This article examines the life story of Muhammad Kkansu (Chŏng Suil), a once distinguished foreign professor of Arabic history and culture at Dankook University and a prolific scholar on the Silk Road, who was indicted in 1996 on charges of espionage and use of a false identity as an Arab of Filipino-Lebanese descent to enter South Korea. It considers the complex circumstances that shaped his life choices as a diasporic Korean living in China and South Korea’s blind and willful ignorance of the North, which ironically enabled a diasporic Korean from China, to pass as an “Arab” right under its nose. In contrast to accounts of North Korean spies, it humanizes the experiences of Kkansu, illustrating how a diasporic Korean learned to dissimulate by adopting an ambiguous identity and navigate the social and political realities of national division and anxieties caused by global and internecine hostilities during the Cold War. His imprisonment did not foreclose the possibility of becoming an academic again; in fact, he reemerged after a presidential pardon in 2003 and authored more than a dozen important monographs and encyclopedias on the Silk Road. While there are many contradictions and gaps about his personal life, Kkansu’s life story challenges the master narratives of national culture, homogeneity, belongingness, and identity.
Anti-communism, cold-war, diaspora, dissimulation, identity, nationalism, postwar North and South Korea, race