Accepted paper:

Transcendental transnationalism: ancestral rites of North Koreans in exile


Markus Bell (University of Sheffield)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how people in exile negotiate the obligation to remember deceased family members who endured tragic and untimely death. Focusing on North Korean refugees in Japan, the paper shows how performing ancestor worship is an act of faith that moves to heal and forgive the wounds of the past.

Paper long abstract:

The communally experienced, violent, and tragic deaths of countless people during the DPRK famine (mid 1990s-early 2000s) meant that North Korea has become a nation of wandering ghosts. North Koreans in exile, those who have escaped across the Sino-Korean border and made their way to South Korea and Japan, are faced with the challenge of maintaining ties to their deceased kin, without residing on ancestral soil. Maintaining ties with deceased family ensures a link to the past and a means of reaching for stability during times of uncertainty. Fieldwork with North Korean refugees in South Korea and Japan gave me insight into the practices by which these links are created and recreated in the domestic arena. I argue that the ancestor worship practices of North Koreans in Japan are acts of faith through which migrants heal and seek forgiveness for the betrayal or abandoning their ancestors. For persons haunted by tragic spirits, ancestral rites help negotiate feelings of guilt, regret and sorrow, and reinterpret the relationship with their ancestors from a narrative of betrayal to one of reconciliation and renewal. In on-going communality and commensality with the ghosts of the dead, North Koreans in exile actively engender spaces for family reunion in the process of making home away from home.

panel Rel03
In search of faith: itinerant religiosities and negotiated moralities in Asia