yes, they are mine (natural).
Author: Maybe that is why they thought you are Uzbek?
Oksana: I don’t know … I was shocked (shouting with discontent). I said na pijyeosseo (I am offended/upset) and they told me why? are you offended/upset? I was saying wae na Uzbek saram (Why am I Uzbek?), na Koryoin (I am Koryion). Can you imagine that all that time they thought that I am…. After that, I showed them photos of my parents that they are Koreans.… Earlier we didn’t have this you are Uzbek, I am Korean, all were living friendly and everything was good. Yes, Muslim saram (person) doesn’t eat pork, and we were ok with that. I don’t like nationalism, for me everyone is equal, you know we have a saying there is no bad nationality there are bad people.
It is fascinating that, despite the will to disregard ethnic boundaries, at the same time, all interviewees claim their ethnic identity. Because of the complex (colonial) socialist past where the discourse of ethnic belonging was suppressed (even though some of the interviewees were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union), the rhetoric of non-ethnicity might prevail in Koryo Saram. However, once they are positioned against a specific audience, such as being confused with Uzbek or Chinese Koreans, the ethnic boundary creation takes quite an expressive form. This results from the fact that the ethnic construction process is, as contemporary theories on ethnicity suggest, fluid, situational, and changeable (Nagel 1994). Here, ethnicity is the result of a labelling process that is engaged in by one’s self and by others; and so, “as the individual (or group) moves through daily life, ethnicity can change according to variations in the situations and audiences encountered” (Nagel 1994, 154).
Due to the technologies of the self and the fluidity of ethnicity and, as a response to hierarchization and racialization, Koryo Saram choose how to recreate boundaries against South Koreans. Yulya, 1,5 years in Korea, pointed to the following:
We are not Muslims, not Christians, but we follow certain customs and traditions. And so, we are… where are these traditions and customs are coming from? They are… well, our traditions are not like any other in Uzbekistan or Russia, so all of that came from Korea back in the days.
Author: Do you consider South Korea your historic homeland?
Yulya: Yes. Historic ethnic homeland. Well, because all of that here is familiar to me—traditions and customs and… mentality is of course not really, but traditions yes. Mentality and culture are different from ours, it’s because of the time, they change with time.
Timofei, 4 years on Korea, said this:
My homeland is Uzbekistan. Being of Korean ethnicity for me is just blood and ancestors, you know we … ethnicity/nationality is not important, we are Soviet people, we are more open than (South) Koreans.
Despite Yulya thinking that she is still Soviet, even though she was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, due to her rather positive experience in Korea, she is open to embracing South Korean Koreanness. In contrast, Timofei, who is 17 years older than Yulya and who does not speak Korean, had certain hardships in adaptation and sticks to his Soviet identity. This shows how Kareitsy’s subjectivity is contingent upon gendered, cultural, and ethnic intersections as well as age and, to some extent, luck. Kareitsy had not ever thought about the question of ethnicity/ethnic belonging prior to coming to South Korea; however, it is not just because they arrived in South Korea that they suddenly started thinking about it, but, rather, it is because of the biopolitical regime that Kareitsy redefine their gendered and ethnic boundaries. They disassociate with aspects that will not greatly impact their financial position, such as with gender and cultural attributes.
Based on my interviews with Kareitsy, participant observation, Facebook group dynamics, and personal experience, I found that Kareitsy are acutely aware of the racialization and hierarchization processes. Moreover, they are actively renegotiating their selves through responding to external structures, such as visa regimes, racialization, work, community building, representations of culture, and gendered norms. Approaching subject formation via Foucauldian terms has allowed to explore how a capacity for desires and actions is created under certain subjectivation and subordination modes like racialization within the biopolitical regime.
Within a neoliberal economic mode under a biopolitical regime, low-skilled migrant Koryo Saram embraced a certain mode of subjectivity that allowed them to become entrepreneurs of their own satisfaction. That is, the H-2 visa, which is often represented as a utilizing and even oppressive tool, is also viewed as an opportunity for a better life by Kareitsy in terms of a better income, a better ability to afford something they could not prior to becoming migrants, a better sense of security and comfort, and a better association with the civilization while living in South Korea.
I found that within the process of hierarchization, through the lived norms contingent on gendered, cultural, and ethnic aspects, Kareitsy actively and creatively decide what identity to adhere to when it comes to belonging and identification. Depending on their audience, Kareitsy navigate through identifications such as Soviet, Koryo Saram, and even South Korean. This active adaptability partly stems from the historical hardships of Kareitsy immigration and deportation that are frequently unknown and neglected in public and academic discourse. Overall, I revealed that the experiences of Kareitsy are historically and culturally specific and are astonishingly diverse, complex, and have active agency.
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 A common joke among post-Soviet Koreans. The average price for one tooth implant is approximately $1,800 in South Korea. As was mentioned, $1,800 is approximately the average monthly salary of Koryo Saram without overtime and added premiums.
 Higher education enrollment rate in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan can be found here: