- Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor and Migration Rights in South Korea by Hae Yeon Choo
South Korea's economic strength vis-à-vis its Asian neighbors, its pursuit of cheap labor, and its restrictions on immigration have created veritable ecosystems of undocumented labor and immigrant spouses at the margins of South Korean society. In Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor and Migration Rights in South Korea, Hae Yeon Choo provides an in-depth look at this phenomenon and the struggles of these laborers—especially Filipina workers—through approximately two years' worth of fieldwork and interviews with the women, along with the Korean non-governmental organizations (NGOs), churches, labor activists, and other agents that support them. Decentering Citizenship eschews the top-down viewpoint of policymakers, along with that of these laborers' employers, focusing instead on the economic motivations of these women, the social order that has emerged in the communities near their workplaces, and the ever-present insecurity brought about by their status as "illegals" and outsiders.
Though supportive Koreans, as well as Vietnamese migrants are also featured in this monograph, three groups of Filipina women serve as Choo's main subjects: factory workers, those who have married South Korean men, and the hostesses at clubs catering to American military [End Page 91] personnel. Choo sketches the problems unique to each category: the undocumented factory workers are subject to periodic immigration raids that target migrants who cannot pass for Korean (including Filipino or Vietnamese workers, as opposed to Chinese or Mongolian). Migrant wives may feel insecure due to potential deportation raids, but they (and their children) are subject to racism at schools, unsympathetic in-laws, and abuse at the hands of their Korean husbands. The bar hostesses, frequently brought in on "entertainment" visas, find themselves expected to undertake a different kind of performance—in which customers pay for their company and frequently expect sexual favors. Their difficulties are often compounded by their employers, who control their visas and may pressure these women into providing patrons with services they find repellent, and who may choose to terminate the women's visas prematurely, either sending them back to their country of origin or sending them fleeing into Korea's undocumented labor market.
Decentering Citizenship's strength lies in its capturing of the insecurity of these migrants' day-to-day lives, as well as how they construct routines, support networks, and coping mechanisms in response. These methods can be either modern or traditional; immigrant brides receive encouragement from advocates to resist pressure from in-laws who want only Korean spoken at home, speaking from the current point of view that a bilingual upbringing is better for a child's cognitive development. Choo also demonstrates how, despite feminist objections, the foreign wives of abusive Korean husbands use the country's traditional morals, namely the mother's central role in the lives of their children, to assert mastery of the home. Furthermore, the author shows how, to avoid drawing attention to themselves, the undocumented Filipina laborers stick to very strict schedules of work, home, and church. Coming from a traditionally Catholic country, the church takes on a central role in providing these women with social and emotional support, but the author notes limits to its reach; one woman, in chapter 5, employed in a hostess bar declines to attend church as the nature of her employment shames her, leaving her with a sense of unworthiness. Each of these stories turns the reader's attention from the policies and policymakers, toward figures far from the Korean public eye or mass media.
At times this decentering of the state, as well as the majority of public opinion, leads to unanswered questions. Choo recounts one especially frustrating incident in which she accompanies a Korean advocate for undocumented migrant laborers in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a raid victim's release so that the detained worker can be reunited with her child. [End Page 92]
Dismissing their pleas, an immigration official states that Korea should be more like Japan, where such actions are not...