In November 2017, the dramatic escape of North Korean soldier Oh Chong Song across the heavily fortified Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) grabbed global headlines, as did the post-escape narratives of “freedom” and “miracle” in the ensuing months. As Oh made a “dash for freedom” across the militarized border on foot, North Korean soldiers fired bullets at the defecting soldier, critically wounding him. Under the care of American military medics and South Korean doctors, Oh survived, and his defection through a hail of gunfire was initially framed as a shimmering narrative of “freedom.”
Yet, this fixation on the unidirectional passage from North to South, Communist tyranny to American-style freedom in North Korean defection stories absolves the U.S.-ROK Cold War regime from co-authoring the enduring conditions of impasse, detention, and militarized borders that continue to constrain the mobility of Korean people.
The American authorship of Korea’s division set into motion an enduring logic of division that culminated in the global armed conflict of the Korean War (1950–53), which has been suspended only by an armistice agreement.
Disrupting the uncritical freedom-bound narratives of border-crossing and defection, Oh’s story alongside the cases of Ryu and Seo are part of the persisting reality of conditional mobility imposed on Korean people by state powers in South and North Korea. The possession of North Korean and South Korean citizenship means state enforcement of conditions and surveillance on one’s mobility—to move around, to travel, to immigrate—depending on one’s relationship to the state throughout the Cold War. Even today, South Korean male citizens between 25 and 37 years of age, who have not fulfilled their compulsory military service, are required to obtain special travel permits from the Military Manpower Administration for overseas travel. Moreover, all South Korean citizens face national security charges for any unauthorized contact with North Korea, including travel and telecommunication.
The policing of Koreans’ movement across an inter-Korean border began in August 1945. As historian Bruce Cumings argues in Parallax Visions, the United States’ unilateral division of Korea, which had been under Japan’s colonial rule for 35 years, exposed not only a desire to stymie Soviet influence and anti-colonial communist revolutions throughout Asia but also “an Anglo-American desire unilaterally to occupy those colonial territories still available to them, especially southern Korea and Vietnam.” With the Korean peninsula divided into two zones of occupation from 1945 to 1948, two mutually negating state-building projects were constituted in the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As a result, the 38th parallel rapidly transformed from a policed checkpoint, where crossings by civilians became at times a criminal offense, into a militarized border that saw a number of armed clashes throughout 1949. The American authorship of Korea’s division set into motion an enduring logic of division that culminated in the global armed conflict of the Korean War (1950–53), which has been suspended only by an armistice agreement. The DMZ, established by the 1953 armistice agreement, continues to rationalize the mobilization and immobilization of Korean people.
In a 2004 South Korean documentary film of the series Now We Can Speak, an anguished former North Korean soldier Ryu Kijin in South Korea demanded to know: “what kind of world forbids a person to see even one member of their family…hear news of their family?” During the war, Ryu joined partisans in the south after being cut off from the People’s Army following the Inchon landing, but when he surrendered, the South Korean state refused to recognize him as a POW and imprisoned Ryu for 11 years as a domestic criminal (“a partisan”). In doing so, the South Korean state placed Ryu outside of the formal POW exchange between the UN Command, on one side, and North Korea and China, on the other. Separated from his family for more than fifty years, Ryu continuously demanded the South Korean government to repatriate him to North Korea. South Korea had been a “hell of all hells” for Ryu.
Moreover, Ryu belonged to a larger immobilized population in postwar South Korea: the unconverted long-term political prisoners. Over the decades in Cold War South Korea, this social category of unconverted political prisoners expanded to include not only captured soldiers like Ryu from the war but also captured North Korean agents in the 1960s like Seo Ok-ryeol, as well as more recent cases of South Koreans charged under the National Security Act. As of today, both Ryu and Seo have passed away after agonizing battles with the South Korean state to authorize their return—repatriation—to their homes in North Korea.
Oh, on the other hand, certainly has not attempted to or claimed any legal right to repatriate like Ryu and Seo. Still, Oh’s surrender to South Korean and American military representatives across the demarcation line initiated a process of disarmament, interrogation, and political naturalization that bear striking resemblance to the experience of uniformed North Korean defectors seventy years ago.
For years after the war, many of these former POWs were subjected to intense scrutiny, surveillance, and even forced conscription to ensure their allegiance to South Korea.
During the Korean War, thousands of North Korean POWs staged spectacular scenes of protest, allegiance to South Korea, and even conversion to Christianity to oppose and petition for citizenship in “Free” Korea. While individual reasons and motives were varied and complex, though quickly ironed out into Cold War conversion narratives, these anti-Communist North Korean POWs understood that they had to become model anticommunist citizens and perform their desire for and gratitude toward South Korea and the United States. For years after the war, many of these former POWs were subjected to intense scrutiny, surveillance, and even forced conscription to ensure their allegiance to South Korea.
Decades later, much of the Cold War politics of political naturalization in South Korea remain potent. Like the POWs, Oh is constantly called upon to convince the South Korean public of his gratitude toward his saviors, especially as details of his life threaten to burst the neat seams around the original reportings of his border-crossing as a freedom-bound exodus. In January 2020, South Korean national news SBS reported on Oh’s confrontation with police after being detained for driving under the influence of alcohol, an infraction that would otherwise not make national news for most South Korean citizens. In the same article and news segment, there was also reference to an earlier revelation that Oh’s dramatic escape across the DMZ was “not the culmination of a grand plan to achieve freedom” but rather a “mistake,” reportedly another instance of driving while intoxicated. While raising suspicion around Oh’s moral character as well as motives for defecting, SBS nonetheless punctuated the report with a sound bite of Oh’s apology. “I think that it is only right that I deliver an apology. I feel like I am deeply sorry for disappointing so many South Korean people who have supported me,” Oh can be heard saying. In this 12-second audio clip, Oh’s apology, to me as a listener, conveys more specifically Oh’s internalization of the conditions placed on his citizenship as a defector-citizen. What Oh likely learned from this incident was not only South Korea’s DUI laws, but the fact that Oh’s everyday movements throughout South Korean society will be under the microscope. And as he has done repeatedly, each time Oh faces scrutiny in the South Korean public, he will likely stress his unwavering gratitude for the “gift of freedom” bestowed by the U.S.-ROK Cold War regime.
Certainly, many commentators would argue that regardless of any scruples Oh can now live in an abundance of freedoms in South Korea. Many might also rationalize the disciplinary regimes (under state and Christian missionary custodies) of interrogation, internment, and reeducation facing all North Korean defectors reaching for South Korean citizenship as bureaucratic processes that are negligible compared to the “freedom” awaiting outside of the detention sites. However, any narrative that fails to identify the systemic conditions of (im)mobility imposed on North Koreans and South Koreans fails to comprehend the antidemocratic conditions of citizenship on both sides of the DMZ. As a South Korean citizen, Oh is now also subject to national security laws that criminalize unauthorized visits to North Korea, including communication with relatives in North Korea. Yet, Oh must remain thankful, for he has been provided a script performed by forerunner defectors from that distant yet constantly present war on the Korean peninsula. A war that is also the United States’ first forever war.
However, any narrative that fails to identify the systemic conditions of (im)mobility imposed on North Koreans and South Koreans fails to comprehend the antidemocratic conditions of citizenship on both sides of the DMZ.