Peruvians first began arriving to South Korea in large numbers in the early 1990s, at a moment when Korea’s economy was starting to boom and Peru’s was in sharp decline. While most Peruvian migrants would have rather gone to Europe, Japan or the U.S. (more popular and profitable destinations for Peruvian labor at that time), South Korea became a prime destination for many who did not have the cultural or economic capital to reach those destinations. By the year 2000, Peruvians were the largest group of non-Asian migrant workers in South Korea, and had established a community with migrant-run restaurants, churches and soccer leagues. Peruvians were one group among hundreds of thousands of migrants working in the small and medium-sized factories thriving on the outskirts of Seoul—yet outside of their families or communities, few people even knew they were there.
Everything changed in 2004 when, in the hopes of preventing migrants from settling permanently and of making all migrants documented and controllable, South Korea implemented a new guest worker policy, which offered visas for males from certain Asian countries. Since Peru was not included, those Peruvians who opted to stay in the country and work despite orders that they leave became not only undocumented, but what I term undocumentable. I use this term both to comment on how they are outside the legal system as well as the local imagination of who migrant workers in South Korea are and should be. Through my research I explore how being undocumentable is both limiting (preventing access to travel and legal rights) and also a creative space filled with possibility. For example, through participating in Korean evangelical Protestant churches, Peruvians use their undocumentability to establish themselves as global leaders in and beyond the church. I spent over 21 months in both Korea and Peru interviewing current and former migrants, their family members, their religious leaders as well as government officials dealing with migrants. I found that while Peruvians are a relatively small group of global migrants, we can look at their experience of undocumentability as well as their success in establishing new religious and economic connections between Peru and South Korea to understand a new view on how the Asia-Pacific region is connected and how globalization happens.
I also incorporate issues of globalization, mobility and labor in the courses I teach, and design projects and activities that help students to see the world in a new way. For example, in my upcoming courses students will not only learn important themes connecting countries in the Pacific Basin, but also design and conduct their own mini research projects on how consumerism, social media and migration connect the SUA campus with the larger region.