Working Behind

Park Kyong-Ju, working on the theme of migration for six years, has shown a way of the artist, ‘Working Behind’

Chun Minsung (Independent journalist, 2005)

On February 19. 2005, I met cultural activist Park Kyong -Ju at a traditional teahouse in front of Hongik University. She is an artist who has been working on the theme of migration for six years.

She exhibited photographs of migrant workers at a museum in Germany in 1999, the year NATO troops (including Germany) invaded Yugoslavia. As a student in Germany, she took pictures of migrant workers in front of the immigration office, Berlin. In the year 2000, after working as a secretary for the Korean Association in Berlin for a year, she photographed Korean miners and nurses at their New Year’s Party. When she returned home, she volunteered to work at a migrant worker’s center in Seoul and photographed migrant workers in Korea for an exhibition.

In the year 2002, she produced the first-ever migrant worker’s music CD in Korea and supported a migrant worker’s music band for their debut concert (Eureka). In 2004, she published a photography book on women migrant workers in Korea and, at the end of 2004, she launched a performance piece depicting a migrant worker’s election campaign.

As she explained her experiences in Germany, her experiences as a volunteer at a migrant worker’s center in Seoul, characteristics of her works and her future plans, she emphasized that the discrimination against migrant workers in Korea doesn’t stem from racial issues but rather discrimination against social minorities. She disclosed her wishes to become an artist to be acknowledged by the general public rather than by certain discrete groups of people. For such purposes, she said that she’s throwing her new project toward the development of a “public square”: an internet broadcast for migrant workers in Korea.

“Migration is like a graft of a different kind of tree

Sympathetic ways of looking at migrant workers cannot improve the situation”

Question: You have worked continuously on the theme of migration since 1999. After the release of the first migrant worker’s music CD in Korea in 2002, you also assisted a migrant worker’s center in Seoul to publish a book of photography depicting women migrant workers for a year (2004). You once said that, even though it was hard, your experience as a secretary of the Korean Association in Berlin has been one of main reasons for your continuous efforts on migration.

Answer: First of all, the Koreans in Germany have been ‘sold’ as laborers in exchange for loans from Germany. This fact has left them with strong psychological injuries and their resultant sense of sub-conscious shame often surfaces in twisted ways as people try to deal with the pain during the course of their daily lives. This is especially apparent in the attitudes of second generation Koreans toward foreign Korean students: it is like ‘How can you understand us?’ And, at the same time, after more than 30 years, they still have a hard time adapting to German society. Those experiences have made me think seriously about what immigration is , and what identities are.

Europe has a profoundly different culture from ours. Immigration into that society is like a graft of a different kind of tree. Especially, the lives the second generation of Korean Immigrants have awakened me.

In the future, the issues of migration will become much more prominent. As we have seen, the way globalized capitalism has matured has driven those in the poorer countries out of their homes and out of their countries.

Multicultural communication seemed impossible to me in reality. The issues of intercultural communications will become more complicated and the following problems regarding identity will be more intensified, too.

In the summer of 1999, Park photographed migrant workers in front of the Berlin Immigration office and exhibited them at a museum in Berlin. The title of the exhibition was ‘Multi-cultural Communication’ and Park confessed that said that she felt horror watching the silence of German people over NATO’s invasion into Yugoslavia in 1999. During her exhibition, Park projected pictures of migrant workers blown up three times their real size on one side of the hall, which was three stories high.

I think there are many things to do as an artist. I could see problems related with some migrant worker’s centers in Korea. With only missionary “charity” projects designed to ‘help poor people’ migrant workers cannot stand tall as independent dignified subjects. However, in the future, I will try to become wholly independent from them.

From this year, I will continue my work on different levels. Since I have decided on the theme of ‘migration’ for my life’s work, I am not in a hurry any more.  Now, I will continue it in a different way. I will communicate on deeper levels and for longer periods of time. I think internet broadcast has many merits in that sense since we can freely communicate with unspecified, diverse individuals through it.

Question: When you produced the music CD, you once said that you chose music over visual arts since it can get closer to human souls. I know that your belief in the role of an artist as a mediator has driven you to complete the music CD project. While you have dedicated copies of the CDs to a migrant worker’s center for distribution, however, it seemed that the copies have not been distributed to many migrant workers or to those actually working in the field yet.

Answer:  I think that I have done a job as a mediator and earned good reputation, too. That’s somehow my strategy. ‘Working Behind’ with my name not known is my way of doing work. I want to be someone who facilitates somebody else realizing something seemingly impossible. 

Some people can say that it is because I am a ‘fool’ . (smile) 

Even though many people have not acclaimed my work openly, I am not disappointed. I have earned internal strengths through my work.

Now I try other ways to upgrade my levels of work. I am working on different levels from those in the past.

In the winter of 2002, when the first migrant worker’s music CD was released and the first official debut concert of a migrant worker’s music band was scheduled, major newspapers, women’s newspapers and English newspapers in Korea have rushed to run articles on the album and the group’s upfront concert. Due to the unstable status as unregistered workers, however, the group members had to reject all broadcast interviews except two: one, BBC news and the other, a local radio station

“Acts of discrimination against migrant workers are acts against social minorities.

I wish to become an artist recognized by people.”

The main characteristic which differentiates me from them is that my work is based on a practical understanding of reality.

Concerning migration, just like other issues, I think that the ‘other countries are doing this, so we have to’ way is not right. Since we are all ‘yellows,’ it should be much easier to overcome the discriminatory situation. I felt that more firmly when I interviewed citizens on the streets for ‘the migrant worker’s election campaign’ performances. We, Koreans, don’t have such a concept of ‘racial discrimination.’ It is a word extremely maneuvered by politicians for their political purposes.

Park Kyong-Ju and I met Professor Seol last Friday in Seoul. This professor of sociology at Cheonbuk University has been one of the major contributors to the current regulation program of migrant workers in Korea, the Employment Permit System. He told us about an argument at an international conference purporting that the word ‘racial discrimination’ does not properly explain the situation of migrant workers in Korea.

The discrimination comes not because they are ‘people of color’ but because they are one of many social minorities, just like the urban poor.

When an artist’s work is based on reality, he or she has to study and understand fully the current situation. However, the artist should not stay there but should see something beyond it. 

During the exhibition in 2001, a photographer told me that he was moved by my pictures. It was the first time for him to see a picture that shows migrant workers as one of our neighbors, ‘someone we can casually bump Into on the street.’ He had only seen pictures before of migrant workers whose fingers had been injured.

All the processes on the course of completing the music CD from collecting lyrics and preparing press releases to meeting people have been purposeful acts under a bigger scheme: persuading the subjects to be ‘our’ people. The process has been tedious and has taken a long time. That’s why my work is not easy.

I want to persuade more people for ‘our cause’ and want to be acknowledged by them. Considering the total number of people on earth, experts are only a small portion. They are not related at all to the lives of the vast majority.

“Internet Broadcast for Migrant Workers is a process to write another legend.

It is a ‘collaborative work’ taking place in an open square.”

Question: Let’s talk about Internet Broadcast for Migrant Workers. Do you think that the media of the internet is easily accessible to the general public?

Answer: Isn’t it better than a museum? My assignment will be to build a network among people. The Internet Broadcast for Migrant Workers is not a personal project. I would gladly walk into the open square by myself. The Internet Broadcast project must be something for ‘all of us.’ It will also be a process to overcome myself. 

Question: What are your plans for its first program for internet broadcast?

Answer: It will be a visual program on the history of migrant workers in Korea through field investigations. Also I think that we have to pay regular attention to watch human rights observation of migrant workers. I am going to make public the opinions of and about  migrant workers, in other words, to make the issues of migrant workers the agenda of regular discussions among regular people.

And also since it is an open channel, many migrant workers can participate. I will keep in mind not only those people within Korea’s borders but those outside it as well. For the kind of work the web broadcast is going to require, I think it will be sensible to lead the broadcast team as an art project for a year. The web broadcast is going to deal with not only legalization protests but also other issues involving migrant workers in Korea. Our responsibilities are enormous.

As the South Korean government announced the introduction of a new regulation program – The Employee Permit System (EPS) – in December 2003, migrant workers across the nation stood firm against the new regulation that prohibited them from changing workplaces, put a cap on the amount of time they could work, and effectively preventing them from forming worker’s associations. Migrant workers gathered on the grounds of Myongdong Cathedral on December 15 to protest against the unfairness of the new law and to voice their opposition to the relentless crackdown that began on that day. Also, other migrant workers set up several other struggle teams in different places in and around Seoul. 

Question: You said that the utmost role a artist can play is that of a mediator. How do you judge yourself by that standard?

Answer: From an absolute measurement, of course I am far from perfect. However, I still regard myself as having done quite a good job as a mediator. 

The stories we heard about Korean miners and nurses by Park Kyong-Ju were shaded pages of modern Korean history. According to her, the South Korean government does not have a complete list of miners and nurses, those workers Korea sent to Germany in exchange for loans for many years. Also some Koreans in Germany accidentally found out that the South Korean government had ‘swallowed up’ the dividend money allocated for them by the German government a long time ago. Even though they had filed complaints to the South Korean government about it, the money was still not returned to its owners.

The deep- rooted betrayal they might have held against their own country, the cold treatment they had to endure in a foreign country, and the sweat and tears they had shed in hospitals and underground tunnels, ‘For Koreans in their motherland to remember all of this hardship and sacrifice was the hope of the Koreans in Germany,’ said Park Kyong Ju.

By having taken care of broken souls, whether they are in Germany or in Korea, artist Park Kyong Ju has found her own meaning and role in life. I have read somewhere that real art is something ‘to hide.’ As she mentioned, she has set her role in society as an artist and a mediator and has accomplished quite an ‘outstanding’ job.

Now she announced ambitiously that she would walk into an open square to work together for ‘our common cause.’ I imagined for a while what she had meant by ‘our common cause.’ Would it literally be ‘a migrant worker politician’ in Korea, 10 or 20 years into the future? In any case, it would be a world where borders do not hinder the free flow of human migration along with capital. And in that world, not only basic human rights are observed but also human dignities are respected for all. (2005)