Borderline cases_ #6: “The Third Korea”

In 1994 I made a journey through the province of Jilin and the Yanbian region in China, interested in the Korean Chinese community and the state of mind in this border territory. What follows is an impression of that trip in 1994 compared to recent developments in this area. First an intro to put the history and role of this ethnic Korean community in a clearer perspective.

map copyright © Thompson & Carla Freeman, 2009 No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

China formally has ~55 ethnic minorities, many of whom live in border areas. Best known are the Tibetans and Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, a minority Turkic ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. The Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs has made many headlines recently.

In the 19th century the Chinese empire lost control of its borders and foreign powers invaded its border regions. Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, one of the top priorities of the Communist government has been to secure its borders to ensure its national security and territorial integrity. It has tried to subject the ethnic minorities in those border regions to the dominant Han culture and force them to be loyal to the Chinese state.

In the ’90’s over 90% of the total Korean ethnic minority in China could be found in the red colored areas. The total number of Chosonjok or Korean Chinese, amounted to >1.9M according to a Chinese national census in 1990


An ethnic minority making less headlines is the Chaoxianzu (in Chinese) or Chosõnjok (in Korean), Chinese of Korean descent, located in northeastern China (formerly Manchuria), in particular in the so-called “autonomous prefecture” Yanbian, in Jilin province. The Korean diaspora started in full in the early 19th century when natural disasters and poverty drove entire groups of Koreans from mainly the north of their country across the border to China. Around 1890 the last imperial ruler of China deliberately let large numbers of Chinese and Koreans enter the remote, sparsely populated northeast of China, hoping they could halt the advance of Russian troops.

In the end not Russia but Japan turned out to be the biggest threat. The Japanese occupied Korea from 1910, also bringing Manchuria under their control. The later leader of communist North Korea, Kim Il-sung, organized the anti-Japanese resistance in this desolate area. All kinds of Korean Chinese resistance groups fiercely battled the Japanese. Most of those groups joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)….The guerrilla war against the Japanese in this isolated region was mainly conducted by Chinese Koreans and North Korean communists, not by (Han) Chinese. Once the civil war with the Chinese nationalists under Chang Kai-shek took all of Mao Zedong’s and the CCP’s attention in the 1940s, communist Russia stepped into the power vacuum, strengthening its hold on the North Korean communist party. The latter became heavily dependent on Moscow for military supplies.

Kim Il-sung leading the anti Japanese guerilla fighters: mosaic on the way to the top of Mt. Paektu on the North Korean side of this volcanic mountain © Photo: 2013

The Japanese capitulation and the subsequent Cold War divided the Korean peninsula in two. The invasion of the UN supported South Korea by communist North Korean forces triggered the Korean War (1950-1953). America and South Korea became the new common enemy of Chinese and Korean Communists. Many Korean Chinese from Jilin committed themselves to the fight against South Korea & the USA during this period. In return for their services they were granted limited self-government in Yanbian in 1952 by the Chinese government, officially to “protect Korean culture and traditions”. Northeast China harboured over a million ethnic Koreans around this time. More than 60% of the local population in Yanbian was of Korean origin. Strong cultural, historical and emotional links with North Korea grew out of the Korean war. A number of Korean Chinese also held high positions in the Chinese Communist Party and in Yanbian in the 1950s and 60s because of their contributions to the CCP and struggle against the USA.

Yanbian in 1994

During my bus and train journeys throughout Jilin in 1994 it’s becoming cristal clear that South Korea is no longer considered the arch-enemy. China established diplomatic relations with South Korea 2 years earlier. In the 1980s Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping first opened the coast of southern China to the outside world, in the early 1990s it was finally Jilin’s turn (see Tumen delta project, borderline cases # 1: Since the normalization of the diplomatic relations, plenty of pioneering South Korean businessmen are making trips to Yanbian: they hope to benefit from the Korean-speaking community in the region to build up a joint venture or engage in trade. A number of those businessmen travel on the same buses and trains as I do to explore this uncharted territory.

Yanji, June 1994 Foto: E.R.

In Yanji, the capital of Yanbian, Korean is spoken on every street corner, while posters and traffic signs show Chinese and Korean texts. More than half of the ~ 350,000 population is of Korean descent. The city can’t be called a tourist attraction: though it is laid-back, it doesn’t look particularly inviting. Several Korean schools can be spotted in the centre of the city. South Korean cultural influences or companies are not noticable yet. It is very quiet here anyway. Yanji is all but a booming town, there is little industrial activity. While China has opened its doors to foreign trade, those of neighbouring North Korea have remain closed. The Chinese Koreans in Yanbian don’t profit from their proximity to North Korea. About all they can get are bombastic broadcasts of North Korea’s state channel, which everybody wisely prefers to ignore….

Streetposter in Yanji, June 1994 in Chinese and Korean advertising “new condos in Korean style” Photo: E.R.
Typical farm in Yanbian, June 1994 Photo: E.R.

In Yanbian I make various trips to its border villages and towns. The countryside looks in general pretty desolate, depressing and impoverished.

Longjing, about 20 km outside of Yanji, is the town where many Korean communist and nationalist exiles sought refuge in the 1930s-40s: in those days it was the the cultural center of the Korean community. The joint education in Longjing and hatred of the Japanese occupant didn’t result in one unified vision of the future of Korea among the anti-Japanese resistance: some who grew up here ended up playing a prominent role in the South Korean governments of the 50s-60s, many others in Communist North Korea. Of the originally six Korean schools, only the Kwangmyong high school (Longjing Diyi Zhongxue) has remained, the other old school buildings have been demolished. According to the locals, the six schools “voluntarily merged into” the Kwangmyong as early as 1946. Another explanation could obviously be that those institutions not adhering to communist ideology were shut down immediately after the Chinese Communist Party gained full power in the area.

Longjing Korean museum, June 1994 Foto: E.R.

The Korean Chinese museum on the hill near Longjing is said to cover the history of the Korean-Chinese community, its contribution to the resistance against Japan and to the rise of the CCP. Unfortunately it isn’t open on the day of my visit. That’s a real pity: it is always illuminating to see how the Chinese government likes to portray the role of China’s ethnic minorities in the build up of the People’s Republic. Clearly Longjing no longer is the cultural center of the Chinese Korean community: it is a gray, drab place filled with ugly buildings. It offers little entertainment and has almost no signs, architecture or activities linked to Korean culture.

The restored Kwangmyong high school in Longjing, to the left in white the new building, June 1994 Photo; E.R.
Little church in Longjing: in the 19th century Canadian missionaries settled in this town. Christianity kept a certain popularity among the Chosonjok, despite the religious repression by the CCP. Photo: E.R., Juni 1994

In Hunchun further up north a Korean Chinese restaurant owner tells me that he wants to get out within a year: he has no more faith in the future of Hunchun’s international economic zone and Yanbian prefecture. He is originally from Jilin city, about 400 kilometers west of Hunchun. The local government wants to develop Hunchun and is generous in granting permits for new business ventures in Hunchun, even for those coming from far away, he claims. But foreign investments and tourists have not come, he has to turn every dime to make a living. Future prospects are poor: the North Koreans across the border live in poverty and isolation and Russians do hardly show up around here. Western tourists ignore Hunchun. The city does not vibrate or appeal: today’s best entertainment is a group of older women dressed in traditional Korean clothing, whose ethnic music can’t thrill the small audience.

tourist hot spot in Yanji, June 1994 Photo: E.R.

The Korean Chinese people I meet in Yanbian no longer identify themselves with North Korea. A number of them blame Pyongyang for not giving China back enough in exchange for all the Chinese support. They accuse Kim Il-sung of blocking a close relationship between the two countries. Others feel sorry for their poor neighbor, and mock the regime in Pyongyang for having been too close to the Russians. Others express concerns over the fate of relatives or acquaintances over there. Perhaps only the Korean Chinese war veterans still have a strong emotional bond with North Korea: I can’t corroborate as I don’t meet any of them on my journey…

Yanji, street scene, June 1994 foto: E.R.

Mr Li Lin, a co-passenger on one of my bus trips, tells me he has lived in Manpo in North Korea until 1982. In the 1960s his parents fled the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in Jilin and settled on the other side of the Ji’an border. Today, he knows, there are food shortages in Manpo, a city of ~100,000 inhabitants. His Korean Chinese family pre-empted this misery by already returning to China in the early 1980s. He would rather not discuss how he and his family managed to get back to the Chinese side of the border. He does, however, talk frankly about his trading company that tried to import wood from North Korea. The timber originated in Siberia (in the late 90’s a few news agencies started to highlight the horrific conditions under which North Korean forced laborers were put to work there, E.R.) and would be delivered to him via North Korea. But as the supply got frequently interrupted because of the unreliable North Korean transport system, Mr. Lin decided to put on hold his business plans with North Korea.

South Korea is still relatively unknown to many in the Korean-Chinese community. For many decades Chinese propaganda portrayed Seoul as the arch-enemy. No one highly praises this neighbor in public or calls it their homeland. Yet the Korean Chinese are very aware that South Korea is more prosperous than China: a few have old family roots or even a relative studying in South Korea. The community in Yanbian does finally receive regular updates on the developments in South Korea.

Longjing, June 1994 foto: E.R.

The Korean Chinese I meet may not feel 100% Chinese, but they do seem genuinely happy with the opportunities the Chinese government is providing them, although some are dissatisfied with the slow pace of progress in Jilin province. I don’t encounter feelings of enormous resentment or aversion towards the Chinese government or Han population during my trip. What the chosõnjok seems to care about most of all is an opportunity to make money and build a decent living..

2019_Recent developments in Jilin and Yanbian

China’s trade relationship with South Korea has been booming since the 1990s and now completely overshadows its trade ties with North Korea. Jilin and Yanbian have increasingly set their eyes on Seoul. Nevertheless, large South Korean investments are still absent in this area. The South Korean conglomerates prefer locations near Beijing, Shanghai or Dalian with more international appeal, super modern infrastructure and a highly educated population. Others say the Chinese government is discouraging South Korean investments in Yanbian for fear of stirring Korean nationalism. What can’t be denied is the fact numerous young Korean Chinese in Yanbian have meanwhile moved south to those very modern, urbanized places. Those with bilingual skills easily find a job in South Korean companies in the big Chinese cities.

from “Identity Politics and the Meaning of Homeland among Korean Chinese Migrants in South Korea” , Changzoo Song, 2014, © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

Initially the South Korean government welcomed Korean Chinese who wanted to study, work or even settle in South Korea. But once the “South Korean fever” rapidly caught on and the Chosõnjok’s visa applications went through the roof, Seoul issued restrictions that should prevent too many Korean Chinese from permanently moving to South Korea. Those measures are described or perceived by the Chosõnjok as discriminatory and “anti-Korean” because other overseas Koreans do not face the same restrictions. In 2018 there were reportedly close to 700,000 (!) Korean Chinese temporarily studying, working or staying in South Korea, nevertheless. Nowadays everyone in Yanbian seems to have a family member in South Korea who transfers part of his hard earned money to the family back home. Yanbian benefits enormously from its ties with South Korea, but at the same time faces an exodus of young people.

View on modern Yanji, Yanbian photo: © KTG

Nowadays only about 30% of the population of Yanbian is of ethnic Korean origin, while the (Han) Chinese population has increased rapidly. In comparison, in 2000 there were still around 215,000 Chosõnjok in Yanji out of a total of around 430,000 residents. In 2018 the figure for ethnic Koreans is closer to 130,000 out of a population of just above 400,000. The Korean Chinese are struggling with a negative population growth and an exodus from the country side: recent estimates speak of around 1.8 million Chosõnjok in all of China versus nearly 2 million about 20 years ago. In Hunchun, the hub of the Tumen delta project with its international economic zone, the vast majority of the population is Han Chinese. Moreover, the administration of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture is firmly in Han Chinese hands, self-government exists only in name for the Chosõnjok.

Beijing remains wary of South Korea and South Korean nationalism. Ultra-nationalists in Seoul even claim Yanbian as “the 3rd Korea”. Perhaps China is really deliberately restricting South Korean investment in and migration to Jilin Province for fear it could stir up Korean nationalism in the region. Whether this fear would be justified is questionable: many Chosõnjok feel treated as second-class citizens by South Korea and do not support any abrasive South Korean nationalism.

The times South Korea or the South Korean government displayed excessive nationalism in Chinese eyes, Beijing immediately retaliated by stopping Chinese tourism to the Korean peninsula or blocking South Korean TV broadcasts in Yanbian. Despite the broad and flourishing economic ties, the relationship between the two countries continues to be hampered by mutual distrust and nationalistic sentiments.

Table showing the decrease of Korean Schools in Yanbian, ©
History and Identity: Chosunjok in Yanbian, Stephen Denney and Christoper Green, july 2 2018 No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

The Hallyu, the South Korean tsunami of pop, entertainment and TV drama, has flooded Yanbian. Ironically simultaneously “the 3rd Korea” is becoming less and less Korean. The stagnating population growth and the exodus of the Korean Chinese have led to the closure of many Korean schools. Korean parents prefer Chinese schools in order to increase the career opportunities for their children. The chosõnjok is the highest educated ethnic minority in China, yet in Chinese schools he or she will most likely be taught little or nothing about the specific role of the Korean Chinese in China and in the history of the PRC.

North Korean textbooks are no longer used in (Korean) education in Yanbian: the death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994 marked the end of an era for China. The North Korean cultural influence in Yanbian has almost disappeared. The impoverised and reclusive North Korea has completely lost its appeal as a mother country for most Korean Chinese, especially since the war veterans have passed away.

China’s own nationalism is also rapidly growing. The history of the border regions is being rewritten to explain the border populations are either of Chinese descent or have always been under Chinese rule. Korean Chinese sacrifices in the fight against the Japanese and for the restoration of Chinese territorial integrity are being hailed: their role in the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or in the CCP given less emphasis.

The identity of the Chosõnjok

Could “a 3rd Korea” manifest itself if North and South Korea would ever reunite? Or will it not cause any stir at all? Overall Beijing seems fairly reassured the Korean Chinese minority has been assimilated with the dominant Han culture and can be kept under control. This confidence has also made China enthusiastically breathe new life into the Tumen delta project. It cannot be completely ruled out, however, that an eventual sovereignty claim by a reunited Korea over Mt Paektu, the symbol of the Korean nation which currently is partly in Chinese hands (see borderline cases # 4:, could count on support from at least a part of the Korean Chinese community in Yanbian. The future will tell.

The loyalty of the Korean Chinese to Beijing is by no means limitless as evidenced by the fact that an underground network in Yanbian and Jilin is still helping North Korean refugees getting out of China instead of reporting them to the local Chinese police as Beijing has explicitly demanded. Assimilation has not been successful in every respect: mixed marriages between Han Chinese and Chosõnjok are the exception rather than the rule.

Depending on his/her personal circumstances, history and experience, a Korean Chinese could perhaps identify with a Chinese, a South Korean or – in a rare case- even with a North Korean identity. Beijing will never be completely without worries about this ethnic group in this complex region in northeast China. For the time being affinity with a Chinese identity and China is prevalent among the Chosõnjok, no doubt to the relief and content of the Chinese government.

for recent news on Yanbian, see:

see also Sébastien Colin “A border opening onto numerous geopolitical issues The Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture” april 2003

BOGOOK KIM, “FORGOTTEN ERA, FORGOTTEN PEOPLE: THE NORTH KOREAN DIASPORA” Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Republic of Korea, 2014