It is obvious now that there are two Koreas in the world. There is another area, though, that is often referred to as the third Korea: large parts of Northeast China, near the Sino-Korean border, where much of the population is Korean. Historically speaking, the parts of Northeast China known as Manchuria were an area where the first Korean states originated. In first centuries of the Christian era, this area was the center of the mighty Koguryo kingdom, which for a long time has been seen by the Koreans as one of the progenitors of their nationhood. This even enabled some Korean nationalists in the early 1900s to lay claim to significant parts of Manchuria as ancestral lands. These claims are frequently repeated by Korean nationalists nowadays.
However, the numerous Koreans who now inhabit the area have nothing to do with the Koguryo people: While descendants of the Koguryo have remained in the area, they were completely assimilated centuries ago into the Manchus and other ethnic groups which inhabited the Manchurian plains for millennia. What present-day Koreans are there now are overwhelmingly the descendants of farmers who began to migrate to Manchuria from northern part of Korea in the 1880s.
Interestingly, the ethnic Chinese, who now form the overwhelming majority of the population of the region, are also newcomers: their ancestors began to arrive in Manchuria around the same time. There is a good reason why the colonization of Manchuria began so late: From 1644 to 1911, the entirety of China was run by the Qing Dynasty, once established by Manchu tribal warlords. The Qing dynasty rulers did not want either Chinese, Koreans or, for that matter, any other agriculturalists to be permanently present in the areas that they saw as their ancestral lands. Thus, non-Manchu settlement in Manchuria was strictly prohibited, and such bans were effectively enforced.
Northeast China remained a land of opportunity for Koreans, and by 1930, some 600,000 Koreans resided in the area
Only when the power of Qing dynasty began to wane, the old restrictions were lifted in the 1860-1880s, whereupon farmers from neighboring regions in the rest of China and in Korea began to flee their overpopulated native villages and move to the still-underdeveloped areas in ever growing numbers.
Government policies in the area changed periodically, as did the governments themselves. But until 1945, Northeast China remained a land of opportunity for Koreans, and by 1930, some 600,000 Koreans resided in the area. They composed some 2 percent of the population of China’s three northeastern provinces. However, in the areas adjacent to the border between the two countries, the share of ethnic Koreans was much higher, sometimes as high as 70 or 80 percent.
RIPE FOR THE TAKING
From the very beginning, ethnic Korean settlers found a profitable economic niche: They began to specialize in the cultivation of paddy rice fields. Most Chinese settlers came from the far south and thus did not know how to grow rice in the cold climate of Manchuria. Unlike them, the Korean farmers had been accustomed to very similar conditions and, as a result, they did very well. By 1930, some 85 percent of all paddy fields in the area belonged to the Koreans and this made them rich because paddy fields were far more productive, and also three times more valuable than dry rice fields.
Until the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, migration was largely driven by economic factors. But during the colonial era, it acquired some political dimensions. Historians in both South and North Korea present Manchuria as a major site of the Korean independence movement, and to a large extent this was the case, though the actual picture is far more complex than historians of both Koreas would have us believe.
Manchuria became a natural place for Koreans who did not feel comfortable with Japanese colonial rule, or who wanted to challenge it, to flee to. Compared to other regions in which Korean communities were present, Manchuria had a lot of advantages for an aspiring political activist. First, it was conveniently located, thus getting there was both fast and cheap. Second, it had a large border with Korea that was poorly protected. Third, its political situation in the region was quite unstable and murky, so its Chinese authorities were often unable to intervene in the political activities of Korean refugees.
Indeed, the political situation in Manchuria became quite unstable in 1910s when political power in the region was taken over by a local warlord Zhang Zuolin, once a successful bandit chief. The central Chinese government, such as it was, had little control over the region. Japanese troops had been stationed there since 1906 in steadily increasing numbers and Japan did what it could to transform Manchuria into its sphere of influence, but Zhang successfully resisted Japanese encroachment. This resistance ultimately cost him his life: In 1928 he was assassinated by Japanese agents, but his son continued his line. One should therefore not be surprised that Manchuria in the 1920s, when armed resistance inside Korea would be futile, often served as the major operational base for both communist and nationalist resistance to the Japanese.
Many Korean revolutionary groups of all persuasions were present there, including the group to which future North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, then a student in Korean schools in Manchuria, once belonged. The Chinese Communist Party enjoyed great success among the Korean settlers. In 1934, for example, half of all communists in the area were Koreans, even though Koreans constituted only a small percentage of the population total.
Nonetheless, by no means did all Koreans side with the communists. There were good reasons why the Japanese government often encouraged migration of ethnic Koreans into Manchuria. After 1910, all Koreans were technically subjects of the Japanese emperor, so their presence provided the Japanese empire with a convenient excuse for further encroachment into China.
THE MANCHUKUO PERIOD
A document of the governor-general from 1920 puts this point across very clearly, with remarkable frankness by the 1920s colonial politicians: “Koreans comprise the majority of the population in Kando (the northeast part of Manchuria), and cultivate more than half of the arable land there. If Koreans are assimilated into the Japanese, Kando will become another Korea. If Japan relocates Koreans to regions neighbouring Kando and allows them to own land, those regions will become another Kando. This process will result in a concrete circle of Japanese power in Manchuria.”
A young Kim Il Sung joined a guerrilla detachment established by the Chinese Communist Party in the stormy days that followed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria
Thus, one should not be surprised that in spite of a significant presence Korean guerrillas, both nationalist and communist, many Chinese in the area came to see Koreans as agents of Japanese influence and treated them accordingly. It did not help that many Koreans were willing to serve in the Japanese agencies and often turned to the Japanese officials for protection if a major conflict between them and local Chinese erupted. So, when in 1931 the Japanese military decided to occupy the entire area by force and then create a Japanese puppet state Manchukuo, some outraged Chinese attacked Koreans whom they often saw as pro-Japanese. Such clashes culminated at the Manbosan incident, a massive clash between Korean and Chinese farmers at the Manbosan village. The news about these clashes triggered anti-Chinese pogroms in Korea, too.
After Japan founded the Manchukuo puppet state in Manchuria, armed resistance intensified. A young Kim Il Sung joined a guerrilla detachment established by the Chinese Communist Party in the stormy days that followed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. He spent his entire guerrilla career in the Chinese communist forces (the fact never mentioned by the official North Korean historians), but in the ethnic Korean units.
Armed guerrilla resistance to the Japanese continued into the late 1930s. For Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, this was a formative experience. It was the memory of guerrilla campaigns in the Manchurian hills that played a major role in the emergence of North Korea’s ideology and version of history. Admittedly, this resistance had little actual impact on the general situation, but it was heroic, almost quixotic, and did not fail to impress contemporaries, thus laying the foundation for Kim Il Sung’s personality cult.
On the other hand, the Japanese government did what it could to further increase the Korean presence in the area. The colonization of Manchuria became a major topic of the Japanese-controlled media, and many pro-Japanese Korean writers produced heartfelt eulogies to the courage and persistence of Koreans who had moved to the empire’s frontier, battling both harsh nature and brutal bandits (the latter were, of course, communist and nationalist resistance fighters). Indeed, the number of Koreans in Manchuria increased throughout the existence of Manchukuo, so by 1945 there were some 1.7 million Koreans in Manchuria.
Therefore, until 1945 the Korean community remained divided. On the one hand, throughout these decades, Manchuria remained a place where anti-Japanese resistance was more possible than in Korea proper, the area where the influence of nationalist and communist groups was always high. At the same time, many Korean settlers in the area came to see Japan as their natural protector against Chinese farmers, with whom they often had very tense relations. Nonetheless, subsequent events seemingly demonstrated that nationalists, and especially communists, had a great deal of support in Manchuria: both before and after 1945, ethnic Koreans remained of the most pro-communist of all ethnic minorities in China.
Main picture: Bert van Dijk, Flickr Creative Commons
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