Decentering Citizenship
Gender, Labor, and Migrant Rights in South Korea
Hae Yeon Choo



Decentering Citizenship

Perils, Promises, Possibilities

“We Are Labor! We Want Labor Rights!”
“Don’t Call Us Illegals! Stop Crackdowns!”

Loud chanting filled the busy streets of downtown Seoul one sunny afternoon in August 2008—only a few months into my fieldwork in South Korea—as people marched five hundred strong past skyscrapers and low-rise storefronts. Slogans recited in Korean and English were then repeated in Urdu and Nepalese, languages unfamiliar to most South Korean ears. As migrant union flags flew in the hot summer wind, South Korean activists joined the protest against “barbaric” immigrant crackdowns, standing alongside many migrants who worked in factories with temporary work authorization and a smaller number of undocumented workers. Together, they openly demanded that South Korea recognize migrants’ presence and rights.

Through their public demands, these migrant protests challenge a long-held conception of South Korean citizenship. The rules governing citizenship operate as an instrument of exclusion, separating outsiders from those whom the state and society deem worthy of rights and dignity. In South Korea, with its myth of ethnic homogeneity, the migrant labor system was designed to keep migrants from becoming legal South Korean citizens while taking advantage of their labor, except in the limited cases of high-skilled professionals and coethnics.1 Instead, it allows migrants only as part of a short-term rotation workforce, preventing migrant settlement by denying migrant workers any possibility of becoming long-term residents or naturalized citizens and prohibiting spouses or children from accompanying them.

Fervent public protests and a spirited migrant advocacy movement since the mid-1990s in South Korea brought significant legal and policy changes, including a 2004 reform of the migrant labor system that recognized migrant workers as workers under South Korean labor law. However, hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants—who constituted two-thirds of the total migrant workforce between 1994 and 2002—still face aggressive immigration crackdowns and deportations. The demand for more radical migrant policy reform based in the claim “We Are Labor” continues to this day, with little promise of accomplishment in sight. Yet the migrant population in South Korea continues to grow: by 2014, it reached 1.57 million migrants—mostly from China and Southeast and South Asia—or 3.1 percent of the national population of 51.1 million.2

Women entered the circuit of short-term migrant work in the manufacturing sector alongside men, but they also pursued transnational mobility through cross-border marriages, often the only path that enabled permanent residency and legal citizenship in South Korea.3 These marriages between rural and urban working-class South Korean men and women from China and Southeast Asia have steadily increased since the early 1990s, though fewer migrants came to South Korea through marriage (14.9 percent) than for work (34.3 percent).4 Since 2006, government, corporate, and civil society funding flooded into immigrant integration projects for marriage-migrant women as Korean mothers and wives, under the rubric of “multicultural families” (damunhwa gajok). Migrant advocates were quick to criticize the “government’s hypocrisy” in assimilating marriage-migrant women while denying migrant workers the right to settle, but they also actively applied for and received state funding for educational programs for migrant women.

In the shadow of vibrant mobilization for migrant workers’ rights and efforts to integrate migrant wives, a third migrant group was excluded from claims-making in South Korea as either migrant workers or migrant women: migrant hostesses in US military “camptown” clubs. Since 1996, the entertainer visa has been used to bring migrant women from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union into camptown clubs to cater to American soldiers. In 2004, South Korean feminist organizations successfully utilized US-led international antitrafficking directives to reform the antiprostitution law, redefining women engaged in sexual commerce not as criminals but as victims eligible for state protections under the new law.5 With little involvement on the part of migrant advocacy groups or trade unions, South Korean feminist groups characterized the migrant hostesses not as migrant workers but as “victims of sexual trafficking.”

Through a comparative examination of three groups of Filipina women in South Korea—factory workers, wives of South Korean men, and hostesses at American military camptown clubs—my ethnography interrogates the puzzling discrepancies between “citizenship on the books” and the realities of migrant lives. Law and policy in South Korea shape the conditions of migrant citizenship in a distinctive way for each group: short-term rotation and nonsettlement policies for migrant factory workers, multiculturalist integration policies for migrant wives, and antitrafficking law for migrant hostesses. However, the reality of migrant lives reveals other forces that subvert such legal and policy edifices. For example, how do migrant factory workers—including the 187,340 undocumented migrants among them in 20146 living and working in industrial towns all across the country—settle in South Korea? Why do migrant wives—who have a legal status or, in many cases, are even naturalized citizens—become targets of immigration officers in the town markets? And why do only an extremely small number of migrant hostesses seek protection as trafficked victims?

To answer these questions, this book moves beyond a state-centered approach to examine how migrant rights are enacted and challenged in the realm of daily life, as migrants and other civil society actors mobilize various material and moral resources to claim rights and belonging. Delving into the interactive process of claims-making, I situate migrants’ struggles for citizenship within the larger pursuit of mobility and dignity, illuminating how social inequalities of gender, race, class, and nation operate on a global scale in the making of citizenship.


In the contemporary global era, transnational migration has fostered new struggles around rights and citizenship. As the boundaries of nation-states become increasingly fluid, growing numbers of noncitizens reside side by side with citizens, providing a political impetus to extend citizenship rights to migrants on one hand and intensifying anti-immigrant sentiments and social inequalities on the other.

In recent years, scholars in the field of citizenship studies have discussed the emergence of “postnational citizenship,” in which rights and provisions that were previously limited to citizens based on membership in a nation-state are now extended to noncitizen residents based on universal personhood and human rights.7 The international appeal to human rights principles has produced a glimpse of such promises. In June 2014, the city of Toronto, where I live and work, declared itself a “sanctuary city.” The city council voted to grant undocumented migrants access to city services such as the public library and public education without fear of immigration control and deportation. This move resulted from the long-standing mobilization of migrant justice organizations such as No One Is Illegal-Toronto. In South Korea, migrant advocacy organizations have, as a matter of basic human rights, teamed up with health care providers since 1999 to build a network to provide subsidized health care for undocumented migrants who are unable to benefit from the national health insurance.

These significant victories are the hard-won fruit of migrant advocacy efforts, yet they reflect only a small part of the contemporary migrant experience. With respect to migrant rights, the nation-state retains the exclusive power of sovereignty to determine borders and terms of membership.8 Thus we hear news about the deportation of migrant families, the repatriation of refugee-claimants denied asylum, and the arrests of border-crossers far more often than stories of inclusion for undocumented migrants. Migrant exclusion also operates in less visible and dramatic forms, through the state’s legal and institutional measures, which preclude migrant settlement and deepen migrant precarity. Temporary labor migration is on the rise, even in immigrant nations such as Canada and Australia that formerly accepted migrants predominantly as future citizens, intensifying the state of “transience” that characterizes the contemporary migration regime.9

Simultaneously, across the globe, the sweeping forces of neoliberalism are eroding the social rights of citizens and noncitizens alike. The application of market logics to all dimensions of social life has led to the privatization of state welfare services, bolstered by rising nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments that limit migrants’ political and civic rights. As Margaret Somers compellingly shows, market fundamentalism—the notion that market principles should govern society—has superseded the premise of citizenship, rendering even citizens stateless. The meaning of citizenship is increasingly separated from equal rights and recognition, becoming a commodity to be purchased by “flexible”10 and “paper” citizens.11 Somers illustrates the erosion of citizenship with the case of Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts in the United States that excluded people deemed unworthy according to market values. In light of this reality, Somers makes a call for reclaiming citizenship, highlighting the importance of a robust public sphere, civil society, and a social state.12

For South Koreans in the wake of the tragic Sewol ferry disaster, the promises of citizenship seem as elusive as ever. In April 2014, more than three hundred ferry passengers—many of them high school students on a field trip—drowned without any proper rescue effort. The accident involved multiple factors, including the deregulation of safety measures to maximize profit, but the most prominent issue it raised was the lack of state protection for common citizens. South Koreans wondered out loud whether the state would have let the passengers die if they had been the families of the rich or of high-ranking government officials. For many, this event was a solemn moment of awakening; in the words of Ham Jiyoung, a South Korean college student who volunteers to read storybooks to migrant children, “Seeing the Sewol ferry made me want to emigrate to another country. To live in our county, it seems like we need to have money. . . . Otherwise, we really don’t seem to have protection for citizens.” Jiyoung’s statement resonated with the sentiment shared by many migrants to South Korea searching for security, mobility, and dignity in the face of weakening citizenship in their home countries. Their migration was an individual response to a lack of state accountability, one that propelled them abroad to fend for themselves and their families.

Migration in South Korea is part of a broader trend of inter-Asian labor and marriage migration that is increasing in scale and significance. The 1980s witnessed neoliberal reforms and the transition to a postsocialist economy, combined with deepening inequality and weakening social security in countries like China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, providing the conditions for emigration from what sociologist Robyn Rodriguez called “labor brokerage states.”13 Around the same time, the economic ascendance of the “Four Asian Tigers”—South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong—as well as the Gulf states, made these countries attractive new migrant destinations as the doors to historical receiving countries such as the United States, Canada, and Britain were rapidly closing. Distinct from the United States or Western Europe, where migrant settlement is still possible, migration regimes in Asia are characterized by a high degree of exclusion for labor migrants, except high-skilled professionals. It was an uphill battle for the Filipina women in my study to build a home in South Korea under a system that deterred migrants’ settlement, or to realize their wish for transnational mobility to a country higher in the global hierarchy of nations.

This book explores the spaces—what I call the “margins of citizenship”—where migrants negotiate their rights, entitlements, and belonging. Margins are the spaces that defy a simple binary of inclusion and exclusion, occupying an uncertain and indeterminate edge. They are, feminist theorist bell hooks argues, “more than a site of deprivation”; margins are “the site of space of radical possibility, a space of resistance.”14 By bringing attention to the margins where claims for rights and belonging challenge and shift the borders of inclusion, I interrogate the paradox of citizenship: its duality of inclusion and equality for members and exclusion for nonmembers. Since its emergence as the predominant polity and as the guarantor of rights, the nation-state has produced citizens by constructing commonalities among its members as “imagined communities”15 and actively excluding others, both physically and symbolically. Exclusion is at the heart of citizenship, operating as what Rogers Brubaker called “a powerful instrument of social closure and profoundly illiberal determinant of life chances.”16 In fact, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn compellingly showed, citizens and noncitizens are “interdependent constructions,” and citizenship is used to “draw boundaries between those who are included as members of the community and entitled to respect, protection, and rights, and those who are excluded and thus not entitled to recognition and rights.”17

I approach citizenship as full and equal membership in a polity, which is an ongoing project rather than an achieved status. Although citizenship is an expansive concept—referencing multiple dimensions of legal status, rights, political participation, and sense of belonging18 arising from the liberal and republican origins of the term—using it as an all-encompassing concept for any type of inclusion and social change obscures more than it reveals. Instead, the project of citizenship needs to be specified and situated to uncover its dynamic operation in interaction with other projects. At the core of citizenship lies the work of building a polity that enables a project of equality.19 Approaching citizenship in this way decenters the state as a taken-for-granted actor of citizenship and moves beyond a limited focus on the vertical relationship between the individual and the polity to bring attention to horizontal relationships among polity members that are premised on equality.20 In this research, I examine citizenship as a meaningful language for social and personal transformation, but I also show that the project of citizenship is situated in a broader pursuit of dignity, security, and mobility. This broader pursuit is at times in concert and at times in conflict with the equality project of citizenship.

Citizenship holds a relentless allure because of its multifaceted and protean nature. The border of citizenship has never been static; rather, it is a productive site for the pursuit of equal rights in the face of exclusion. The boundary separating citizens and noncitizens, in this sense, is not fixed in law and policy; instead, it is permeable and negotiable in particular local contexts among concrete actors.21 T. H. Marshall’s classic study calls attention to the shifting borders of citizenship for the British working class during the eighteenth through twentieth centuries through the expansion of civil, political, and social rights.22 South Korea’s modern history is also characterized by the hard-won expansion of civil and political rights, with the transition from military authoritarian regimes to parliamentary democracy in the late 1980s. Even as the struggles for democratic citizenship continue in South Korea, as a recent migrant-receiving country, the nation-state is also grappling with how to position migrant newcomers within the new polity it has built. South Korea is embroiled in “classification struggles”23 over who deserves belonging and rights as citizens. These struggles do not involve simply the inclusion or exclusion of new groups; in the process, the boundaries of citizenship are reconstituted, and existing citizens are remade anew.

The generative paradox that citizenship is both a means of closure and an impetus for inclusion has propelled many scholars to focus on the contested nature of citizenship, “as a relationship” that is “subject to active negotiation, and is therefore unstable.”24 Many scholars have highlighted the fluid and dynamic negotiations involved in citizenship, using court cases, survey data, and theoretical debates in which actors are involved in “disputing,” “negotiating,” and “contesting” citizenship.25 This theoretical reconceptualization of citizenship provides a springboard for inquiry into the processes of contestation on the ground. Who can be a subject of negotiation and who cannot? How do local and transnational structures of social inequality affect negotiations of citizenship? Through a comparative study of migrant groups with divergent configurations of legal status, labor organization, and gendered morality in South Korea, this ethnography inquires into the politics of gender, race, and labor that shape dynamic processes of citizenship-making.

The case of migrant women in South Korea reveals a complex interplay between the perils and promises of citizenship. Migrant citizenship is not simply determined by legal status and political categories; it is also shaped by interactive processes of translating the formal rights into practice through encounters among migrants, civil society groups, and the state.26 Since the mid-1990s, South Korean civil society has been actively involved in the process of negotiating citizenship for migrants. Although the South Korean state viewed “guest workers” as disposable labor, South Korean civil society actors had diverse alternative visions. Many faith-based migrant advocates approached migrant workers as the new minjung (common people) or the new poor, whose marginalization and rights violations were a shameful yardstick for South Korean democracy. Evangelical Christians saw migrants as an opportunity for global missionary work in their backyard, while Marxist student activists saw migrants as potential allies against global capitalism. In the case of migrant women in particular, some feminist groups viewed them as vulnerable victims needing protection, and social workers saw them as new clients whose integration required their professional expertise. Through government funding and service provision projects for migrants, many civil society organizations have become part of the state apparatus, even as they challenge the state’s immigration policy. To claim rights and dignity, migrant women negotiated with these various state and nonstate actors as individuals, as members of ethnic and religious communities, and as workers and mothers. These encounters between migrants and diverse groups of South Koreans revealed and redefined the meaning of citizenship in contemporary South Korea and in a global world.

This book moves investigations of migrant rights beyond the realm of law and policy to examine day-to-day interactions and contestation among the state, migrant, and civil society actors in the receiving nation-state of South Korea. The successful mobilization of migrant advocacy groups and the migrant community in South Korea significantly expanded migrants’ labor and social rights over the past two decades. However, access to rights in South Korea is distributed unevenly across different groups of migrants, who are affected by the dynamics of intersecting social inequalities. The dignity accorded to paid labor has been an important discursive resource for extending rights to migrant workers. This discourse is highly effective given the long-standing connection between work and citizenship globally27 and the strong legacy of labor rights struggles in South Korea; however, its use also produced gendered consequences. Historically, the model of worker-citizen has long been associated with male workers, whereas maternal citizenship offered women limited access to rights and recognition because this discourse is constrained by its relationship to the domestic sphere.

When struggles for migrant rights are fought on the terms of the dignity of workers, they leave out other sectors of migration that do not offer the same level of societal and moral standing. While the feminized sector of carework is often devalued as not legitimate skilled work28 and offers only “partial citizenship,”29 work in sexual commerce poses moral risks under the discourses of human trafficking and sexual immorality30 that may be even more detrimental to citizenship claims. For migrant women in the manufacturing sector and for those in the illicit and feminized service sector of hostess work, the distinct gendered symbolic politics of each sector plays a significant role in their differentiated access to rights. By examining how advocacy groups for migrant factory workers and hostesses are embedded in broader social movement legacies in South Korea, this study illuminates the significant role that gendered morality and symbolic politics play in the making of migrant rights.

Building on previous studies of gender and global migration that primarily focus on a single feminized sector of migration such as sexual commerce,31 domestic work,32 or cross-border marriage,33 this book brings multiple sectors of migration into conversation to provide a unique analytic lens for considering variations in migrant inclusion and exclusion as well as the relational process of constituting migrant subjects. In South Korea, migrant factory workers secured rights as worker-citizens, and migrant wives secured a different set of rights as mother-citizens. Yet migrant hostesses were left out as subjects of rights as neither migrant workers nor migrant women but as victims in need of protection.

Despite their shared life trajectories in the Philippines and the migrant path and common experiences of migrant exclusion in South Korea, the three groups of Filipina migrant women in my study were included and excluded from the full and equal membership in South Korea in very different ways—not necessarily according to their legal status, but through the organization of their work, the mobilization of the migrant community and South Korean civil society, and the symbolic and moral boundaries that distinguished them from respectable citizens.

To demonstrate how rights and membership are negotiated on the ground, this book transports readers to less familiar destinations than parliaments or courts: the passenger seat of a van owned by a Korean migrant advocate as it rumbles through alleys in pursuit of immigration officers; a dimly lit booth in a club where an American GI and a Filipina hostess desperately seek a modicum of privacy to affirm their love; a classroom full of newly arrived migrant wives learning to cook Korean food from South Korean women volunteers at a migrant advocacy NGO. In these quotidian spaces, negotiations over citizenship emerge from the complex interplay of morality and the pursuit of mobility, which at times work in accordance with and in tension with the equality project of citizenship. It is on the margins of citizenship that migrants contest and sustain the borders of citizenship in South Korea, opening up new possibilities for the polity. By decentering and situating citizenship in the multiplicity of people’s aspirations for rights, dignity, and belonging, this book delves into the paradox of seeking a full and equal membership in a deeply unequal world.


This book is based on eighteen consecutive months of ethnographic research and interviews conducted between July 2008 and January 2010 and two return visits in the summers of 2012 and 2014. I conducted in-depth interviews with thirty-six Filipina women and twenty-four South Korean actors, such as NGO staff, social workers, Korean language teachers, volunteers, labor activists, and religious leaders involved in migrant advocacy in 2008–2010. These were supplemented by additional interviews with forty-two South Koreans and migrants involved in migrant rights activism and immigrant integration programs from April to October 2014.34

I conducted this research in two segregated migrant neighborhoods on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea: an industrial town that I call “Factorytown” and an American military camptown called “Basetown.” Because my ethnography focused on migrant encounters, I place the experiences and narratives of Filipina migrant women center stage and connect them to others who inhabited their lifeworlds: migrants from other ethnic groups; South Korean employers and migrant advocates; government officials; and the American, South Korean, and Filipino men with whom they formed romantic relationships and families. The focus on Filipina women, the only ethnic group in South Korea involved in all three sectors of migrant flow—factory work, cross-border marriages, and hostess work35—offered a unique vantage point for comparative analysis while encompassing other migrant groups and various South Korean actors. The multiple groups of people in my study, migrants and South Koreans, had conflicting interests and viewpoints, posing challenges for representation in the fieldwork and writing. In this book, I strive not to shy away from contradictions, but instead explore the site of conflicts and alliances for insights into the complexity of citizenship.


You can close your eyes and tell you are in Factorytown. The acidic smell of burned plastic assaults your senses as you walk past the slipper factory, and the dusty, almost spicy smell of wood particles signals that the furniture factory is near. From afar, you might hear people singing 1990s Korean pop songs in the karaoke pub while the grating sound of furniture being sanded raises goosebumps on your flesh. Surrounded by mountains and located on a hill, the factory complex is in the heart of Factorytown. Furniture showrooms and stores line the main streets, but when they close in the evenings and the Korean storekeepers and customers head home, the entire factory complex is left to approximately eleven hundred migrant workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, and other Asian and African countries, some with legal working visas and others without, about 30 percent of whom are women. Four local South Korean migrant advocacy NGOs/church groups work with migrant workers in the area; two of the groups also work with migrant wives in surrounding towns. When I began my fieldwork in July 2008, I chose Factorytown because of the presence of a substantial Filipino community in residence (a population of 300–350), as well as active South Korean migrant advocacy NGOs and church groups that bring together additional Filipino and other migrants in the surrounding rural and industrial towns.

The presence of South Korean volunteers, activists, journalists, and researchers was common in Factorytown, and only a few weeks after my arrival, the Filipino migrants, even those I had not met personally, knew who I was and what I was doing there. As the “girl” from the United States who spoke “cute” Tagalog, I was warmly received. As a volunteer at Peace Center, a major local NGO in Factorytown, I observed and taught a Korean language class for migrant factory workers and migrant wives three times a week and participated in other educational programs, including classes in cooking, filmmaking, and flower decoration. I also participated in field trips and child-rearing education for migrant wives. Because of my fluency in Korean and English and my proficiency in Tagalog, I worked closely with staff members at Peace Center and other local NGOs, sometimes as a translator, other times assisting with labor counseling, hospital trips, and visits to the immigration office and detention centers.

Religious services and churches serving Filipino migrants were another critical venue for my fieldwork. Churches are the most important sites in the Filipino communities of Factorytown, and all five churches—spanning the Catholic, Protestant, and Unification faiths—offered focal points for community building.36 I attended weekly worship services, Bible study meetings, and prayer meetings. And there were parties, parties, and more parties—birthdays, baptism celebrations, Christmas and New Year’s parties, caroling, and basketball league games. The close-knit ethnic community and extensive migrant mobilization that existed in Factorytown stood in contrast to the weak and fragile migrant community in Basetown.


In February 2009, I extended my fieldwork to Basetown, located about fifty kilometers from Factorytown. One of the oldest camptowns in South Korea, Basetown includes a US military camp of eleven thousand military personnel. Inside the camp is a small American town with military barracks, tanks, bowling alleys, and medical clinics. The influence of the US military does not end at the camp gate, but extends to all of Basetown, often superseding the influence of the South Korean nation-state. Since 1945, the beginning of the American military presence in South Korea, sexual commerce has proliferated in camptowns surrounding major US bases despite antiprostitution laws in South Korea, and the club district in Basetown, which was central to my fieldwork, was one such area of complicated sovereignty. Instead of Korean police officers, US military police (MPs) patrol the streets of Basetown and possess the power to shut down clubs that violate military policy. For what is often their first time outside their hometowns in America, young soldiers freely roam Basetown in and outside the military camp, drinking in the foreigner-exclusive clubs. The names of these clubs promise to treat the young men as “Kings,” “VIPs,” and “Pharaohs” as they seek refuge from their homesickness, fall in and out of love with Filipina women, and marry and have children in a residential area near the military base where many American GI and Filipina couples reside.

My introduction to Basetown was through a Filipino priest affiliated with the Migrant Mission of the Catholic Church, whom I met in Factorytown. By attending weekly mass in Basetown, I met Filipina women married to American GIs and those working in the clubs. To observe daily life there, I visited clubs in the early evening and met other club hostesses and managers. Some Filipina hostesses left the clubs and moved in with their American boyfriends and husbands, and I visited their homes and spent time with their partners, children, and friends. A second entry point that helped me learn more about women’s troubles in camptowns was my volunteer work at Sisterhood Center, one of a few NGOs offering assistance to migrant women in the camptown clubs.

Unlike in Factorytown, my presence as a South Korean woman in her late twenties in Basetown was unusual, if not suspicious. The number of South Korean women willing to work in the camptown clubs decreased as South Korea entered its economic ascendancy, and since 1996, the vast majority of hostesses in camptown clubs have been migrant women from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union. Over 90 percent of the hostesses in the clubs I visited in Basetown were Filipina women. Linda, a Filipina woman who left the club to move in with her American GI boyfriend, tried to lightheartedly introduce me to the grocery store owner in her neighborhood, a middle-aged Korean woman. “She’s my Korean friend! Take a guess—what do you think she does?” The owner looked me up and down with a disdainful gaze and said, “You are, what, a Jehovah’s Witness?” In her experience, a South Korean woman who would associate with Filipina women in camptowns must be proselytizing her faith. Indeed, during my field research, I met several Jehovah’s Witnesses, a rare group of South Koreans who learned migrants’ languages—Mongolian, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and so on—for their door-to-door missionary work. Some Filipina women in the clubs half-jokingly told me that when we were seen together, others would think that I am a “madam,” a manager of Filipina hostesses in the club. Despite the work of Sisterhood Center, outreach efforts from feminist organizations or any other migrant advocacy groups in Basetown were few and far between; most Filipina hostesses did not know about them, and club owners were hostile toward such “outsiders.”

Comparing Factorytown and Basetown offered me insight into the distinctive formation of migrant community and citizenship in each local site. While these two towns were central to my research, I also conducted fieldwork in similar industrial and military camptowns with high numbers of migrants in the Greater Seoul area (Seoul, Incheon, and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province), including Ansan, Suwon, Incheon, Osan, and Uijeongbu, where 63.1 percent of the migrant population in South Korea resides. In addition, I participated in meetings and events organized by national organizations and alliances for migrant workers and migrant wives.37

Since I started my fieldwork in 2008, some things have changed in South Korea, while others remain the same. Migrants and migrant advocates still repeat the same slogans in their protests as they respond to the erosion of migrant rights under two consecutive conservative governments. Many migrants I met left South Korea and returned to the Philippines, Nepal, and Bangladesh, or moved on in their transnational journeys to Dubai, the United States, and Canada; others were so firmly grounded in their community that they could not imagine anywhere else as home. Whatever their individual trajectories, this book hopes to bring light to migrants’ continuing struggles for rights, dignity, and belonging in South Korea and beyond.

Being in the Field

I could not tell her age. I guessed somewhere between forty-five and fifty-five, but I did not dare ask. “Don’t drink that. It does nothing good,” Ms. Han told me in a firm voice after I ordered an amaretto sour, my usual. “Just get coffee for her,” she ordered Dinah, a Filipina hostess behind the bar. I was not much of a drinker, but I was compelled to order something to be allowed to sit in the club, her club, in an American military camptown on the outskirts of Seoul. After my third visit, Ms. Han noticed that I never finished even a quarter of a drink and refused to sell me another. I quietly wondered if she was implying that I should stop coming.

But from that day on, every time I came in to sit in a corner with the Filipina hostesses, Ms. Han brought me free coffee and found moments to chat with me—about the weather, customers, hostesses (“the girls”), the camptown—in the Korean language that no one else in the club understood, neither the American GI customers nor the Filipina hostesses. Ms. Han rarely talked about her personal life or asked about mine. She knew I was a student in the United States writing about Filipina women in South Korea, but she was not keen on knowing anything more. She was not a woman of many words, but once in a while she poured a fragment of her thoughts out to me. One evening, leaning on the bar, she said:

People say it is sinful to run this kind of a business. Even people at the [Catholic] church, they whispered when I took part in communion, and so I stopped. Maybe they are right. Who knew I’d be doing this for so long? Even my mother says, “Don’t do it for a long time.” People come in with a clear mind and go out stumbling, so what’s there to feel good about? I kept saying, “Just one more year,” and it’s already been twenty years.

The door opened, bringing sunlight into the dimly lit interior. She greeted the two GIs who entered, and hastily served them beer. Then she came back to my corner to continue:

Although I think I don’t do anything that I should be ashamed of—like making the girls prostitute—sometimes I catch myself yelling at the girls to sell more drinks. They all come here because they want to earn money. That’s fine, but when I hear how they lived [in the Philippines], it’s just too sad, these young girls. Then I wonder, bringing them here, making them work like this, making them drink more, sell more drinks, isn’t this all sin?

I rarely knew how to respond to moral queries like these, but my response hardly seemed necessary. Perhaps my naïveté made me a good listener in her eyes, and she welcomed my visit during down times at the club.

At times, Ms. Han’s penetrating eyes made me nervous, as if she was looking into and through me, at the moral questions I had of my own.

Foremost on my mind was my ongoing conversation with Rachel, a Filipina hostess working for Ms. Han, whom I met through the Tagalog mass in the church. Rachel had initially invited me to this club, and we connected well. Rachel sought my advice about running away from the club, though she changed her mind every week. She generally liked Ms. Han’s club and that she was not pressured to go out with customers at night, though she had many complaints about the working and living conditions. Moreover, she was uncertain of whether her contract would be renewed and afraid of where she would be sent next. Rachel asked if I could help her find a factory job, and I hesitated. The boundaries of involvement during fieldwork aside, my worry was personal: What if I helped her run away and Ms. Han found out? Would I be able to look her in the eye?

My second ethical dilemma regarded my volunteer work with Sisterhood Center, a feminist organization in a contentious relationship with some club owners because of the Center’s work assisting runaway migrant hostesses and its opposition to the camptown club industry as a site of trafficking and violence against women. Although Ms. Han was not involved in any direct disputes with Sisterhood Center during my fieldwork, I knew what she thought about “those women’s organizations who don’t know anything and just blame us,” and I did not tell her about my involvement with the group. Just a week earlier, I had accompanied a Sisterhood Center staff member and a runaway hostess to meet with the owner of a club a few doors down the street from Ms. Han’s to retrieve her passport. The thought of running into Ms. Han while I was with him had made me uneasy.

My fieldwork as a participant observer was full of seemingly mundane interactions fraught with dilemmas and contradictions. Similar tensions also existed in Factorytown, as I was involved both with various migrant communities with internal hierarchies and conflicts, and with multiple migrant advocacy and church groups that did not always see eye to eye. In various situations, I presented myself to research participants like Ms. Han, Rachel, Sisterhood Center activists, pastors and priests as a naive and eager student from the United States, as a South Korean insider with shared progressive or feminist leanings who wants justice for migrants, as a lapsed Catholic open to returning to the faith, and as a second-generation daughter of a “multicultural family.” While I truly was all of these things, I might disappoint those who believed that I shared their worldviews wholeheartedly and would therefore be a good interlocutor for their stories. I hope they know that I have tried to represent their perspectives truthfully and faithfully, even when they think I have failed. It is with this wish that I narrate the stories of Factorytown and Basetown.


This book unfolds by moving through Filipina migrant women’s global journey, from their departure from the Philippines to a series of short-term labor contracts in East and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and to South Korea. Chapter 2 shows how Filipina women use transnational migration to pursue mobility through multiple border-crossings and encounters with migration law and policy regimes in South Korea. It asks what South Korea means for Filipina women in their broader migrant trajectories and situates migrant women in South Korea within a transnational landscape in which working-class women’s mobility is encouraged for their labor, but citizenship and rights are held out of reach. Chapter 3 flips the gaze of Chapter 2 to ask what the migrant encounter means for contemporary South Koreans, exploring such diverse groups of South Koreans as migrant activists, volunteer Korean language teachers, and pastors of migrant churches. It highlights the gendered and generational aspirations that led these individuals to work with migrants as they search for a sense of national belonging, new forms of sociability, and membership in global South Korea.

The next part of the book turns to the task of decentering the state as a primary actor shaping migrant citizenship. Chapter 4 examines immigration raids as the state’s regulation of legal status not simply as a force of exclusion but also as a strategy to regulate and discipline migrants physically and socially. By taking a close, personal look at how documented and undocumented migrants negotiate the rules of immigration raids, this chapter illustrates that the containment of migrants involves not only state actors but also the South Korean advocates and migrants who challenge and bargain with the state’s exclusionary force. Chapter 5 critically examines the formation of migrant subjects who challenge their exclusion in South Korea, demonstrating how migrants embedded in ethnic and religious communities in South Korea are constituted as separate subjects of migrant workers and migrant women through day-to-day interactions with South Korean civil society actors.

Chapters 6 and 7 take readers deeper into the dynamic process of making migrant rights in South Korea, highlighting intersecting inequalities that produce uneven rights for different migrant groups and the exclusion of migrant hostesses. In Chapter 6, I interrogate why migrant factory workers and hostesses are offered differentiated rights despite their common status as migrant workers. Migrant factory workers mobilize the support from South Korean civil society embedded in the legacy of trade unionism, and advocacy for the dignity of workers for the expansion of labor and social rights, but migrant hostesses in camptown clubs are excluded from this civil society mobilization and the organization of work that fosters self-mobilization. Finally, Chapter 7 explores the divergent paths to rights and dignity for women in feminized sectors of migration: cross-border marriage and hostess work. Migrant wives used their moral status as mothers as a basis to claim citizenship and belonging in South Korea, but all that migrant hostesses had was limited access to the discourse of gendered victimhood, which prevented their inclusion as either migrant workers or migrant women. These chapters show how migrant women negotiated their respective subject-positions within the discourses of human rights, labor rights, and gendered victimhood.

The Coda then takes up the question of why decentering citizenship in the larger pursuit of dignity and security is important in discussions of migrant rights and justice. As the promise of equal rights and full membership in a polity is swiftly eroding in the face of increasing global inequalities, this decentering illuminates contestation at the margins of citizenship. This contestation shifts and remakes the borders of citizenship, reimagining new possibilities for solidarity.


1. Coethnic migrants in South Korea, such as North Koreans and chosônjok (Korean ethnic groups in China), negotiate national boundaries under separate legal and policy edifices (N. Kim 2008); their negotiations are beyond the scope of this study. For the complexity of the North Korean migrant case, see Chung (2008) and Choo (2006); for chosônjok migration to South Korea, see Freeman (2011) and J. Kim (2011).

2. (Last accessed on July 19, 2014)

3. The current nationality law in Korea grants foreign spouses—both men and women—spousal visas that include a work permit. Foreign spouses must reside in Korea with their Korean spouses for two years before applying for naturalization. In response to criticism from feminist advocacy groups about vulnerability arising from the legal dependency of migrant wives on their South Korean husbands, the state reformed the law in 2003 so that migrant wives could apply for permanent residency and naturalization even after a divorce if the divorce was the husband’s fault.

4. (Last accessed on July 19, 2014)

5. The Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the US Department of State in 2001, which ranked Korea as a Tier 3 country that failed to make efforts to prohibit trafficking, provided the discursive devices for South Korean feminist organizations to reform the antiprostitution law. For more detailed analysis of antitrafficking initiatives in South Korea, see Cheng (2011).

6. (Last accessed on July 28, 2014).

7. Jacobson 1996; Soysal 1994.

8. Bloemraad 2004; Menjívar 2006.

9. Walia 2010; Walsh 2014.

10. Ong 1999.

11. Sadiq 2008.

12. Somers 2008.

13. Rodriguez 2010.

14. hooks 1990, 341.

15. Anderson 1983.

16. Brubaker 1996, 230.

17. Glenn 2004, 1.

18. Bloemraad, Korteweg, and Yurdakul 2008.

19. Although the polity is commonly assumed to be the nation-state, it could encompass other political communities of a different scale that possess a clear institutional structure and the capacity for governance, such as a city or region.

20. Clarke, Coll, Dagnino, and Neveu 2014.

21. Glenn 2004; Poole 2004; Monforte and Dufour 2011; Stasiulis and Bakan 1997.

22. Marshall 1950.

23. Bourdieu 1991; Goldberg 2008.

24. Stasiulis and Bakan 2005, 116.

25. Clarke, Coll, Dagnino, and Neveu 2014; Stasiulis and Bakan 2005; McNevin 2011.

26. For discussion of the interactive process of citizenship-making, see Korteweg (2006).

27. Gordon and Lenhardt 2008.

28. Glenn 2011.

29. Parreñas 2001b.

30. Agustin 2007; Choo 2013; Cheng 2010; Parreñas 2011.

31. Cheng 2010; Parreñas 2011; Brennan 2004.

32. Parreñas 2001a; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2007; Lan 2006.

33. Constable 2003; Freeman 2011; Faier 2009.

34. All interviews and conversations with Filipina migrant women were conducted in a mixture of Tagalog, English, and Korean, yet most of them preferred Tagalog as the main language of communication. Even though my Tagalog was far from fluent, because the interviewees and I had known each other for several months and had become familiar with each other’s vocabularies and accents, we were able to communicate and understand one another. Many migrant wives were fluent in Korean and many hostesses were fluent in English, and we also spoke in those languages, but Tagalog became a secret language that we used in front of husbands, in-laws, and club owners.

All names of organizations in Factorytown and Basetown and those of individuals are pseudonyms, except in the case of public events and official documents. In the case of personal names, I chose pseudonyms that reflect the name the person used in South Korea (except public figures); for migrant wives who changed their names to Korean ones, I chose Korean pseudonyms. For Korean names, last names appear before first names. Some personal details of research participants have been altered to protect confidentiality. I translated all quotes into English.

35. These migration patterns create a gendered dynamic that differs from the one created by the migration of Filipina women who work as domestic workers, caretakers, and nurses in the United States, Europe, and other East Asian countries, whose cases are well documented (Constable 1997; Espiritu 2003; Parreñas 2001a). While only a small number of Filipina women in my study worked as domestic workers or nannies, at times going between live-in domestic work and factory work, many Filipina women in South Korea had worked as domestic workers in the Middle East and in Southeast and East Asia prior to their arrival to South Korea.

As of June 2014, among the 24,407 Filipina women residing in South Korea, 10,474 (43 percent) came via marriage with South Korean men, whereas 2,074 (8.5 percent) entered with industrial laborer visas for factory work, and 3,089 (12.7 percent) with “entertainer” visas used for hostess work. Of the total, 5,533 (22.7 percent) are undocumented; in large part, these women work in the factories and domestic homes. (Last accessed on July 28, 2014).

36. This book focuses mostly on churches’ secular advocacy work. I have discussed the religious aspects of these churches in relation to their migrant advocacy work in Choo (2015).

37. These national organizations included the Joint Committee with Migrants in Korea (JCMK), a large umbrella organization of forty-one locally based migrant advocacy NGOs in Korea; I attended their international and national discussion forums, World Migrant’s Day Festivals, and protests and press conferences, as well as other events. Other organizations whose gatherings and forums I attended included the Migrants’ Trade Union, Migrant Worker’s Television, and the Center for Migrant Women’s Human Rights. In addition, I collected and analyzed various textual materials, including publications and pamphlets from migrant advocacy NGOs, textbooks and other educational materials used for migrant education programs, newsletters for donors and the public, and government legal and policy documents.