History and Identity: Chosunjok in Yanbian

By and | July 02, 2018 | No Comments

Calm at the eye of a cultural storm: Yanbian University viewed from the Seoul-based Café Bene across the street. | Image: Sino-NK

Transformations are all the rage these days. Thanks to a rare and even bizarre alignment of interests and actions, the potential now seems real for significant alteration to the negative dynamics which have characterized the US-North Korea relationship, inter-Korean relations and even (from the North Korean perspective) the sanctions regime along the Chinese-North Korean border. Amid the focus on these emerging master narratives and well-known relationships, it is easy to lose sight of smaller and more intricate identities which, like the proverbial shrimp, slip in between and interact with these splashing whales.

China’s ethnically Korean population is one such group that deserves more careful attention amidst the ongoing noise and debate. Whether concerning North Korea’s future, China’s role with respect to the Korean peninsula, the movement of people, ideas, and capital between the two Koreas, the Chosunjok, or Chinese-Korean population, requires more discussion.

To the extent that this group attracts academic, political, and economic attention, much of it comes from the two Koreas, both of which harbor a long-standing anxiousness about understanding — the better to influence — ethnic Korean diasporas worldwide. Existing research that focuses on Chinese-Koreans has looked at how this group of ethnic Koreans has been categorized by one or both of the Korean states, or how the migratory back-and-forth between South Korea and China has affected the everyday life and identity of those who migrate and those left behind. 

As we at Sino-NK move toward the production of an edited volume for Amsterdam University Press focusing on the Sino-Korean border region, Steven Denney and Christopher Green preview some of their research data collected on several recent journeys to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the six bilingual counties on the eastern edge of the PRC’s Jilin province and a significant Chinese interface with the Korean peninsula. — Adam Cathcart, Senior Editor

History and Identity: Chosunjok in Yanbian1)This article draws from post-fieldwork reports published as articles in NK NewsThe Diplomat, in addition to a longer report (forthcoming).

by Steven Denney and Christopher Green

In 1978, when the economy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began to open up, the country was in a mess. A year or so later, GDP per capita was still a mere $300.2)In the nearby Republic of Korea (South Korea) it was already $1,700, and in the Republic of China (Taiwan) it had reached $2,300. The Japanese figure was already over $9,000. Economically speaking, the PRC lagged all the other states in East Asia, apart perhaps from North Korea. Now fast forward to today. The Chinese figure, at $7,000 GDP per capita, means that life in urban areas of the country, most noticeably in the industrial powerhouses of the east coast, has changed beyond all recognition in just two generations.

What, then, is the impact of both China’s rapid past growth and potential for future expansion on the integration into the national economy and politics of the country’s ethnic Korean minority, known in Korean as Chosunjok (조선족)? A net inflow of money from Chinese-Koreans working abroad and generally improving economic conditions in most of China has fueled a small boom in development in the autonomous Korean prefecture, Yanbian. The area shows no sign whatsoever of the kind of ethnic unrest seen elsewhere in China’s periphery. But what appears at face value to be a successful policy of integration, also raises questions.

First, has the Chosunjok population truly been integrated into the Chinese nation, or is this merely what officials in Beijing some 1400km away — or 9 hours by high-speed rail, to use another metric — keenly want to believe and to make observers think? Second, what impact do changing regional circumstances, not only in the PRC but also in the ROK and DPRK, have on the opinions and attitudes of this population towards their putative ethnic homeland? Lastly, what is the relationship between the ethnic identity of this Chinese minority group and their attitudes towards China and the two Koreas?

In this essay, drawing from surveys, interviews, and fieldwork conducted in the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in the spring/summer months of 2016 and 2017, we provide insight and preliminary answers.3)The survey (n=43) was conducted with current Yanbian residents between the ages of 19-29, either in university or newly graduated and employed. The survey asked questions about the respondents’ degree of identification with either North or South Korea, using questions similar to those employed in the International Social Survey Programme’s battery of national identity questions. Originally, we crafted our questionnaires to also consider respondents’ opinions regarding their Chinese national identity, but these questions were removed upon request from our local research assistants, who cautioned against asking these questions due to their politically sensitive nature.e A dozen follow-up interviews were conducted with survey-takers; these interviews took place in Yanji, the capital of Yanbian. Interviews with professors and diplomats took place across China, although several took place in Yanbian.

China: From Revolutionary Angst to Desirable Stability? | The research was premised on the proposition that of Jilin’s ethnic Korean population, a majority were likely to identify in some way with at least one or both Koreas. It further hypothesized the existence of a sense of pride in the achievements of South Korea in particular. Both assumptions were based on prior knowledge of the historically strong Korean influence on the ethno-national identity of the Yanbian region, and of the contemporary impact of South Korean cultural productions not only in Yanbian but across Asia.

To test these propositions, we asked a group of Chinese Korean respondents whether they feel “close” to South Korea (ROK) or North Korea (DPRK) and whether they have “pride” in the achievements of either country. Responses are shown below (click images to enlarge).


The findings show that, among our respondents, young Chinese Koreans don’t feel particularly close to either Korea, and nor do they identify with the achievements of either Korea. To them, the two Koreas are third countries, and ambivalence or indifference is in the ascendance.4)The “pride” responses in the aggregate show an identical lack of identification with either North or South Korea. If we consider responses to individual items (economic achievements or international influence) there is a notable identification with South Korea and a lack thereof with North Korea — as we might expect. However, overall, there is no notable difference. Given current circumstances, that is not surprising. In the absence of state failure or barriers to political and economic participation, citizens tend to feel closest to the country in which they live and have citizenship. For ethnic Koreans, that is China. 

However, it has not always been that way, and it is this that makes the findings significant. Had previous generations of ethnic Korean been polled during their youth, the data would likely tell a different tale. Some things have changed. 

Patriotic anti-Japanese education in Wangqing county, PRC Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, circa 2010. | Image: Yanbian History Museum.

China Then and Now: Changing Sources of National Identification | The period of the Korean War was an exceptional one for ethnic Koreans in China, a time in which several thousand Koreans who had moved north during the late 19th and early 20th centuries retraced their steps to participate in the Korean War of 1950-1953 as Chinese “volunteers,” many as interpreters. Although designated as Chinese combatants during the conflict, the perceived legitimacy of the fight to restore North Korea’s sovereign integrity was a motivating factor. Publications written by and for Chinese Koreans during the war, as well as contemporaneous monuments built in Northeast China, emphasize that the responsibilities of socialist internationalism could and should reinforce feelings of national and ethnic pride. This anecdotally implies a strong sense of closeness and perception of duty. The notion of China and North Korea as “like lips and teeth” was and remains a political construct, but for the dwindling number of those who fought alongside one another in northern Korea in 1950-53, the emotional bonds are real and lasting.

Conversely, for people born decades after the war ended, there is often limited connection to the Korean War, and no comparable instance of shared suffering to replace it. In focus group discussion, two respondents, referred to anonymously here as A(M) and A(W)5)A refers to a de-identified respondent; the M or W refers to their gender. Quotes were translated by the authors., reflected the generational shift that this highlights:

A(M): “[For older generations] there is the experience of war, and there could be the experience of migration, too. My grandfather’s generation used to live on the Korean peninsula, and either my grandfather came [to Yanbian] or my father did when he was young.”

A(W): “These days we cannot imagine that. It is not that we don’t think about it, it is that we just cannot feel it the way they do.”

If the Korean War demanded sacrifices from Chinese Koreans, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) wreaked utter havoc in the Chinese Korean community. Theoretically speaking, the rapid collectivization of the Great Leap Forward signaled the belief, harbored by Mao, that the preparatory phase of integration was over, and that for ethnic minorities, close adherence to Han-Chinese communist patterns could start.6)For more, see: June Teufel Dreyer, China’s Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People’s Republic of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), esp. p. 276. 

Chosunjok women in conversation at an ideological study session a few months prior to the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (Beijing, March 1966). | Image: Minzu Huabao

During the decade of the Cultural Revolution, social upheaval in Yanbian was equally immense. The chairman of the CCP Party Committee in Yanbian, Cho Dok-hae, was “struggled against” and accused of being an agent for North Korea. Advocates of Korean-language education were persecuted and Yanbian University itself was turned into a cauldron of violence personally stimulated and distantly managed by Mao.7)Dong-jo Shin’s scholarship on Korean-language repression and anti-Korean violence in Yanbian by Han Chinese during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution brings real immediacy to the perils faced by ethnic Koreans in Yanbian. Shin has written an exciting chapter for our upcoming volume, Decoding the Sino-North Korean Borderlands.

Thus, in the late 1960s and early 1970s,  the migratory trend was the opposite of the one we see today. Ethnically Korean residents to return to North Korea, which was then relatively stable and comparatively prosperous. It was North Korea that provided a haven from political violence taking place north of Mt. Paektu. Predictably, many of those who crossed the Yalu or Tumen rivers and their families also felt a strong affinity for North Korea long after they returned to China, one that left them feeling closer to North Korea and the Korean Workers’ Party than to China and the CCP.

B(M): In my father’s generation, there could be lots of people like that. You know, it’s what, let’s see… I guess it is just a different way of thinking.

A(W): As I said before, I can’t judge it like am I “proud” or “not proud” [of North or South Korea]. We don’t have that feeling, and so we can’t say clearly that we are “proud” or “not proud.” But the elderly have those experiences….”

Prominent intellectuals in Yanbian corroborated these views in their answers to the question, “How do Chinese Koreans identity themselves?” Young Korean Chinese, everyone agreed, identify as Chinese, and this does indeed mark them and their identity as different from that of their parents and especially their grandparents. The young have none or very limited direct experience of the suffering that accompanied the Korean War and China’s two great social upheavals. Korean heritage is a far less salient component of youth identity than it is among older cohorts.  

The process of Chinese “étatization” in the minds of young Chinese Koreans has been expedited by a combination of factors.8)“Étatization” describes the process by which the state encroaches upon the private individual’s time and co-opts his or her identity. The term is useful in cases where an ordinarily comparable term, “nationalization,” is inappropriate because state and nation are not isomorphic, and the actions of one may be inimical to the interests of the other. For more see: Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism & What Comes Next? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996): 82. The process of reform and opening in China after 1978 marked the beginning of the end of a prolonged period of economic uncertainty whose ultimate effect was to make the Korean peninsula less attractive as a target for migration. At the same time, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and discrediting of that state’s model of public education (as well as events in Tiananmen Square in June 1989) prompted a re-calibration of China’s national policy towards ethnic minority education.

C(M): “The most important thing [to our identity] is having been educated here. Since we were young we have received all of our politics and education [in China].”

The decline of public education provision in the Korean language drove shifting identities, according to a 2010 article by Lee Gil-nam. Citing Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture Office of Education numbers, Lee shows that of 1,106 Korean elementary schools in the Yanbian autonomous region in 1990, by 1999 this was down to just 138 and 31 another decade after that. In the same period, 155 middle schools withered to 49 in 1999 and 27 in 2009, and 25 high schools shrank back to 19 in 1999. A further six high schools closed in the following ten years. The same pattern has been repeated — and amplified — elsewhere in Jilin. In 1991, there were 26 Korean middle schools in Liuhe County, an administrative district of the industrial city of Tonghua in the west of the province. By 2011 there remained only one. Another of Tonghua’s administrative areas, Ji’an, which borders the North Korean town of Manpo, had 14 schools in 1991, but in 2011 this number was also one. 

Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture Office of Education numbers, cited in Lee (2010). | Image: Sino-NK

In anecdotal conversations with inhabitants in smaller Chinese Korean cities like Longjing, it became clear that Korean-language education even in the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture needed to be actively sought out by families, rather than offered as a matter of course by the state. Relatively lavish newly-built “cultural facilities” cater to Beijing-centric film and consumer culture, rather than the revival or maintenance of the Korean language. 

Korean culture under construction by (and control of) the Chinese Communist Party. | Image: Yanbian News

The pertinence of the shifting education landscape to processes of identity formation cannot be overstated. In our focus group, Chinese national education was repeatedly cited as one of if not the vital tool in cultivating a sense of Chinese subjecthood among ethnic Korean children.

D(M): “There is nothing about the history of our nation (minjok) in Chinese education.”

A(W): “We only learn about the culture back when Chosun was one nation. Our understanding of Hanguk (한국; South Korea) and Bukchosun (북조선; North Korea) is not great. All that is left is our understanding of the Chosun nation. It is all ‘We are one nation, one nation.’ That’s the root of it.”

Education about ethnicities is part of the Chinese education process, but education about other states, including the ROK and DPRK, is treated in the same way as a British youth might learn the history of France or Germany, or a Canadian might approach the study of his or her southern neighbor. The Koreas are taught as places abroad — foreign lands. Perusal of the permanent exhibitions at the newly-constructed Yanbian Korean History Museum reinforces this conception very clearly. Korean independence movements against Japan are essentially merged into the Chinese anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle in the region in the 1930s, and North Koreans who participated to help the CCP in its war against the Guomindang from 1945-1949, like Gang Sintae, are identified only as members of the Chinese Korean minority.  

Our findings indicate that young ethnic Koreans in China, at least those to whom we had access, feel a greater sense of closeness to the local region (town or city and prefecture or province) than to China or any other state. In that, they are no different to most other people. However, at the level of the nation-state, they do appear to have been firmly integrated into the Chinese nation by the education system, which caters, quite predictably, to the requirements of modern China. And while those who hold a strong ethnic identity feel less close to China than those who do not, even this group feels closer to China than to either of the Koreas.

Conclusion | The decades prior to the death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994 and subsequent famine were the high-water mark of North Korean influence in the Yanbian region. North Korean books flowed into the region’s universities and public libraries, where many of them linger dustily to this day, and the local newspaper, the Yanbian Ilbo, regularly published pieces by journalists from the North Korean Cabinet’s own daily Minju Chosun. Ethnic Koreans from the region embraced opportunities for upward mobility that took them to Pyongyang.9)One of today’s prominent Han Chinese politicians, Liaoning native Zhang Dejiang, studied economics at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang from 1978-80.

The early 1990s was the inflection point; the moment of transition to South Korean influence. Beijing normalized relations with the ROK in August 1992, precipitating ethnic Korean migration from China to South Korea and infuriating the North Korean government. South Korean money began to flow in, and culture naturally followed. Today, South Korean goods are common in Yanbian stores and its cultural industries are widely enjoyed via satellite television.10)Long gone are the days when the Chinese authorities would fulminate over the South Korean “cultural invasion” and send out teams to look for those homes furtively using satellite dishes to access South Korean broadcasts.

With the normalization of PRC-ROK relations and arrival of South Korean cultural production in Chinese homes, the preferred destination for outward bound ethnic Koreans shifted totally. Today, a steady stream of ethnic Korean youth still attends South Korean graduate schools, where they collect “spec” in the form of advanced degrees. Nobody considers Kim Il-sung University to be a viable alternative.

Therefore, if we were to view the two Koreas as being in competition for diaspora loyalty, a very common way for Northeast Asian geopolitical conditions to be viewed from the outside, then the South would be winning. In terms of support for the North Korean state, there is some residual support culturally and historically among those, mostly older and with a stronger ethnic identity, but barring any sudden, substantive, and long-term reversal of political and economic fortunes, the North-South divide will persist in its current form, and likely widen.

However, the “loyalty competition” lens doesn’t do justice to the social processes underway. Our data calls loudly for caution against this bifurcated view. Our interviewees identify far more closely with China than with either North or South Korea. Notably, the emotional bonds to Korea are greatly weakened. Korean Chinese students go to South Korea to acquire advanced degrees, but ultimately relocate back to the big cities of China. The relationship they have with either Korea is primarily functional — as a place to study or do business. The dominant identity in Yanbian today is Chinese. Both Koreas are losing ground to China, the place that young ethnic Koreans identify as home.

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