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  • Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor and Migration Rights in South Korea by Hae Yeon Choo
Decentering Citizenship: Gender, Labor and Migration Rights in South Korea, by Hae Yeon Choo. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016. 216 pages. $24.95 paperback.

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 tolerated. Yet, Choo does not provide any additional context for this claim, leaving readers to guess as to its veracity and the context for it. Furthermore, how Japan, a similarly homogenous nation whose word for "nation" and "race" (minzoku) mirrors Korea's own (minjŏk), acquired a different set of immigration standards would have been interesting to mention. Also, while the touches on the literature for feminism, margins, and class borders in her work, Choo could have engaged more fully in the literature on Korean nationalism, particularly the ethnic component of minjŏk that separates even the migrant brides from full participation in society. In the coda, the author notes popular resistance to legislation that would extend rights to the children of undocumented migrants born in Korea; despite the clear market for foreign labor in the factories and hostess bars, does Korea's perception of itself as an ethnic nation prevent it from creating more legal avenues for such workers? What forms of racism take place against mixed-race children and their foreign mothers, thus discouraging one mother in this study from participating in her child's schooling?

These relatively minor points aside, Decentering Citizenship will be an invaluable resource in years to come for those wishing to explore the experience of ethnic minorities in traditionally homogenous countries, particularly in East Asia. Future scholarly studies of other migrant communities in Korea, such as the Bangladeshis, Vietnamese, and Chinese can make use of this book, as can explorations of minority migrant communities in Japan. Those interested in conducting studies of North Korean refugee communities in South Korea may also make reference to this work, contrasting how the prejudice directed at ethnically similar but otherwise disadvantaged North Koreans differs from ethnically distinct Filipinas. Owing to Korea's rapidly aging population, a reliance on migrant labor appears unlikely to diminish. As the effects of Korea's demographic changes are felt more broadly across Korean society, Decentering Citizenship should be regarded as a cornerstone in the studies of their evolving labor market and the changing nature of Korean citizenship. [End Page 93]

Robert York
University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
Robert York

Robert York (, The South China Morning Post, 19/F, Tower One, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

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