- Spies in the Third Space:Spy as a Trope for Cultural Emplacement in Changrae Lee's Native Speaker and Kim Young-Ha's Your Republic is Calling You
In this essay, I examine the precarious and ambivalent identity-formation processes of two protagonists, one a Korean American, the other a North Korean living in South Korea, through the common trope of the spy. The trope of the spy, which I read as a figure of double displacement (of self and nation) through double allegiance, illustrates the hegemonically conditioned political and racial relationship between Korea and America. Changrae Lee's 1995 novel Native Speaker features an Asian American corporate spy who seeks the political agency that is denied to him on account of his racialized ethnic minority identity, whereas Kim Young-Ha's 2005 novel, Your Republic is Calling You, focuses on a North Korean political spy whose ethnicity opens automatic membership in South Korea despite his hope of obtaining a zone of political zero gravity. In Native Speaker, the persisting logic of the Cold War emplaces Henry Park, a Korean American working as an ethnic corporate spy, in his racialized identity, prompting Henry to seek inclusion into the nation to obtain a modicum of "Americanness" by selling his otherness, his ethnic culture, from which he feels displaced. Kim's Your Republic Is Calling You shows how the legacy of the Cold War carries over in the form of either-or identity [End Page 224] politics diametrically opposed to the postmodern, consumer-oriented South Korean society, which has lost its "authenticity" due to American exceptionalism and the cultural imperialism it entails. Kiyong, a discarded North Korean spy living in South Korea, construes his contested identity and North Korea itself as the cultural emplacement imposed by the global hegemony of the Cold War. While Henry is displaced by racialized politics resembling the containment policy of the Cold War, Kiyong's displacement in the form of self-exile manifests the imbrication of postmodern desire to refute the grand narratives like nation and American exceptionalism. Thus espionage becomes both a figure of displacement and a subversive strategy aimed at dislodging oneself from a cultural emplacement, a racialized stereotype.
In both novels, the minority subject's oppression stems from the dominant community, in which the subject performs his socially prescribed role as either model minority or a cynical businessman; the profession of spy, while foregrounding the unique constructedness of minority identity, also produces the minority subject's existential angst arising from his double life. It is this double life which I intend to investigate in broader, historical terms. Ed Christian, discussing the prevalence of "the postcolonial detective" in third world literature, writes that his "primary work … is surveillance, and part of that surveillance is observing the disparities, ironies, hybridities, and contradictions of both the empire and the indigenous culture" (285). In the same vein, I argue that the association of the minority subject with espionage, in the two novels under discussion, reflects and challenges the dynamics which the Cold War generated. The ethnic spy in Native Speaker and the political spy in Your Republic is Calling You are both "unassimilable immigrants," in white America and South Korea respectively. When analyzed together, the two novels show that the protagonists' shifting, in-between identities are contingent not only on relations between the United States and the two Koreas but also on domestic opportunities and constraints. In addition, the protagonists' clear awareness of their double allegiance, as well as the constructedness of the normative identities they perform, highlights the problematic relationships between the real and the fake, the native and the foreign, spying and being spied upon, and gestures toward conditions for imagining what Homi Bhabha calls "the third space." According to Bhabha, the third space can project a purview of internal conflicts and negotiations taking place within the context [End Page 225] of transnational connections that link modern life worlds across cultures. In this sense, the third space unsettles concepts of unitary Western modernity embodied in the Western nation state and the logic of the Cold War which impels minority subjects to choose a side, denying their hybridity and in-betweenness.