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“Training Guatemalan Campesinos to Work Like Korean Peasants”: Taxonomies and

Temporalities of East Asian Labor Management in Latin America

Author(s): Joo Ok Kim
Source: Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Vol. 3, No. 2, Between Asia and Latin America: New
Transpacific Perspectives (Fall 2017), pp. 195-216
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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Joo Ok Kim

“Training Guatemalan Campesinos to

Work Like Korean Peasants”: Taxonomies
and Temporalities of East Asian Labor
Management in Latin America

“The Guatemalan campesino is very much like the Korean peasant,” said a Korean
manager. “They are docile. They work hard. And, they even have short names
like our peasants.” The director of KOTRA added, “The Indians are really Ori-
ental, almost equal to us. They naturally work well in our factories and under
our system of management.”
—­Kurt Petersen, The Maquiladora Revolution in Guatemala

In 1992, labor organizer Kurt Petersen published the findings of his

interviews with Guatemalan workers and South Korean managers in
Korean-­owned maquiladoras, an excerpt of which is quoted as the epi-
graph to this article. In Petersen’s conversations with the director of the
Korean Overseas Trade Promotion Association (KOTRA) and a manager
in a Korean-­owned maquiladora in Guatemala, the Korean interviewees
offer a distilled racial taxonomy that situates the “almost equal” indig-
enous Guatemalan campesino alongside the Korean peasant (Petersen
1992, 150). The Korean managers establish a hierarchy that diminishes
both the “docile,” hardworking, short-­named Guatemalan campesino
and Korean peasant, only selectively valuing the labor capacity of each.
More insidiously, they impose a violent assimilation of the Guatemalan
campesino, attempting to bestow a kind of conditional inclusion into
a presumptively desirable Korean kinship. Along with the Guatemalan
campesino, the Korean peasant is essentialized into a narrow vision of

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the nobly suffering laborer, “docility” foregrounded in discursive negation
of any resistive subjectivity. Most troubling, however, is the ontological
erasure of the “Indian,” who is “really Oriental,” required to justify their
“natural” submission to Korean factories and management systems (150).
I open with a reading of this interview to frame an argument about the
transpacific taxonomies and temporalities of labor management strate-
gies, transferred from East Asia to Latin America. Such methods of labor
management are refined in Latin America, implementing persistent ex-
ploitation of Guatemalan and Mexican workers in South Korean–­owned
maquiladoras. Significantly, embedded in the labor management strate-
gies are residual elements of Japanese colonialism and the suggestion of
affinities between U.S.-­backed military dictatorships in South Korea and
Guatemala, which facilitated the movement of textile industries. Finally,
I introduce two articles published in the 1960s and 1970s from a North
Korean periodical, Chollima, that open retroactive speculations on the
sedimented colonial and capitalist histories of revolutionary Guatemala.
In the preceding interview, that the Korean manager and the KOTRA
director construct the racial taxonomy of indigenous Guatemalans and
Korean peasants using the pastoral language of farmworkers, even as
they discuss the viability of their exploitation in maquiladoras, is not
an accidental articulation.1 Such language distances both groups from
the possibility of labor organizing and reinforces their supposed “docil-
ity,” presuming that farmworkers have not continuously and capaciously
struggled for economic justice and asserted nuanced critiques of capital-
ist systems. Through strikes in 1987, South Korean labor, in particular in
the garment industry, achieved unprecedented developments for factory
workers, including the right to collectively bargain. By the end of that
year, South Korean labor succeeded in instituting the first minimum
wage. The aftermath of the labor and democracy struggles of 1987, while
launching advances for South Korean labor, also witnessed the movement
of garment factories to Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States, among
other global sites. Gains for Korean labor ironically inaugurated the exo-
dus of the apparel assembly industry. By spring 1988, Korean garment
factories—­rather than adhering to national wage regulations—­moved
operations to Guatemala, with the state explanation that Guatemala’s
economy would only benefit from modeling Korea’s industrial path to
economic modernity (Petersen 1992, 144). Given this context, the “Korean
factory worker” represents a unionizing force that preconditioned the
Korean managerial class in Guatemala, whereas the idea of the “Korean
peasant” could be mobilized to justify the Guatemalan campesino’s dis-
ciplining into a Korean “system of management.”

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Discipline, in its repressive executions against labor but also in its con-
stricted coordinating of knowledge formation, constitutes dual meanings.
The stakes of this project include articulating the necessity for studies in
global Asias and critical area studies to account for racialized labor exploi-
tation in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala by Korean and other
Asian corporations. Such studies require the ongoing critique of capitalist
violence as well as inquiries into the shifting innovations in management
that authorize and legitimate such violence. In addition to close readings
of labor management journals, labor studies interviews, and North Korean
archival texts, this article looks to Curtis Marez’s (2005) formulation of
the transpacific triangle, “a critical cognitive map that articulates American
studies, Latin American studies, and Asia Pacific studies,” to draw out what
he calls the transnational relationships overwhelmingly obscured by a “too
narrow focus on isolated areas” (503). Examining occluded transnational
relationships requires ongoing epistemological scrutiny of disciplinary
formations themselves. Lisa Yoneyama (2016) theorizes in her recent
study of repoliticizing historical justice amid the “Cold War’s ruins” (210)
by situating her analyses within “the genealogy of transpacific critique
that has emerged at the interstices of Asian studies, American studies,
and Asian American studies—­or more broadly, area studies, ethnic stud-
ies, and postcolonial studies” (ix). By doing so, Yoneyama lends light
on the quandaries of disciplinary divides that mask through their very
management of knowledge. Elaborated further, studies in global Asias
are positioned to scrutinize unruly exercises of power that renovate its
obscured methods into futurity.
Temporalities, then, operate as an important analytic in charting the
transpacific proximities of Guatemala and Mexico to South Korean gar-
ment factories. I further speculate into possibilities enabled by alternate
temporal trajectories, what Shelley Streeby (2013, 29) describes as a “queer
alternate cultural history”—­that is, the “mixing up and juxtaposing [of]
different times and temporalities, as well as by crossing disciplines and
analyzing different cultural forms.” Theorizing temporalities, on futurity
as well as the “past conditional temporality” (Lowe 2015, 40–­41), invites
readings from a North Korean magazine in the 1960s and 1970s that map
radically different relationships with Latin America than do South Korean
labor management practices. Marez (2016, 9) articulates “futurity as open-­
ended desire for a world beyond the limits of the present,” which I invoke
retroactively to mark a revolutionary threshold in the magazines. In doing
so, I center a reading practice that, following Lisa Lowe, emphasizes a “past
conditional temporality.” Lowe’s (2015, 175) conceptualization defines “a
relationship to the past that attempts another approach,” in which it is

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possible to understand the past “not as fixed or settled, not as inaugurat-
ing the temporality into which our present falls, but as a configuration of
multiple contingent possibilities, all present, yet none inevitable.” This
article thus traces management discourses emerging from colonial and
contemporary Korea through the shared repressive labor strategies of
Guatemalan and Korean military dictatorships and finally reaches back
to the North Korean magazine Chollima, which charts alternative affini-
ties with revolutionary Guatemala. As such, this project situates North
Korea alongside studies of global Asias and considers North Korean print
culture from the 1960s and 1970s to imagine a different kind of affiliation
with Latin America.
To situate the emergence of South Korean–­owned maquiladoras in
Guatemala and Mexico in a larger transpacific and historical context,
it is important to establish that some of the same practices of factory
management deployed against migrant workers in contemporary South
Korea were inherited from Japanese colonial practices of governance. 2
Many of the same dehumanizing techniques are also articulated into
management practices in Guatemala by South Korean managers in textile
factories. Jin-­kyung Lee (2010, 188) establishes that “[South Korean]
state laws and government labor practices regarding migrant workers
have either been inherited from the Japanese colonial period or bor-
rowed from contemporary Japan.” Indeed, South Korea’s Democratic
Labor Union connects processes of exploitation of migrant workers in
South Korea to the Japanese colonial process of recruiting exploitable
Korean labor to work in Japanese factories, highlighting South Korea’s
“Industrial Trainee System as the most prevailing, legalized, structural
cause of the exploitation of migrant workers,” which “revives a Japanese
practice from the colonial period that was used to recruit Korean workers
for factories in Japan proper” (194).
Within the broader neoliberal architecture, it is possible to gauge the
trace of imperial legacies in the importation of labor practices from Japa-
nese colonialism in Korea to Guatemala and Mexico beginning in the 1980s
and executed in the contemporary moment against migrant workers in
Korean businesses in the United States and against migrant workers in
South Korea. Such an indexing suggests that Japanese and U.S. imperial-
ist genealogies are embedded within emergent neoliberal logics in South
Korea. Indeed, neoliberal structures authorize and obscure the kind of
severe exploitation that under colonial regimes is recognized as terrible,
even “inhuman.”3 As Lee observes, “one of the most important factors
in historicizing South Korean development is the extent to which the
colonial elites were assimilated into the imperial power structure” (22).4

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The transition into economic modernity for South Korea thus must ac-
count for the colonial elite assimilation into the Japanese imperial power
structure, results of which endure into more contemporary labor prac-
tices. The South Korean implementation of Japanese colonial manage-
ment practices, not just within South Korea but also into Guatemala and
Mexico, represents the intertwined extension of neoliberal and imperial
logics into refashioned racial taxonomies.
As discussed further in the next section, the very avenue by which
South Korean management strategies adhere to the “docile” Guatema-
lan campesino or Mexican worker is entwined with Korean claims for
liberation from Japanese colonialism. In other words, Korean national-
ist discourses arguing for independence and disassociation from Japan
leverage claims of liberation tied to assertions that Koreans can be ef-
fective managers if only provided the opportunity. In the dehumanizing
treatment of migrant workers in South Korea as well as in South Korean–­
owned maquiladoras in Guatemala and Mexico, the discourse of effective
managing—­as an inherited Japanese colonial practice—­is tethered to the
argument for Korean liberation as well. I do not intend to limit my analysis
to rehearsing discourses establishing the dire contours of Japanese and
U.S. imperialisms, nor to uncover less commonly understood facets of
imperial labor management, although both are important and underpin
this essay. Rather, I wish to illustrate the wider implications guiding the
orbital of colonial management, implications that may register unevenly
or not at all within the empiricist methods available to labor management
studies or conventional historiographies. The inheritance of Japanese
colonial management strategies by South Korean management is in itself
significant. But the execution of residual Japanese colonial practices on
migrant workers in South Korea, and especially the migration of such
strategies by Korean corporations to Guatemala and Mexico, suggests
a crucial turn for theorizing global labor management, “to discern the
deeply entangled geohistories of violence and their shared yet localized
genealogies” (Yoneyama 2016, 17).

6 Managing Anxieties: Racial Taxonomies

in Labor Management Journals
The political contexts of South Korea and Guatemala are significant for
tracing the movements of labor management strategies:

During Guatemala’s partial international isolation from 1977 to 1985, the

Republic of Korea was one of the few countries, along with Taiwan and Israel,
which sustained amiable diplomatic relations. Sharing both an anticom-

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munist ideology and a military-­dominated government, Korea empathized
with the plight of Guatemala in its battle against guerilla insurgency. Al-
though there is little known evidence that Korea actually sold weapons or
provided other concrete military assistance during this period, it is clear
that the Guatemalan government received moral and diplomatic support
from the Korean government. (Petersen 1992, 144)

While the military dictatorships and anticommunist ideologies govern-

ing both nation-­states cohered in efforts toward a globalized economic
modernity, during this same period, leftists, radicals, communists, and
guerillas in Guatemala and South Korea worked toward dismantling
capitalist and colonialist systems. Whatever support the South Korean
government—­flexing its own authoritarian rule, instituting “executive
laws and regulations that seriously curtailed the rights of workers” in
South Korea (Lee 2010, 25)—­offered Guatemala in its so-­called plight
only served to smooth over the transpacific process of introducing ap-
parel assembly maquiladoras. Such movements continue to reverberate
in the contemporary moment, registered in Lee’s important framework
for a critical Asian studies critique of the South Korean “subempire”:
“In conjunction with the recent influx of migrant workers into South
Korea, there is also a continuing outflow of South Koreans to various loca-
tions around the globe, to the core countries as well as to the peripheral
regions” (228).
In Guatemala, “virtually every worker believes that [Korean-­owned]
factories are the most dreadful in the maquila industry,” suggesting that
the particular executions of labor management technique in Korean-­
owned maquiladoras go beyond “regular” methods of generating worker
productivity, beyond the norm of exploitation (Petersen 1992, 161). I
foreground this statement not to exceptionalize the brutality of Korean
labor management but rather to trace continuities and divergences oc-
casioned by the “exporting” of such practices—­whether inherited from
Japanese colonial governance or, as Korean management researchers
have insisted, adamantly distinct from Japanese labor management—­to
reveal embedded contradictions in their attempts to taxonomize differ-
ence. Despite Korean management’s desires to assimilate workers in
Mexico and Guatemala, the very fissures created by worker resistance
to Korean management practices create room to resist transnational
corporate control of workers.
One moment from the speculative past I would like to introduce here is
a line from an anonymously authored and somewhat ideologically incon-
sistent document arguing for Korean liberation from Japanese colonial

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rule. Published by the United Korean Committee of America in 1943 in
Los Angeles, Condensed Reference: Korea and the Pacific War outlines the
benefits of Korean independence from Japanese colonialism, especially
for the United States during the Second World War. Korea and the Pacific
War highlights the strategic military importance of Korea and asserts
the capability of the peninsula’s self-­sufficiency. The final section of this
document, “Capacity of Koreans to Carry On,” in what appears to be
an afterthought, offers claims that racist Japanese colonial practices in
labor construct Koreans as effective workers but as otherwise unfit for
Impartial critics who have been able to study the people at home and abroad
are agreed that the Korean, when given the same advantage, is as capable
a student and as efficient a manager as any other race. One should not be
deceived by the opinions of travelers and of even seasoned writers who have
seen the Korean from the Japanese point of view. Naturally it has been the
aim of Japanese propaganda to picture the Korean as a fairly good worker
but devoid of any managerial ability. This fits in with the Japanese program
of subjugating the race, with the view of making them artisans and labor-
ers rather than independent thinkers and leaders. (Anonymous 1943, 63)

While all of this is rich for analysis, the line I wish to emphasize here
is “naturally it has been the aim of Japanese propaganda to picture the
Korean as a fairly good worker but devoid of any managerial ability.”
Not only has Korean “managerial ability” been painfully demonstrated
in South Korea, Guatemala, Mexico, and elsewhere but by 2007, manage-
ment researchers such as Yongsun Paik have argued for further evolved
strategies such as hiring local managers to generate affective motivations
for productivity. Such logic perpetuates existing power structures, first
with Koreans replacing Japanese as “efficient” managers in the aftermath
of colonialism and second, as I discuss below, replacing Korean managers
with Mexican managers in Mexico.
In 1943, two years before Korean independence from Japanese colonial-
ism, a moment in which Koreans and the rest of the world who thought
of Korea at all thought of it as a single peninsular nation, in a document
that passionately and systematically makes the case for liberation, are the
seeds of managerial ambition that appears to have reached a perversely
antithetical materialization of liberatory ideals. What seems to be an
afterthought line looms heavily on our present moment, as wrapped up
in discourse of liberation, the Japanese colonial exploitation strategies
are brought to bear on migrant workers currently in South Korea as well
as in Guatemala and Mexico:

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To achieve maximum production in Guatemala, many aspects of these re-
pressive systems of labor control have been imported for the “benefit” of
Guatemalan workers and the greater good of Korean factories. The man-
agement system implemented in Korean maquila factories indeed closely
resembles the repressive system of labor control found in Korea. The goal
of this practice, according to Korean managers and government officials,
is to teach Guatemalan workers the “work habits” of Korean workers.
(Petersen 1992, 149)

The colonial trace and the liberationist impulse continue to resonate in

more contemporary formations. Indeed, in labor management studies,
Korean researchers have bristled at the comparison of Korean factories to
Japanese factories in Mexico and Guatemala. In a complex engagement
informed by disavowal and assimilation of exploitative labor practices,
South Korean management sutures its colonial past with the neoliberal
A temporally devastating pattern emerges in Petersen’s study when
garment workers and supervisors discuss the particularities of garment
labor conditions: “supervisors forbid use of the bathroom during working
hours” (151); “generally, supervisors slap, punch, and kick a worker when
she makes a costly mistake, breaks a machine, or repeatedly talks to her
neighbor. . . . Explained a female worker at Sam Lucas S.A., ‘They holler
“Faster, faster!” “Make haste!”’ They push us” (153). The continuity of
aggressive labor tempos represents an obstinately familiar recital in the
history of labor struggles as well as labor management technique. On one
hand, such a refrain is common among many low-­wage laborers exclu-
sive of those in garment work—­in the United States, supermarket work,
meatpacking, and manufacturing constitute contemporary examples—­
and resounds in historical moments such as the early-­twentieth-­century
immigrant garment industry in New York City and the immigrant meat-
packing industries (see Doussard 2013; Fortino 2014). On the other hand,
the seeming mundaneness of this narrative should not, of course, detract
from the significance of ongoing struggles. The repetition calls attention to
embodied suffering, cruel tests marking thresholds of human limitation,
elaborating unbearable temporalities punctuated by pain and supervisor
calls to go “faster, faster, faster!” It compels the tracing of punitive labor
control strategies through space (as in the transpacific movement of
factories from South Korea to Guatemala and Mexico) and time.
The relentless repetition of horrific labor conditions across abstracted
time and space is rearticulated to particularly insidious effect in interna-
tional human resource and labor management literature. Findings about
Korean maquiladoras in Mexico offer important examples. Yongsun Paik,

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K. Praveen Parboteeah, and Wonshul Shim’s (2007) study refers indirectly
to compensating underpaid workers “to manage effectively the local work-
force to achieve the preferred outcome” (1773) and recommending the use
of “local managers,” not Korean expatriates, to “reduce any resentment”
(1778). In hiring “local managers whose compensation is not significantly
different from other local HCW [host country workforce],” they would
ostensibly be more ideally positioned to “generate higher levels of affec-
tive commitment” to the maquiladora (1778). Such a recommendation,
while perhaps superficially intended to improve conditions for Mexican
maquiladora workers, ultimately garners multinational corporations
(MNCs) dual benefits: paying less for Mexican managers and securing
compliance from Mexican workers. If MNCs are unable or unwilling to
hire local managers, Paik et al. state that hiring “expatriates can be an
effective means of control only if they have significant cultural knowledge
of the host country” (1778). Thus epistemological authority is presumed to
operate in service of more nuanced forms of “control” and exploitation.5
International management professor Yongsun Paik and J. H. Sohn’s
(1998) Business Horizons study yields the pseudo-­scientific racist schematic
that furnishes the underlying racialist thinking in his later 2007 work.
The history of scientific racism in U.S. labor is well documented, but the
so-­called internationalization of management technique presented in Paik
and Sohn’s “Confucius in Mexico: Korean MNCs and the Maquiladoras”
elaborates a revision—­rather than executing racial management in ef-
forts to generate competition among differentially racialized workers, the
study asserts cultural justifications for remaking Mexican workers in the
image of “compliant” Korean workers. Paik and Sohn arguably reproduce
methods of early-­twentieth-­century U.S. management experts, in which
“efforts to write about the virtues and limitations of different races and
nationalities as workers began and ended with simply assembling or
excerpting the opinions of managers on the ground in workplaces, often
foremen” (Roediger and Esch 2012, 140).6 Yet Paik and Sohn introduce a
cultural twist to such methods as they explain the presumed compliance
of Korean workers through the tenets of a deeply engrained Confucian
organizational culture, including a high work ethic, preservation of group
harmony, top-­down decision making, and paternalism.
Paik and Sohn’s valorization of the Korean work ethic operates in
direct tension with the cultural and racial taxonomy they generate about
Koreans and Mexicans:

As repeatedly pointed out in many studies, Koreans demonstrate an ex-

ceptionally strong work ethic. It can be traced to the strong Confucian

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value system. . . . Mexicans tend to view work not as a sacred duty but as
a means to an end or a necessary evil. In certain cases, they behave as if
they were nonchalantly committing themselves with little intention of
later fulfillment. Moreover, they often fail to distinguish clearly between
work and play. Such an attitude may be associated with their polychronic
orientation of time. (27)

Aside from the stunning generalizations of Koreans’ “exceptionally strong

work ethic” and Mexicans’ approach to work as “a necessary evil” and their
failure “to distinguish clearly between work and play,” arguments Paik
and Sohn assert in 1998 and that rely on the epistemological authority
“repeatedly pointed out in many studies,” the authors also generate a
classificatory schematic presuming antagonism between “Koreans” and
“Mexicans.”7 Such a taxonomy engineers the foreclosure of common possi-
bilities as workers in opposition to the transnational maquiladora system.
In Paik and Sohn’s study, Koreans are managers who display anxiety
around not being able to know whether the Mexican workers are truly
working: “we cannot be quite sure if they are really concentrating on
their work or just playing around, wasting time. Mexican workers often
either listen to loud radio or talk too much to each other while they are
working” (27). The epistemic anxiety undergirding Korean managers’
concerns about regulating Mexican labor hinges on seizing control of
workers’ time. Worker efforts to brush against Korean management also
recenter approaches to time that simultaneously pose a critique of work-
ing conditions in South Korea. One Mexican worker that Paik and Sohn
quote resists the relentless push to work and challenges such a driving
force, stating, “Korean workers may be willing to work more than 15 hours
a day for a week. But this is Mexico, not Korea” (27). While Paik and Sohn
use polychronicity as a potential explanation for what they perceive to
be Mexican resistance to work, they simultaneously naturalize the South
Korean approach to time as monochronic, a system of time with industrial
emergence in factories, and assume its normativity. Wielding time and
its relationship to power, Korean managers use time to hold captive, as
a punitive. Yet, as in the statement of the Mexican worker interviewed
earlier, time is rearticulated as a resistant tactic, in the possibilities of
workers denaturalizing Korean managerial articulations of time.
Such challenges operate in tandem with explicit causes for managerial
concern: “A labor strike recently occurred in one of the Korean maquilas,
illustrating the mounting dissatisfaction among Mexican workers with
the authoritarian management of their employers” (26). In addition to the
passive construction of “a labor strike recently occurred,” as though labor
strikes are just things that happen sometimes, rather than the outcomes

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of sophisticated organization and direct action, Paik and Sohn delimit
the cause of the strike to “dissatisfaction among Mexican workers with
the authoritarian management of their employers,” diminishing worker
agency to mere “dissatisfaction” and omitting Korean management as the
problem, even as they name Mexican workers as a trouble to be managed.
Paik and Sohn’s efforts to contextualize the development of maquiladoras
in Mexico offer abstract articulations that “abundant, low-­cost labor has
made [Mexico] an extremely attractive site for any labor-­intensive opera-
tion” (26). Describing people as “abundant, low-­cost labor” both reduces
complex persons solely into their abilities to serve MNCs and also signals
to MNCs their exploitable vulnerability, measured in such “abundance.”
In their publication moment of 1998, the authors write that the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) “has made Mexico even more
attractive as a viable option to serve the U.S. and Latin American markets.
Given the growing recognition of Mexico as both a manufacturing and a
marketing platform, maquiladora investments from Asian countries, such
as Japan and Korea, have grown considerably,” reducing the capacity of
people into “both a manufacturing and marketing platform” (26). Their
timing here is not accidental—­the conditions that inaugurated NAFTA
are conditions that precipitated the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which in
turn directed predatory mechanisms toward Mexico and Central America
by Japan and South Korea.
Indeed, the article begins with an exceptionalist narrative: “Despite the
region’s recent financial crisis, the economies of the East Asian countries
have remained strong. Their remarkable economic performance has sent
a steady stream of researchers from the West scrambling to explain such
success” (25). The language valorizing the perseverance of East Asian na-
tions amid the turbulent financial crisis mirrors their exceptionalizing
of the Korean work ethic. Moreover, that “a steady stream of research-
ers from the West” seek to know the reasons for “remarkable economic
performance” signals sought-­after validation, yet the authors bristle that
most of the research has been focused on Japan: “It is a grave mistake
to assume that Japan or its management systems would also represent
those of Korea” (25). Thus the authors deploy a dangerous expression of
Korean nationalism first in their motivations to exceptionalize Korean
economic success, and again when they assert the superiority of Korean
workers. To return to the managerial anxiety underpinning arguments
for Korean liberation from Japan, the Korean “as efficient a manager”
as any Japanese, and as proving “managerial ability” (Anonymous 1943,
63), is revitalized within contemporary labor management discourses and
haunts backward to moments that might have signaled otherwise. I turn

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to a reading of two articles from a North Korean magazine that begin
to locate another point of departure, one that foregrounds transpacific
revolutionary struggle against capitalist and colonial oppression.

6 North Korea’s Chollima, U.S. Empire,

and Militant Guatemala
The North Korean periodical Chollima has an active circulation and, dur-
ing the 1960s and 1970s, featured internationalist pieces articulating
ideological solidarities with people’s struggles in Africa, Latin America,
the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Most relevant for this essay, how-
ever, are the magazine’s articles about Guatemala. I examine two articles
in particular: Sanghyuk Lee’s “Militant Guatemala” from the February
1970 issue and “International Knowledge: Guatemala” from the August
1962 issue.8 Figure 1 features the map that opens “Militant Guatemala,”
identifying the Republic of Guatemala between Mexico, Honduras, and
El Salvador. The periodical takes care to provide maps and geographies in
its articles presenting revolutionary nations, because although there are
many state magazines for more specific audiences, the “monthly Chollima
is the only magazine for the general public” in North Korea (Yonhap News
Agency 2002, 425). Chollima’s status as a general public magazine means
more variety in both content and genres of writing:

Popular topics include praising the leadership, the reunification of Korea,

and useful everyday tips. The formats used include essay, travel journal,
introduction of revolutionary relics, conversations on hot topics, poems, a
daily novel, and commentary. Recent hits include articles on women’s lat-
est fashions, makeup and hair. It also publishes articles on famous tourist
attractions and historical sites; each issue usually features approximately
twenty photos. (Yonhap News Agency 2002, 425–­26)

Both “Militant Guatemala” and “International Knowledge: Guatemala”

speak to the nation’s colonial histories and document the insurgent strug-
gles against the U.S.-­backed dictatorships. In direct and vivid contrast
to the Korean manager and KOTRA director discussed in the beginning
of this essay, the Chollima articles incisively value the people’s struggles
against the state and critique state violence against indigenous Guate-
“International Knowledge: Guatemala” introduces Spanish coloniza-
tion and the emergence of U.S. imperial designs in Guatemala, explicitly
foregrounding the agency of the people in their actions resisting systems
of power imposed by colonization:

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Figure 1. “Militant
Guatemala,” February
1970 Issue of Chollima.

The Guatemalan people have a glorious tradition of anti-­American, anti-­

dictatorial struggle. Since Guatemala was degraded to a Spanish colony in
1524, the people in this country have been severely oppressed and exploited
by the Spanish colonialists for a long time. However, the patriotic people
had never given up and had carried out long-­term struggles for national
independence, and as a result, it gained independence in 1821. However,
since then, they have had to consistently carry out struggles against im-
perialistic invasion and domestic reactionary power. (Chollima 1962, 132)

The article begins by reporting on the actions of Revolutionary Movement

of November 13 (11윌 13일 유격 전설), provides a thorough analysis of
the extensive control held by the United Fruit Company in Guatemala,
and continues on to trace the histories of Jorge Ubico’s 1944 overthrow
and the ongoing efforts of the communist insurgency. What is particularly
significant about this general interest article with its public readership is
the careful attempt to situate the insurgency’s contemporary struggles
within detailed analyses of Spanish colonialism; struggles against Ameri-
can capital, military, and anticommunist logics; and the most up-­ to-­
date coverage on guerilla movements against the Ydígoras government.

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Not only does the article function to build transpacific affinities around
North Korea’s shared ideological commitments with revolutionary Gua-
temala, it presumes the importance of presenting layered colonial and
capitalist histories that lend depth and clarity to the struggles against
those systems.
Another example of the article’s work is articulating the radicalization
of facets within the military, which itself served as a vehicle to sustain the
Ydígoras government. Further still, the article documents the ongoing
register of people’s movements and their power to continue to unsettle the
most oppressive structures: “Maintaining Ydígoras’s dictatorial govern-
ment was its reactionary military. But the military itself was in the process
of collapse. Since the people’s widespread discontentment at the govern-
ment had an effect on even the military,” officers and soldiers themselves
deserted the armed forces (133). Another instance of the article’s latest
coverage on the demonstrations of spring 1962 argues for the significance
of the unified nature of protests, in which the “anti-­dictatorial fight of
the Guatemalan people is entering a new step this year. The laborers’ con-
tinuous strike, the farmers’ fight against land exploitation, the students’
united strike, and the armed guerrilla fight are extending and intensifying
day by day . . . supported by all levels of society and numerous peoples,”
including the city government, the social security administration, the
court, and a series of commercial and industrial company workers who
also carried out strikes (133). Indeed, “thousands of workers, politicians,
and students poured into the streets to denounce the Ydígoras regime
in the largest street protests since Ubico’s 1944 overthrow” (Weld 2014,
101), ensuring that this particular August 1962 issue of Chollima would
highlight the importance of revolutionary Guatemala. Yet even as the
insurgent movements unfolded, even as the North Korean Chollima pub-
lished articles such as “International Knowledge: Guatemala,” October
1962 would witness the establishment of diplomatic relations between
South Korea and Guatemala, “spearheaded by the [military dictator] Park
Chung-­hee administration [as] part of an aggressive drive to increase
exports” (Kim 2012). In other words, this moment also inaugurates the
beginning economic and diplomatic stages breaking the metaphorical
and eventually physical ground for South Korean–­owned maquiladoras
that would be in operation by 1988.
Eight years later, Lee’s “Militant Guatemala” recalls the actions of 1962,
when “the Guatemalan people decisively rose in arms to fight against
the American Empire’s invaders and its hunting dog, the pro-­American
dictatorial government according to the guidance of [the November 13
Revolutionary Movement]” (Lee 1970, 111). Much like the 1962 “Interna-

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tional Knowledge: Guatemala” article, Lee’s article presents updates on the
revolutionary insurgency, locates ongoing struggles within long histories
of colonial and capitalist oppression, and foregrounds the agency of in-
digenous workers. Lee’s article also continues the attentive coverage on
urban guerilla movements that gained momentum throughout the 1960s,
significant because “though the [national] police’s counterinsurgent role
and the importance of the war’s urban stages were well understood at the
time—­as documented in the press and popular movement reports—­both
of these dynamics have largely disappeared from subsequent accounts”
(Weld 2014, 11). Thus these two Chollima articles not only underscore the
contested urban site of Guatemala City but are also accounts and histories
themselves that have, if not strictly disappeared, then nonetheless been
made “forcibly forgotten” and that necessitate “both a representation of
the revolutionary events that have been forcibly forgotten within existing
history, and a radical critique of the historical form itself” (Lowe 2015, 152).
The significance of urban resistance is presented in the articles as part
of a holistic movement within Guatemala, with careful attention to the
unified quality of the struggle: “Since [1962], the Guatemalan armed guer-
rilla units have been defeating [government forces] by forming guerrilla
lines in mountains and forests, cities and towns, and even in busy main
streets in Guatemala City, the capital, which is a hotbed of the American
Empire and the pro-­American dictatorial government” (Lee 1970, 111). In
1970, eighteen years before the first South Korean–­owned maquiladoras
emerged near Guatemala City, seventeen years after the accord that did
not end the Korean War, in an increasingly isolationist military regime
that would, in seven years, receive “sympathies,” if not actual weapons,
from the South Korean military dictatorships of Park Chung-­hee and
Chun Doo-­hwan, “the Guatemalan guerrillas are widening their stage
from farm areas to cities including the capital and transitioning from
small ambushed attack operations to active attack operations. . . . The
Guatemalan armed guerrilla is striking a continuous serious blow against
the American Empire” (Lee 1970, 111). Urban resistance movements are
depicted not just as a “city” counterpart to rural and land-­based insurgen-
cies. Rather, such a “stage from farm areas to cities including the capital”
accommodates a broad-­ranging movement to recover lands and harbors
and redistribute wealth. Lee’s critique of U.S. empire, endorsed by the
North Korean state, operates from an implicit support of Guatemala’s
indigenous peoples. This position stands in stark contrast to the dictato-
rial affinities and the alleged economic opportunities coordinated by the
South Korean state in the form of maquiladoras.
Unlike the KOTRA director’s and Korean manager’s devaluation of

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indigenous Guatemalans, who “argue that Guatemalan workers are inher-
ently inferior to Korean workers” and are at best “salvageable” (Petersen
1992, 150), Lee’s article is attuned to the significance of indigenous dis-
possession embedded in the development of capital and the United Fruit
Company in particular:

The United Fruit Company in Guatemala is an obvious example to show

how much American Empire invaders have been plundering the economic
wealth of Guatemala. The American Empire monopolists drove out about
200,000 Indians to the backwoods and deprived them of fertile lands. There-
fore, the American Empire invaders have occupied a large portion of the
lands, which is about one fourth of the whole area of Guatemala, obtaining
a huge amount of profit. Furthermore, they are controlling even its trade
by taking all the harbors under their control. The profit that the American
Empire is taking out of Guatemala is reaching up to 100 million dollars
annually. (Lee 1970, 110)

Indeed, both Chollima articles are careful to establish Guatemala’s abun-

dant resources, both are attentive to the centuries of Spanish colonial-
ism and the transition of power to U.S. imperialist and Guatemalan elite
hands that “have been plundering the economic wealth of Guatemala.”
Such wealth, embodied in “fertile lands,” is articulated to be rightfully
inhabited and used by indigenous peoples. The idea of occupation is thus
directly correlated to the “huge amount of profit” generated by U.S. cor-
porate forces in Guatemala, its rural lands, cities, and harbors.
While both “International Knowledge: Guatemala” and “Militant Gua-
temala” foreground the actions of the insurgencies, whether taking place
on farms or cities, the articles also document instances of state terror
wedded to the workings of U.S. empire within Guatemala as well as U.S.
attempts to exercise military power in other Cold War theaters. I return
to one analytic of temporality theorized by Lisa Yoneyama (2016, 49):
“What are the ways in which an act of ‘remembering the wrong things at
a wrong moment’ might generate an unlearning that critically unsettles
the way we believe we know our history?” In addition to the North Korean
magazines themselves identifying affinities with revolutionary struggles
in Latin America, Lee’s “Militant Guatemala” traces the U.S. military’s
deployment of generals from the Vietnam War as part of the counterin-
surgency in Guatemala: “The American Empire and . . . the Guatemalan
puppet government are carrying out severe repression of the people . . .
and are launching a mop-­up operation against the guerrilla units by go-
ing to lengths to engage murderous generals who were notorious in the
aggressive southern Vietnam War” (Lee 1970, 111). I suggest that this

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Figure 2. August 1962 issue of Chollima.

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claim in Lee’s article is a particularly important one, as it reorients the
contours through which we understand U.S. executions of terror. From
the perspective of North Korea in 1970, Cold War logics triangulate Gua-
temala, Vietnam, and the United States, and the insurgent struggles of
guerilla movements in Guatemala are enmeshed with the ongoing guerilla
actions against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces in the Vietnam War.
While Chollima’s “International Knowledge: Guatemala” and “Militant
Guatemala” present explicit and wide-­ranging critiques of U.S. empire,
labor management studies obscure the layered colonial and capitalist
histories of Guatemala as the very conditions that allowed for the devel-
opment of South Korean–­owned maquiladoras in the first place.

6 Coda
The August 1962 and February 1970 issues of Chollima of course could
not have commented on South Korean–­owned maquiladoras in Guate-
mala in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, “to meet the exigency of the moment,
something else from the past had to be remembered, something that
did not immediately belong to the present,” what Yoneyama (2016, 49)
describes as “‘catachrony,’ or temporal discombobulation, and its effects
on knowledge.” It is thus perhaps all the more suggestive that the cover
of the August 1962 issue features a skilled loom worker, who appears to
be a woman taking thoughtful care in the artfully designed fabric she is
creating. The cover presents an image of a specifically situated individual,
carefully performing labor that has historically been feminized, devalued.
But she does not appear to be alienated from her labor. Her engage-
ment in the work suggests, instead, a valued alternative to the kinds of
oppressive garment work and management in the Korean peninsula,
north and south alike, at that same moment. Such garment work and
the acts of managing that labor would inherit Japanese practices wielded
against Koreans during the colonial period. Those same practices would be
directed toward the migrant workers who constitute precarious and
irregular labor formations in South Korea, and again, although modi-
fied, with the help of labor management research, on the Mexican and
Guatemalan workers in South Korean maquiladoras in Mexico and Gua-
temala. The August 1962 cover of Chollima imagines something else; its
contents—in particular the article on revolutionary Guatemala—­work
toward the dismantling of such colonial practices and build toward an-
other kind of world.

Joo Ok Kim is assistant professor in the Department of American Stud-

ies at the University of Kansas.

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6 Notes
I thank the guest editors, Andrea Bachner and Pedro Erber, and the review-
ers for their generous engagement with this article. I’m grateful as well to
Tina Chen, Akash Belsare, and the Verge office for their care. Sonya Lee
and staff at the Library of Congress Asian Reading Room facilitated this
research. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the insightful contributions by
Cécile Accilien, Giselle Anatol, Kirstie Dorr, Curtis Marez, and Magalí Ra-
basa, with a very special thanks to Ana Maria Candela and Chris Perreira.
1. “Racial taxonomy” in this article draws from important theorizations
of racial formation, including those of Cheryl Harris (1993), Nikhil Singh
(2004), Grace Kyungwon Hong and Roderick Ferguson (2011), Jodi Byrd
(2011), Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger (2012), Dennis Childs (2015),
and Lisa Lowe (2015). Lowe observes in The Intimacies of Four Continents
that within the context of the British empire, the “colonial conflation
of the Chinese with indigenous and racially mixed people expresses this
moment in the history of coloniality, in which a racial taxonomy gradually
emerged both to manage and modernize labor, reproduction, and society
among the colonized” (32). The racial taxonomy constructed by the Korean
managers and the KOTRA director is thus inseparable from the histories
of settler colonialism and attaches itself to complex reconfigurations of
Orientalisms to Guatemalan workers, obscuring their indigenous subjec-
tivities. I am indebted to Giselle Anatol, Ana Maria Candela, and Curtis
Marez for these insights.
2. Jin-­kyung Lee (2010) examines in particular the highly precarious
circumstances of South Asian and Southeast Asian migrant workers.
Because many workers labor under undocumented status, data regarding
migrant workers are often limited: “South Korea is now home to migrant
workers from China, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, Pakistan,
Vietnam, the Philippines, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Iran,
and Russia” (186). For scholarship on Latin American migrant workers
in South Korea, and in particular Peruvian migrant workers, see Erica
Vogel’s (2011) dissertation.
3. By tracing the movement of Japanese imperial labor practices, I seek
to build on Lowe’s (2015, 196) argument that “the coloniality of West-
ern liberalism, and the elision of its essential imbrication in colonialism
and empire, extends even to current critical social theory discussions of
neoliberalism, which tend to periodize the ‘newness’ of the present by
identifying a developmental shift from liberalism to neoliberalism, and
moreover, by universalizing this shift across all global spaces.”
4. Yoneyama (2016, 28) reminds us of the broader imperial arc in South
Korea, as “elements of the colonial regime—­for example, police state

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apparatuses, military forces, and heteronormative, patriarchal social
policies—­had been put to renewed use by the postindependent, cold
war surveillance state.”
5. The authors extrapolate their findings beyond Korean maquiladoras
in Mexico “to all MNCs operating outside their home country. The research
results suggest that expatriates should know how to motivate the host
country workforce and how to provide appropriate rewards by possess-
ing significant cultural knowledge of their assigned host country. This
will in turn increase the organizational commitment of the host country
workforce, resulting in improved job performance” (Paik, Parboteeah,
and Shim 2007, 1777–­78).
6. For nuanced analyses of scientific and race management in U.S. labor
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see especially the
chapters “Continuity and Change: Scientific Management, Race Manage-
ment, and the Persistence of the ‘Foreman’s Empire’” and “The Crisis of
Race Management: Immigrant Rebellions, Immigration Restrictions, and
a New Focus on Black and Mexican Labor” in Roediger and Esch (2012).
7. Korean-­owned garment industries in Argentina represent anoth-
er avenue of critique: “The distinction that [Korean businessmen and
women] construed between Korean immigrants and ‘white’ Argentines
was in regards to their work ethic; while they saw Koreans as being hard-­
working and industrious, they posited Argentines as ‘tranquilos’ (laid-­
back), as lazy, and at times incompetent. However, when I followed the
logic of these stereotypical representations by asking if that meant that
they viewed Koreans as culturally and racially ‘superior,’ their response
was ambivalent” (Kim 2016, 49–­50).
8. I am grateful to Hyunchang Kang for his translations of both Chol-
lima articles.

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