Economic decline, Southern culture explain North's gradual loss of appeal to provincial residents of Korean origin
In days of yore, North Korea spent a considerable amount of time and money on public diplomacy in the Korean-speaking Yanbian region of China’s Jilin Province: books flowed into the region’s schools and public libraries; television newscasters had a noticeable North Korean lilt; and the local newspaper, the Yanbian Ilbo, regularly published pieces by journalists from the North Korean Cabinet’s own daily Minju Chosun. Many a Chinese Korean from the region embraced opportunities for upward mobility that took them to Pyongyang.
How times have changed. Young people in Yanbian today feel alienated from and indifferent to North Korea, and few care to visit. To them, the DPRK is a closed and socially exclusionary place, one that offers few chances to develop mutual understanding – a handful of educational exchanges, very occasional work opportunities, and tourism – nowhere near enough to foster the kind of bond that is felt by their grandparents’ generation, which was raised in the fog of revolutionary warfare.
Young people in Yanbian today feel alienated from and indifferent to North Korea, and few care to visit
Born mostly in the northern regions of what is now the DPRK, a great many of those who relocated during Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula and Manchuria retraced their steps to participate in the Korean War of 1950-53 as Chinese “volunteers.” There they were counted as Chinese combatants, but the restoration of North Korean sovereign integrity was a motivating factor. The bonds of brotherhood that emerged would inform perceptions of the DPRK for decades to come.
This generally positive orientation rooted in shared wartime experiences was further cultivated by out-migration and cross-border people flows during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The disastrous economic and social policies of the former led to food shortages in many regions of China and, for far too many, outright famine. This pushed countless Chinese Koreans southward across the Tumen and into the safe haven of North Korea. During the Cultural Revolution, political and ethnic persecution – acute in Yanbian – led thousands more to follow suit.
Through yesteryear’s turmoil, Chinese Koreans came to regard North Korea as a place of comparative stability and material abundance. Given such a tumultuous shared history, it is hardly surprising that those who lived through it all would have a deep reservoir of mutual empathy and compassion for their neighbor. But for the young of Yanbian today, that is an old story. The pool of positive affiliation has been greatly depleted.
China waved goodbye to revolutionary fervor at the turn of the 1980s, embracing instead the siren call of industrial growth and stability. The economic miracle that followed offers ample explanation for the new proclivities of the young of Yanbian. The road to success does not lead to Pyongyang; like Chinese everywhere, it leads to Beijing, Shanghai and the other east coast cities of the mainland.
South Korean education and employment opportunities also have a very obvious impact
Within this new reality there is space for South Korea, and it exerts the influence that it retains with some aplomb. South Korean goods are common in Yanbian stores and its cultural industries are widely enjoyed via satellite television – long gone are the days when China would fulminate over the South Korean “cultural invasion.” South Korean education and employment opportunities also have a very obvious impact – a steady stream of Chinese Korean youth go from Chinese universities to South Korean graduate schools, where they collect “spec” in the form of a master’s degree before darting off to the big cities of their own land, or take employment in one of South Korea’s leading industrial behemoths for a few years to accrue CV-boosting experience.
The early 1990s was a moment of transitions in this part of the world. China and South Korea established relations in 1992 as Beijing was accelerating its “reform and opening” policy. Seoul, staying true to Nordpolitik, opened its borders to Chinese Koreans, who had throughout the Cold War been categorized persona non grata because of a presumed communist affiliation. The preferred destination for outward bound Chinese Koreans shifted accordingly. Diplomatic détente found Chinese Koreans taking advantage of opportunities in South Korea and South Korean firms doing the same in China. For North Korea, conversely, things could hardly have gone worse.
Although life has greatly improved in North Korea since the ruinous famine of the mid 1990s, to Chinese Koreans there is still nothing to envy about such an economically backwards and politically repressive place. Institutionally underdeveloped, joint ventures between North Koreans and Chinese partners regularly fail. North Korea is, in the upward-looking eyes of Chinese Koreans, the antithesis of modernity. South Korea and increasingly China are its affirmation.
During a recent trip to Yanji, the literal and metaphorical hub of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin Province, many young Chinese Koreans spoke openly about their feelings toward China and the two Koreas. Aside from a few distant relatives across the border or fleeting moments of work experience in Pyongyang, North Korea is nowhere to be found on their mental map. One young man acknowledged that a daytrip to the northeastern DPRK border town (and SEZ) of Rason had shed new light on his own identity and shown him points of convergence with his North Korean neighbors, but this experience was a stark outlier. The consensus was clear: the star is China, and South Korea is in the supporting role. North Korea barely merits a cameo.
Will ethnic and business ties between Yanbian and North Korea ever be truly (re)energized? It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Identities are fluid and contingent, and if North Korea gives the Chinese Koreans of Yanbian something truly significant to work with; a great many more friendships and partnerships, mutually beneficial business links and globally recognized qualifications for the young, the tide may finally turn. Hope springs eternal. But it doesn’t look good.
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