Invited by North Korea, South Koreans from Jeju Island visit a building dedicated to promoting international relations last week. / Yonhap
By Andrei Lankov
Until recently it would have been just a minor exaggeration to say that Korea is a country without national minorities. The only exception to this rule are the ethnic Chinese who began to move to Korea in the late 19th century. Nowadays, South Korea is home to some 20,000 ethnic Chinese who are considered citizens of Taiwan.
North Korea also has its ethnic Chinese community, whose members, needless to say, hold passports of the People's Republic of China. The ethnic Chinese of the North are descendants of people who moved there in the 19th century. In the late 1940s, most of them went back, but a few chose to stay, creating a small but unusual community, one of the few minorities in a society which sees its own homogeneity as a source of pride.
From the very beginning of their history, the North Korean huaqiao (as foreign nationals of China are known) found themselves in an unusual and controversial situation. Their presence was not really welcomed: in the 1950s and early 1960s the North Korean authorities went to great length to "cleanse" the land of all non-Korean elements, including citizens of supposedly friendly countries. Hence, the Chinese were strongly encouraged to go back to China.
However, the Chinese themselves were not very enthusiastic about this move: most of them had spent their entire lives in Korea. It was also important that China in the 1960s and 1970s was in an even worse state than North Korea. It had lower living standards, and hardly fared much better in terms of political freedom: Kim Il-sung's dictatorship might have been bizarre, but it was more predictable and perhaps less brutal than the moody rule of Chairman Mao. People still went to China, to be sure, but they were not in a hurry.
According to a 2001 Chinese publication which cited North Korean sources, in 1958 in the North there were 3,778 Chinese households comprising 14,351 members. In the 1960s numbers dropped on account of the ban on private economic activity, the forced collectivization of agriculture, and the nationalist policies of Pyongyang. These factors conspired to drive the ethnic Chinese away. Thus, by 1980 numbers had fallen to a mere 6,000, of whom half reportedly resided in Pyongyang with most of the balance living near the North Korean border with China.
The situation of the North Korean huaqiao was difficult to describe in one word: they were both discriminated against and privileged. As foreigners, they could not become members of the Korean Workers Party, and this alone made them ineligible for many possible careers (well, no department in the administration or bureaucracy would take them on anyway). However, children of small vendors and vegetable farmers hardly felt too bad when they realized that they would never become district party secretaries or army colonels, their aspirations were milder.
At the same time, the huaqiao were exempt from the many obligations of the average North Korean. For example, they were allowed to have radio sets with free tuning, on the condition that they would not tune in to anything but the official broadcast if some locals were present nearby. They did not attend the boring and time-consuming indoctrination sessions. And one also might surmise that they also enjoyed a much less likelihood of being arrested for some minor improper ties.
Like the ethnic Chinese in South Korea, the North Korean huaqiao have their own schools. According to the same publication, cited by Kim Min-se, in the late 1990s in North Korea there were four Chinese middle schools where students, young citizens of the People's Republic, studied according to the Chinese curriculum. There were primary schools as well.
However, of all the privileges the most important one was their right to trade. From around 1980, the Korean huaqiao were allowed to go to China or invite their relatives to North Korea. This meant that they were the only group (at least, outside the narrow inner circle of the top families) whose members could go overseas more or less at will. In the 1980s China was beginning its remarkable economic overhaul, and the possibility of using a price differential between two closed markets is the dream of any astute merchant. In few years, most huaqiao made trade their main or only source of income.
They moved back and forth, selling seafood, frog oil, mushrooms and other exotic products, which play an unusually important role in North Korean foreign trade, to China. From China, they brought in garments, cloth, cheap electronics and household items. In the mid-1990s, during the famine, food became a major import item as well. Everything was sold at huge profits, and from around 1990 every huaqiao was seen as a rich person, almost by definition.
However, the numbers of North Korean huaqiao are said to be dwindling nonetheless. The lure of successful China is too great, so they often prefer to leave. They stay in touch with their connections in the North and maintain their business networks, but now they reside in the more comfortable and secure environment of modern China. Their desire to give their children a better education also plays a major role in the repatriation process, another similarity with the shrinking Chinese community in the South.
However, there is another move afoot as well: some Chinese are moving to North Korea to start businesses there, and they might just lay the foundations for a new huaqiao community. But that will be another story, of course