On the Sino-North Korean border, there are three factors defining the rights of borderland residents. The first is citizenship – Chinese or North Korean. One cannot hold both since China does not recognize dual citizenship (for the record, North Korea does, at least formally). The second is ethnicity – Han Chinese or Korean. Both China and the DPRK share the old Soviet approach to ethnicity: It is a formal status, not merely a question of identity. Last is place of residence, of course: China or North Korea. So, we have 2*2*2=8 combinations, but as we can see from below, there are only seven which exist in real life.
The most casual variations are when citizenship, ethnicity and residence are all the same. So you’re either a Han Chinese with a Chinese passport living in China or a Korean DPRK citizen living in North Korea. There is nothing exotic about these two types, so I will not talk about them in any detail.
The next type are Chinese-Koreans (chaoxianzu in Chinese), i.e. Koreans with a Chinese passport living in China. Mostly they speak both Korean and Mandarin and most of them live close to the border with North Korea. This is, of course, a great asset to refugees from North Korea, the overwhelming majority of whom do not speak Chinese at the moment of escape, as Chinese-Koreans can help an escapee. Chinese-Koreans have no privileges when it comes to visiting the DPRK – they, as well as other Chinese residing in China, need a visa.
Next are Hwagyo – Han Chinese with a Chinese passport living in North Korea. The history of this diaspora was quite dramatic, as in some times it enjoyed a privileged status and sometimes – namely, in middle- late 1960-s – faced a discrimination combined with a campaign calling them to change their citizenship to the North Korean one. Nowadays, however, Hwagyo are usually either wealthy or very wealthy (by North Korean standards, of course). The reason is simple: they may go visit China and go back as they please, and they use this opportunity to establish trade networks. Very close to Hwagyo is next type – Koreans with a Chinese passport living in North Korea. Usually they are children of mixed marriages between Hwagyo and a North Korean. Such children automatically receive a North Korean passport, but if one your parents is Hwagyo, you may change you citizenship by bribing the secret police. It works even if you are an adult.
Another type would be Han Chinese with a North Korean passport living in North Korea. These are usually former Hwagyo, i.e. Hwagyo foolish enough to change their citizenship or those who were forced to do so in the 1960s and did not get back their PRC passport in 1970s when such a restoration was allowed by Pyongyang. The fate of these people is usually sad – the authorities do not trust them and try to monitor their actions and since they, as former foreigners, are not considered trustworthy, they are admitted to the Party only as rare exceptions.
The final group, the most enigmatic and closed, are Koreans with a North Korean passport living in China (Chaoxiao in Chinese). There are a few thousands of them – about the same number as Hwagyo. It seems that most of them try to avoid politics so as to not antagonize the authorities and simply enjoy the fruits of Chinese economic growth. Some of them try to naturalize in China – but in the mainland this is extraordinary hard: only one Chinese per million is a naturalized citizen.
Theoretically, they should be another group: Han Chinese with a North Korean passport living in China, but I’ve never heard of such cases. Naturalized Hwagyo repatriates would theoretically fit the definition, but once Hwagyo surrender their passports, the path to China is usually closed forever.
Here is a small table which may help the readers to remember who is who:
|Citizenship||Ethnicity||Place of residence||Social group|
|PRC||Han Chinese||China||Ordinary Chinese citizen|
|PRC||Han Chinese||North Korea||Hwagyo|
|PRC||Korean||China||Chinese Korean (chaoxianzu)|
|PRC||Korean||North Korea||Naturalized Hwagyo children from mixed marriages|
|DPRK||Han Chinese||China||(probably do not exist)|
|DPRK||Han Chinese||North Korea||Naturalized Hwagyo|
|DPRK||Korean||North Korea||Ordinary North Korean citizen|
Current South Korean policy towards the definition of a North Korean is quite dubious. On one hand, according to Seoul, there is no such state as “North Korea.” The so-called “government” of the “DPRK” is merely an anti-state organization, illegally occupying the northern provinces of the Republic of Korea. That should mean that North Korean citizenship policy should be considered null and void as well. But this is not so – it is your DPRK citizenship, not the fact that you were born in North Korea, what entitles you to the ROK citizenship and all subsequent benefits.
So the unification of Korea – if it comes – will undoubtedly be the most dramatic event in modern Korean history. But for these people it would be even more dramatic, as, quoting the Gospel of Matthew, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Those with DPRK passport will automatically receive citizenship in the United Korea. The most lucky would be Chaoxiao, as they will keep they right to permanently reside in China as well.
The most unlucky group would be the one that is the luckiest now – i.e., the Hwagyo. They are Chinese citizens – so the new authorities can simply ask them to leave the country in 48 hours or face deportation. The diaspora, given its’ unique status, is probably heavily infiltrated by intelligence services – so to be on the safe side, Seoul may blacklist them from getting a Korean visa – and this would be perfectly legal, as any country can deny a visa to any non-citizen without explanation. And even if they won’t – they will cease to be the only group of people who can cross the Sino-North Korean border when they please – and that means that their unique way of getting rich would be null and void as well.
When I was writing my MA thesis I conducted extensive research on Hwagyo and, ironically, never found any mention of them even thinking about this grim perspectives. This, however, is not unusual – most Koreans do not think about the unification either, but if it is to come, the lives of everyone on the Korean Peninsula will be changed – irreversibly and permanently.
Picture: Roman Harak, Flickr Creative Commons
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