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Visualizing and Invisibilizing the Subempire: Labor, Humanitarianism and Popular Culture Across South Korea, Southeast and South Asia

Jin-kyung Lee, UCSD
Monday, May 19, 2014 - 3:30am
Thomson Hall 317

This paper is an examination of popular cultural representations of several related aspects of South Korea’s regional globalization: first, Southeast Asian and other Asian migrant/immigrant/off-shore labor for South Korea, and the distinct ways in which some are made visible and others, invisible; second, popular cultural imaginings of a pan-Korean global network; third, popular cultural production of a pan-Asian imaginary; fourth, South Korean humanitarianism and its subimperializing dimensions; fifth, dissemination of popular culture within and outside of South Korea, i.e., the emergence of popular culture as a significant instrument of imaging South Korea as a subempire. I argue here that South Korean popular culture functions, both domestically and overseas, as one of the most critical ways in which meanings of respective nation-states (e.g., South Korea, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, etc.), Asia as a regional bloc, and globalization are produced, circulated, consumed, and challenged. My overall aim here is to point to the ways in which South Korean popular culture is productive of the more complexly imbricated meanings and strategies of domination and subversion in the context of economic and cultural globalization and capitalization. In lieu of conclusion, the paper will offer a couple of broad speculations on the changing and varied meanings of subempire for contemporary South Korea and the encroachment of “inverted totalitarianization” through popular culture in the globalized consumerist context.

Jin-kyung Lee received her B. A. from Cornell University and her Ph. D. from UCLA in Comparative Literature. She is the author of Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work and Migrant Labor in South Korea (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) as well as a co-editor of Rat Fire: Korean Stories from the Japanese Empire (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013) and [Modern Korea at Crossroads between Empire and Nation] (Seoul: Ch’aekkwa hamkke, 2011). She also co-guested a special issue of The Review of Korean Studies, titled, Korean Literature, Literary Studies and Disciplinary Crossings: A Transpacific Comparative Examination (December, 2013). She is currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled, Modernizing Governance: Liberalism and the New Conceptions of Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics in Colonial Korea, 1910-1925.

Sponsored by the East Asia Center and the Center for Korea Studies (

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