Even in states where borders and sovereignty are supposedly well established, large movements of transnational migrants are seen to present problems, as today’s crises show the world over. But as Alyssa Park’s book Sovereignty Experiments: Korean Migrants and the Building of Borders in Northeast Asia, 1860-1945 (Cornell University Press, 2019) shows, when both peoples and whole political paradigms are on the move simultaneously, we are able to look in very new ways at how governance works and how it interrelates with issues of human mobility.
In this richly informative and captivating book, Park focuses on the movement of Koreans around the point where China, Russia and Korea converged from the mid-19th century onwards. Deftly moving between intimate migrant experiences and higher-level government activity, the author’s interweaving of the personal and the political gives us a newly grounded perspective on several large empire-states and how they came to understand sovereignty, population and loyalty in the 19th and 20th centuries. These understandings continued to reverberate in the decades that followed, and many remain with us in the present.
Ed Pulford is an Anthropologist and Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and indigeneity in northeast Asia.