North Korea is not a completely mono-ethnic nation. There are some ethnic minorities inside the country, the most significant being the Chinese diaspora, or Hwagyo in Korean. What is important about them is that they are de jure foreigners: Hwagyo hold citizenship of the People’s Republic of China, not of the DPRK.
During the long history of North Korea, the Hwagyo have experienced many ups and downs, and those who have remained in the country eventually ended up being a ‘trade minority’: rich, but excluded from politics, not that dissimilar from Jews in medieval Europe.
But one of the most interesting events in the diaspora’s history occurred in 1966, when a group of high school students participated in demonstrations and events celebrating Mao Zedong. With the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-DPRK relationship began to deteriorate rapidly.
The student demonstration was perceived by Pyongyang as anti-state activity – and led to the school’s shutdown.
During the long history of North Korea, the Hwagyo have experienced many ups and downs
The source of the story is a forum of Hwagyo who moved to China and, as a result, can more of less freely express their feelings.
THE FIRST SPARKS
Established in August 1955, the Pyongyang Middle School for Chinese People was one of the biggest educational institutions for the diaspora. All went more or less well until 1966, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the Cultural Revolution. One of the main targets of his message were young Chinese people, many of whom would later form the infamous Red Guard groups.
The Chairman Mao’s call captivated the minds of Hwagyo as well. The young students in the Pyongyang Middle School began to read “Selected works of Mao Zedong” and “Quotes from Chairman Mao,” while some went to the Chinese embassy to supply themselves with the Little Red Book.
On May 15, 1966, the students went on a hike to the Ryonghak Mountain in Pyongyang and, while senior students hoisted the Chinese flag, others started shouting “Long live the Communist Party!” and “Long live Chairman Mao!” On their way back, they hoisted the flag again and sang “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman” – a well-known hymn to Chairman Mao.
The Pyongyang Middle School for Chinese People was one of the biggest educational institutions for the diaspora
The school’s secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Yong Sop, was not exactly thrilled with this. He tried to confiscate the flag and told the students to stop singing.
As Wang Shengwei, one of the students remembered, Kim told them: “If the American bastards saw this, they’d think the Volunteers’ Army is back!”
The students did not like such treatment, obviously: how dare this man tell Chinese people not to carry their country’s flag and not to sing Chinese songs?
In early June, the students prepared posters of Mao quotes. The posters continue to multiply, and some students organized a study group of Mao Zedong’s works, which gradually expanded to the size of a school class.
The situation continued to escalate. On August 18, 1966, the students gathered together to listen to a speech by Mao on the radio. The Great Helmsman was conducting a review of the Red Guards at the Tiananmen Square – and the students were very excited by it.
On the morning of August 22 (at 9:45 am, to be exact), the school held a parents’ meeting with North Korean authorities, with the school’s principal Li Janshun and the First Vice-Chairman of the Pyongyang People’s Committee in attendance. The latter gave a speech, trying to find a compromise.
The education of the Chinese people was entrusted to us by the government of China, said the First Vice-Chairman. We previously used the Chinese curriculum and textbook, before switching to a Korean one – here he referred to the educational reform of 1963, which saw the introduction of a curriculum near-identical to the DPRK one in Chinese schools in North Korea and switched the education from Chinese to Korean.
“If the American bastards saw this, they’d think the Volunteers’ Army is back!”
The WPK’s policy, continued the First Vice-Chairman, is that foreign children should learn the teachings of their own country’s leaders, and learn their own language. We do teach Mao Zedong Thought here, we read Chinese books, we celebrate holidays such as Communist Party and the days of the Republic’s foundation.
In a case of disagreement, the official continued, we should find a solution with the Association of Chinese Residents in Korea and the PRC government.
However, this attempt to defuse the situation was in vain. The next day, on August 23, the school announced classes would take place from 9 to 12, but the students, deciding that the secretary be dealt with, stormed Kim Yong Sop’s office.
This was seen by the authorities as crossing a red line. On September 15, all Korean personnel were recalled from the school and funding was withdrawn.
For a few days, the school made an attempt at self-sufficiency: girls in senior classes had to manage the school cafeteria, while the boys worked on the farm and looked after the livestock.
Realizing that this was a futile cause, the students went on a month-long vacation on September 21. On October 12, this was extended indefinitely, with students willing to transfer being allowed to do so. On October 25, the school was officially dissolved.
On October 25, the school was officially dissolved
Some of the troublesome students were arrested and sentenced to imprisonment but, thanks to the intervention of the Chinese embassy, they were saved and released. Word of the rebellion spread across the country, and some Chinese students tried to follow the way of their compatriots in Pyongyang. In all cases, this led to the school’s dissolution: schools in Kanggye, Sinuiju, and Chongjin suffered the same fate.
This incident marked the beginning of the darkest age in the history of Chinese people in North Korea, and the “no funding” method the authorities developed to shut down the school was used on the entire diaspora.
Hwagyo were given three options: leave for China, renounce their Chinese citizenship and become DPRK citizens, or be almost completely cut off from the Public Distribution system and end up in a state of near-starvation. The diaspora soon disappeared, unable to withstand the power of the state.
Only in 1971, when Zhou Enlai visited the DPRK and relations between the two countries started to warm, did this “arduous march” end. Former Hwagyo were allowed to be Chinese citizens once more and the Pyongyang school was reopened – this time, however, under total North Korean control.
EVIL VS EVIL?
Most of the Chinese students were motivated by nationalism, seeing themselves as foreigners in an increasingly hostile land. However, their protest was also an indirect protest in favor of Mao Zedong and against Kim Il Sung – which brings us to another interesting aspect of the story.
When we see an anti-government demonstration, it is usually pretty clear which party we should sympathize with – the demonstrators against the ruling power.
Not so in this case. Both Mao and Kim represented one-party rule with fake “elections,” denial of personal freedoms, the persecution of innocents and an inefficient planned economy. Despite these similarities, however, there were some key differences.
Most of the Chinese students were motivated by nationalism
Kim Il Sung’s way was one of order and obedience to the state. Everything was rationed and regulated, with independent thought mercilessly stamped out. By 1966, the Kim government was still in its “suppressed Stalinist” phase – and it was not until the next year when Kim Il Sung’s own branch of totalitarianism took proper shape.
Mao’s way, on the other hand, was one of controlled chaos, of pogroms inspired by the state – and perpetrated not by secret police but by fanatical supporters of the government.
Would you be preferred to be carried away to a concentration camp by a government agent and die there from hard labor and lack of food – or be beaten to death on spot by an angry mob? Luckily, it’s not a choice any of us will have to make.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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