Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper stems from on-campus ethnography with my local university undergraduate student chapter of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). As an international humanitarian organization, LiNK aims to help smuggle North Korean refugees who have made their way to China, where they are potentially subject to arrest and refoulement, to a third country, usually in Southeast Asia, and from there to permanent resettlement, most commonly in South Korea. University LiNK chapters mostly act as fundraising bodies for this activity. LiNK chapter meetings tend to juxtapose videos or lectures on the plight of North Koreans with banal “icebreaker” activities—charades, guessing games, and the like.
As the domestic subjects of a transnational humanitarian process, student LiNK members’ gaze and orientation are amenable to several common anthropological frames for addressing humanitarianism. In other respects, however, student LiNK resists conceptions of the humanitarian gaze as reiterative of a zoe/bios or bare/politically-full life distinction. For student LiNK members, North Korean refugees are preemptively South Koreans-in-potential, and South Koreans are in turn presumptively already known to them through shared media consumption, such that LiNK students foreground a common humanity-in-banality with refugees—of crying while watching This is Us or similar. My paper thus aims to expand the spatial imagination of the anthropology of humanitarianism, first with attention to the effects of the overlap of humanitarian practice with media transnationalism, and second by calling for a more robust attention to LiNK’s sort of being-in-potential than the static spatial metaphor of the Agambenian camp allows.