Event Report “The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea Book Launch”

Law, Timothy | November 2, 2015

A photo of Centre for the Study of Korea event on 16 October, 2015 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

“The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea Book Launch” is an event hosted by the Centre for the Study of Korea at the Munk School, University of Toronto, on October 16th, 2015. The main speaker was Professor Hyun Ok Park (Department of Sociology, York University), who discussed her investigation into the transnational qualities of the Korean community and its capitalistic influences within her newly published book, The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea.

In providing a brief introductory academic discussion on Park’s book, two academics discussants, being Ms. Jennifer Jinye Chun (Director, Centre for the Study of Korea, University of Toronto) and Professor Andre Schmid (Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto), presented their thoughts on the book. Within their discussions, both focus on Park’s study of the Korean community through a narrative based on economics and transnationality rather than the traditional state-centric view. Stating that her use of the “capitalist unconscious” was an important tool in linking the study of politically separated states, both discussants described Professor Park’s book as both “ambitious” and “stunning”, complementing the novelty of Park’s analysis and the significance of her new book as a fresh take on the transnational Korean community.

Continuing into Professor Park’s presentation, Park began by presenting the main theme of her novel: Korean unification through the lens of global capitalism in contrast to the traditional scope of territorial and ethnic sovereignty. She argues that in the post-Cold War period, the two Koreas were engaged in a two separate but simultaneous transitions, being from socialism to capitalism, and from dictatorship to democracy. However, these two transitions are often conjoined together, with the Cold War rhetoric of the victory of democracy over communism is misapplied in the situation of the Korean peninsula.

In correcting the common misconception, Professor Park examines Korean unification with a focus on the proliferation of capitalist influence. She argues that socialist and the capitalist principles in both Koreas stem from the same political fascinations with industrial modernism: they embrace common aspirations for what Professor Park refers to as a “market utopia”. Professor Park coined this phrase as being defined by equality, justice, freedom, and other democratic principles. Accordingly, she perceives the post-Cold War period not as the fall of socialism, but rather the reconfiguration of capitalism in a radically new order, leading to both grave challenges and solutions within the transnational Korean community.

Professor Park further explains that even though Koreans are separated by geographic borders, the large Korean communities situated in China, North Korea, and South Korea are all connected by normative principles and exchanges of capital, thus forming a transnational unified Korea. In analysing this transnationalism, Park focuses on the challenges and changes stemming from the introduction of capitalist ideals, stating examples such as increased privatization, deregulation, and labor migration. Utilizing the example of transnational migrants from North Korea, Park describes how North Koreans work and trade in Northern China in increasing numbers and through this process are introduced as part of the capitalist network, filling the labor shortage in China. Additionally, Park states many Chinese Koreans migrate to South Korea, or work in South-Korean-owned factories in China, thus further interacting with transnational capital.

Contrary to common perceptions of North Korean migrants as refugees, Professor Park explains that North Koreans are stateless in the sense that they harbor the longing for community, but not in terms of political protection. Although North Koreans often migrate to China or South Korea, they wish to continue migrating, displaying their transient state. This sense of identity is unaccounted for by either state sovereignty or citizenship. For these migrants, the influence of capitalist principles leads them to invest their transient identity in an unalienable sovereignty through their individual ability to conduct manual labor. Observing this in a broader respect, Park states that this observation is also applicable to other economic migrants and transnational labor, thus showing the globalized influence of capitalist principles in these matters.

In expanding on another example, Park applies an idea of historical repetition to Korean migration, specifically in the Chinese-Korean community referral. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, Chinese-Koreans were persecuted for capitalist practices, which were mainly implemented to achieve state-mandated collectivization quotas, thus exemplifying the influence of capitalism in socialist programs. The development of privatization in China during the 1990s, especially among Chinese Koreans, was a commodification of socialist ideals (housing, healthcare, etc.) rather than reparation for past socialist challenges. Leading up to the present, Park states that many Chinese Koreans would describe the status quo as a “Cultural Revolution” because of their inability to maintain their cultural rights. Although the Chinese Koreans interviewed by Park described their present crises as a product of past-identity controversies rooted in the Cultural Revolution, Park’s inclusion of the capitalism illustrates a different representation of the development in the Chinese Korean community.


Timothy Law is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.

Timothy Law
About Timothy Law 6 Articles
Timothy Law is a 3rd Year student studying International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College. Currently, Timothy serves as an event correspondent and editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, East Asia section. Specializing in the East Asian region, Timothy has interest in historical and political developments of the 21st century, especially within China and the greater Chinese community.

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  1. Talking About the Unconscious: Interview with Professor Hyun Ok Park | Sino-NK

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