Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 30, November 2012
Jin-kyung Lee

Service Economies:
Militarism, Sex Work and Migrant Labor in South Korea

Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5126-9 (pbk), viii + 305 pp.

reviewed by Ruth Barraclough

  1. In this brilliant and original book, Jin-kyung Lee reads a selection of the most critically acclaimed South Korean novels of the last few decades for traces of Korea's particular journey of capitalist modernisation. Appropriately the book focuses upon labour, specifically military, sexual and migrant labour, to document the connections between the industries where working-class labour was employed and the literary investment in depicting social realism. That labour should turn out to be a key motif in South Korean fiction from the 1960s onwards should come as no surprise given the tumultuous and traumatic experience of industrialisation that engulfed nearly everyone over these decades. Lee's originality is in combining literary analysis and critical theory to re-read these popular classics of the recent past.
  2. Lee begins with a discussion of proletarianisation itself, the transformation of available, insecure (working-class) bodies into the particular fields that drove South Korea's industrialising economy. Lee shows us that attention to working-class labour: military, sexual and migrant, underscores that even at its most ethno-nationalist, the South Korean state, and its subjects, were deeply invested in global capitalism as well as global military pursuits. But one of the most impressive parts of this book is that it uncovers the process by which labouring subjects migrated from factories and brothels and barracks onto the pages of novels in ways that underscore the fundamental indifference and negligence of authors/readers. Lee focuses upon characters who defined a particular economic moment: the Vietnam War soldier, the hostess, the camptown prostitute, and today—the migrant labourer—and through a series of careful readings uncovers how and why literature has failed to fully account for the lived experience of those engaged in 'service work'.
  3. Part of the power and originality of this book is that it singles out the clandestine economy for analysis. Not content with merely signalling its existence, Lee show us how invisible labour actually works at both an economic and a cultural level. Military labour becomes transformed into national service, domestic prostitution thrives as a simultaneously huge and clandestine industry, military prostitution as symbolically important but socially shunned, and the great cost of 'cheap' migrant labour as borne by each individual worker. Lee's analysis of this process fleshes out the theses of Kathleen Barry (on female sexual proletarianisation), Paul Virilio (on military proletarianisation) and Achille Mbembe (on necropolitical labour) to great effect.[1] Her arguments are sophisticated and repay careful reading.
  4. Lee argues that invisible 'service work', the commodification of sexuality and race into labour power, has underpinned the economic development of South Korea. As a growing middle class began to distinguish itself after the great levelling of the Korean War, service industries in manual and trade labours, entertainment and domestic labour mushroomed to cater to its needs and pleasures. This service sector gathered up the surplus internal migrants from the countryside who missed out on, or rejected, the tedium of factory work, and in a security regime boasting at all times several hundred thousand conscripts, prostitution boomed. Added to this was South Korea's own security and economic allegiances that saw it commit labour power to the war in Vietnam to the tune of over 400,000 servicemen and civilian workers. Chapter One attends to military work as labour, restoring the economic motive to an occupation that is both coercive and coerced, where soldiers are both agents and victims of death. Situating South Korea's Vietnam-bound lumpen soldiers within this paradox, Lee examines the critical literary reception to the Vietnam War. The work of Hwang Sok-yong, An Chong-hyo Cho Son-jak, Pak Yong-han and Pang Hyon-sok are discussed for the ways in which they render South Korea's 'subimperial' military, economic and sexual foray into Vietnam. In so doing Lee reveals that the fallout from South Korea's subordinate position to the US does not end in Korea but reverberates through Korea's own sub-imperial endeavours in Southeast Asia. This is a provocative and compelling argument, made with subtlety and power as the author harnesses literature to read the intimate ramifications of these relationships.
  5. Chapter Two takes us into the genre of hostess literature of the 1970s that developed alongside a prostitution boom. Augmented by tabloid journalism, the soft-porn film industry, and the mass mobilisation of surplus female labour streaming in from the countryside, hostess literature is an unexamined area of Korean literary studies. The hostess industry with its symbiotic relationship with male white-collar socialisation monopolised the very idea of entertainment and male sexual pleasure in these years. Yet the hostess as object of guilt, lust and sympathy appears only fleetingly in high literature. Lee compares her to camptown prostitutes in Chapter Three who played a significant allegorical role in nationalist, leftist literature and film over the 1980s and 1990s. This allegorical role will be familiar to many readers, where the degraded prostitute for US GIs stands in for the colonised nation. Lee instead turns her attention to revisionist camptown literature: feminist approaches to the female-dominated camptown economy and the literature depicting camptown children, the 'ghosts' of Heinz Insu Fenkl's famous novel. But the focus on children in particular reveals the deterritorialised nature of camptowns, where children are born and form their own identifications with Korea, America and the ghetto of empire that is the camptown.
  6. Chapter Four examines migrant labour in 'multi-ethnic' Korea and its literary representation. Lee contrasts state policy that imports labour and mandates the embrace of a new 'multicultural Korea' with an endorsement by omission of poor working conditions, low wages and the enforcement of crackdowns and deportations. Arguing that migrant workers are orientalised in nationalist leftist fiction that utilises a rescue narrative to 're-stratify' South Korea's bourgeoning multicultural society, Lee ends with a provocation. Looking to labour migration as a compelling agent of change in Korea's recent history, the book ends by asking what form 'Korea' might assume in the near future?
  7. This is a book that students of modern Korean history, literature, economics and human security will fall upon with enthusiasm as it confronts head-on taboos in Korean society that are always the first questions students raise. I am thinking of topics such as: How well does Korea integrate its migrant workers into society? Why is the domestic prostitution industry so large and yet uncommented upon? What are the perspectives of children born to clandestine relations between US GIs and Korean military prostitutes? Why did so many Korean soldiers serve in the Vietnam War on the American side and what light does this shed on South Korea's later economic entanglements in Southeast Asia? This book is the first to analyse and explain through literature some of the deepest and most traumatic experiences of those engaged in invisible labour in South Korea's transnational economy. It is a tour de force.


    [1] Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, New York: New York University Press, 1996; Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, New York: Semiotext(e), 1986; Achille Mbembe, 'Necropolitics,' Public Culture, vol. 15, no 1 (2003):11–40.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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