A recent article made the point that the younger generation of ethnic Koreans in the Yanbian Autonomous Region (YAR) of China’s Jilin Province do not have the same affinity for North Korea that their parents and grandparents do. Younger ethnic Koreans apparently discount their origins, which is understandable as generational memories become diluted through the passage of time.
The authors of that piece conclude that the political stability of China and the economic advantages of staying there outweigh any ancestral pull that might have once been exerted by North Korea. For example, they state that the younger generation in the YAR sees itself as Chinese, that the desire for getting an education in the Korean language – a concession long authorized by the Chinese government – is fading. Such revelations certainly paint a dismal picture concerning any residual sense of a Korean homeland.
However, that may be an incomplete representation. I offer additional analysis with regard to ethnic Koreans in the YAR and how they might relate to the Korean Peninsula. First, though, a bit more history is necessary to understand why this issue merits discussion, and why China was so accommodating of the ethnic Koreans in its northeast provinces in the first place when it has been so harsh toward other ethnicities.
Such revelations certainly paint a dismal picture concerning any residual sense of a Korean homeland
HISTORY AND FEARS OF IRRIDENTISM
It is instructive to know how Koreans originally came to the Yanbian Autonomous Region. At various times in the distant past, Northeast Asia to the north of the Korean Peninsula was occupied by populaces that would eventually become the Korean people. China, of course, disagrees with that version of history since, at other times in that same past, parts of that very area had been ruled by Chinese dynasties.
While historical Korean kingdoms have often been characterized as vassal states that paid tribute to China, the definition of “vassal state” and the description of tribute would be subject to vigorous debate by Koreans. Additionally, there were several differences regarding the borders of the modern Korean state (North and South together, as Korea was before its division at the conclusion of World War II).
A series of negotiations between China and Korea in the 1700s settled that disagreement by defining the border between China and Korea as the Yalu River that flows west to the Yellow Sea and the Tumen River that flows east to the Sea of Japan. Both rivers originate from the crater lake atop volcanic Mount Baekdu. In the 1960s, China even conceded that 60 percent of Mount Baekdu was Korean territory. The issue seems closed – but is it?
The Koreans who came to the northeastern provinces of China from the late 1800s through the end of World War II did so as a very practical response to Imperial Japanese political incursions into and eventual military occupation of Korea. During the Korean War, another smaller wave of Koreans fled into China to escape the devastation of that conflict. Relations between China and Korea were different at the time, and such “relocations” were tolerated.
China has no wish to see an increased sense of nationalism among them
Even so, every now and then, China makes a faint irredentist noise about how Korea was once a part of China. China quite possibly fears that some Korean government might one day lay claim to the area that encompasses the Yanbian Autonomous Region. Recall that there have always been Koreans there, and the area is now home to an estimated 2 million ethnic Koreans. China has no wish to see an increased sense of nationalism among them. This is a major reason why China does not want defectors from North Korea that might ignite any latent feelings of irredentism and nationalism in the ethnic population of its northeast provinces.
GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES – AND CULTURE – MATTER
Relations these days between China and North Korea have cooled considerably from their once amiable alliance. The Chinese have embraced a certain amount of economic reform and the political climate there is much more tolerant. Conditions in North Korea have not kept up with a changing world, and the two nations are no longer as close as “teeth and lips.” The North’s recent nuclear test and missile launches don’t help matters.
The younger ethnic Koreans in the YAR are undoubtedly aware of the differences between the two countries, and they can easily see that their future is brighter in China than it would be in North Korea. China allows a great deal of foreign trade, and even goods from South Korea find their way to the Yanbian Autonomous Region.
The point here isn’t that ethnic Koreans in China would likely prefer to remain as Chinese citizens in China rather than return to the chaos of North Korea. Ethnic Koreans do indeed know that North Korea is a failed state, that they have far more freedom in China and that they enjoy a better standard of living in the YAR than the average citizen in North Korea.
Everyone in the YAR knows about hallyu, the Korean wave
There is no question that ethnic Koreans would remain in China – if that were the only choice available when opportunities arise. However, that is not the only option today. Everyone in the YAR knows about hallyu, the Korean wave. One of South Korea’s most noteworthy exports in this century has been its culture. Things Korean enjoy unprecedented popularity around the globe, and the YAR is no exception.
Many ethnic Koreans in the YAR, in the event of a collapsing North Korea, would likely see excellent opportunities – the real draw being South Korea with its bustling cities, readily available consumer goods of high quality, astonishing personal freedoms – and ways to make money. To be sure, those former “exiles” and their descendants certainly realize that their homeland culture has transformed radically since they were last in Korea. After all, it has been decades of geopolitical separation.
Nonetheless, culture and heritage are important in Asia and that, along with the shared historical ancestry, could exert a powerful pull, particularly if older generation ethnic Koreans consider returning to the peninsula. If nothing else, ethnic Koreans with their intimate knowledge of China would likely see great opportunities in which they can play significant roles as South Korea grows its trade with its larger neighbor.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
A recent article made the point that the younger generation of ethnic Koreans in the Yanbian Autonomous Region (YAR) of China’s Jilin Province do not have the same affinity for North Korea that their parents and grandparents do. Younger ethnic Koreans apparently discount their origins, which is understandable as generational memories become diluted through the passage of time.The authors of
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.