|Abstract:||This dissertation is an ethnography of mobility and modernity in contemporary South Korea (the Republic of Korea) following neoliberal restructuring precipitated by the Asian Financial Crisis (1997). It focuses on how comparative “service,” “security,” and “safety” fashioned “Global Korea”: an ongoing state-sponsored project aimed at promoting the economic, political, and cultural maturation of South Korea from a once notoriously inhospitable, “backward” country (hujin’guk) to a now welcoming, “advanced country” (sŏnjin’guk). Through physical embodiments of the culturally-specific idiom of “superior” service (sŏbisŭ), I argue that aspiring, current, and former Korean flight attendants have driven the production and maintenance of this national project.
More broadly, as a driver of this national project, this occupation has emerged out of the country’s own aspirational flights from an earlier history of authoritarian rule, labor violence, and xenophobia. Against the backdrop of the Korean state’s aggressive neoliberal restructuring, globalization efforts, and current “Hell Chosun” (Helchosŏn) economy, a group of largely academically and/or class disadvantaged young women have been able secure individualized modes of pleasure, self-fulfillment, and class advancement via what I deem “service mobilities.” Service mobilities refers to the participation of mostly women in a traditionally devalued but growing sector of the global labor market, the “pink collar” economy centered around “feminine” care labor. Korean female flight attendants share labor skills resembling those of other foreign labor migrants (chiefly from the “Global South”), who perform care work deemed less desirable. Yet, Korean female flight attendants elude the stigmatizing, classed, and racialized category of “labor migrant.” Moreover, within the context of South Korea’s unique history of rapid modernization, the flight attendant occupation also commands considerable social prestige.
Based on ethnographic and archival research on aspiring, current, and former Korean flight attendants, this dissertation asks how these unique care laborers negotiate a metaphorical and literal series of sustained border crossings and inspections between Korean flight attendants’ contingent status as lowly care-laboring migrants, on the one hand, and ostensibly glamorous, globetrotting elites, on the other. This study contends the following: first, the flight attendant occupation in South Korea represents new politics of pleasure and pain in contemporary East Asia. Second, Korean female flight attendants’ enactments of soft, sanitized, and glamorous (hwaryŏhada) service help to purify South Korea’s less savory past. In so doing, Korean flight attendants reconstitute the historical role of female laborers as burden bearers and caretakers of the Korean state.