- DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border by Suk-Young Kim
The Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) has divided the peninsula since the end of the Korean War (1950–53), and the border is one of the least travelled places in the world. Suk-Young Kim’s DMZ Crossing: Performing Emotional Citizenship Along the Korean Border is about various acts of DMZ border crossing, both imagined and actual, and the different emotional responses the DMZ has triggered. The book begins with a description of a family reunion in 2010 of brothers and sisters who were forcibly separated during the war. As Kim explains, such reunions are granted to only a few lucky families, and are “painfully negotiated between the two Koreas” (3). Kim focuses on the emotional responses of both the participants and observers of the reunion and examines how the family’s suffering, regrets, and temporary joy represent Korea’s tragic history. Borrowing the concept of “emotional citizenship” coined by Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho, Kim analyzes what she describes as “alternative formations of citizenship” that are based on “emotional affiliation” separate from civic duties and nationhood (10). The book broadens the notion of citizenship by examining how it is performed through affective embodiment. By focusing on the actual bodies and how those bodies travel across the DMZ, Kim explicates what she calls “social performance,” a term that captures “the individual agency of the crosser by considering the dynamic network of motion, emotion, and visual representation, and spectatorship of border crossing” (12). Kim argues that the DMZ should be examined as having more than geopolitical significance; the motif of border crossing as imagined in the minds of many Koreans is just as, if not more, important than the official narratives of the two governments. The defectors, spies, war prisoners, activists, and others who have crossed the DMZ perform emotional citizenship with their physical bodies and personal stories.
The five chapters in the book follow a broad chronological order from the 1950s to the 21st century. Each chapter analyzes a case study from a different mode of representation: theatre, feature film, documentary film, museum exhibition, and tourism. Kim is candid about her perspective, which is that of a South Korean who lives in the United States. Nevertheless, her analysis is decidedly comparative, and she makes much effort to provide a balanced study of the DMZ. Kim also makes an effort to highlight the paradoxes and contradictions symbolized by the DMZ itself. The first chapter, for instance, compares Thus Flows the Han River (1958), a play written by Yu Chi-jin in South Korea, and Ten Years (1958), a play written by Sin Go-song in North Korea. Kim conducts a close reading of the two plays in order to complicate the narratives of border crossing. Both plays dramatize characters whose dilemmas do not easily align [End Page 192] with the binary ideological division of the late 1950s Korea that portrayed those on the other side of the border as either victims or enemies. In such a binary worldview, South Koreans saw themselves as free and democratic while pitying North Koreans as oppressive communists, and the North viewed the South as a place of suffering caused by the US occupation. The two plays dramatize characters bound by family relationships and driven by love, desire, grief, and anger. These characters risk their lives to cross the DMZ in order to be with their loved ones, not to demonstrate political loyalty or fulfill civic duties. In other works, the characters’ physical and emotional needs come in direct conflict with the political realities of the border.
In chapters two and three, Kim examines the decades of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s by using films that depict both fictional and real stories of people whose lives were defined by the border. As the two Koreas grew apart through those decades, the border became more fortified, and Koreans began to realize that what was supposed to be a temporary ceasefire was becoming a permanent division. In...