The gentle decline of the ‘Third Korea’

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

By Chinese standards, the city of Yanji is rather small, with a population of nearly 400,000. About a third of them are ethnic Koreans: Yanji is the capital of Yanbian autonomous prefecture in the northeastern province of Jilin.

From the first few minutes in Yanji it does not feel completely like China. The streets and shops have signs both in Korean and Chinese, the people (well, many of them) speak Korean among themselves, and restaurants advertise dog meat, a traditional Korean delicacy. But it also feels different from South and North Korea. Yanji is much too poor if compared with the South and much too rich if measured against meager North Korean standards.

The Korean migration began as a trickle in the 1880s, and by the early 1920s it had developed into a large flow. Some of those settlers fled the persecution of the Japanese colonial occupiers at home, but many more were attracted by lands easily available to migrant farmers in what then was known as Manchuria.

An overwhelming majority, some 80%, came from the areas that after 1945 became parts of North Korea. During the Chinese Civil War, most local Koreans sided with the communists, and this helped boost their standing after 1949. The local Koreans were officially recognized as a “minority group”, and in 1952 the entire area was made into an autonomous prefecture, with the Korean language co-official with Mandarin.

Yanbian is a large area, roughly half the size of South Korea, but its current population is merely 2.2 million. South Korea has 48 million people, so the density of population in Yanbian is remarkably low. Indeed, while traveling through the area one can drive for few kilometers without encountering any signs of human settlement – a picture that is unthinkable in most of South Korea or coastal China.

In 1945 about 1.7 million Koreans lived in China, overwhelmingly in its northeastern area. About 500,000 of those chose to move back to Korea in the late 1940s, but a million or so decided to stay. Nowadays, the Korean population has reached 2 million, of whom some 800,000 reside in Yanbian.

Economically, the area has not been very successful – perhaps because it is landlocked, so the import-oriented development strategy does not really work there. The breathtaking economic growth of the past two decades in the country as a whole has changed the looks of the local cities and towns, but Yanbian is still poor by contemporary Chinese standards. Sometimes in the villages around the city one can even see a derelict hut with a thatched roof – a sight that is almost impossible to see more prosperous areas of China. Still, changes are everywhere: the old gray buildings of the Mao Zedong era are being demolished and giving way to new, posh apartment complexes. Construction is everywhere, the number of hotels is astonishing, and good roads criss-cross the area, though motor traffic is still very thin.

Beijing’s policy toward ethnic Koreans has always been somewhat contradictory. On one hand, the Chinese central government follows the Leninist principles it learned from the Soviet Union. According to these principles, the ethnic minorities should be given manifold privileges, often at the expense of the majority group.

Indeed, this is frequently the case with the ethnic Koreans. But there were periods of unease and even open persecution, especially in the crazy decade of Mao’s Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966. A middle-aged ethnic-Korean businessman told me, “Back in the late 1960s, I seldom saw my parents. Because they were members of an ethnic minority, they had to go to ideological-struggle sessions every day and had to stay until very late.”

However, that period was an exception. The same person, who said he is not a fan of the current Chinese system, still admitted when asked about discrimination: “Discrimination? Well, almost none, to be frank. They appoint some Han Chinese officials to supervise the administration, but basically I don’t think Korean people here have problems with promotions or business because of their ethnicity. Sometimes being a minority even helps a bit – it’s easier to get to a university if you come from a minority group.”

It is clear that many Korean community cultural institutions rely on generous subsidies from the central government. The Chinese state sponsors a large network of the Korean-language schools, so until recently nearly all Korean children received secondary education in their ancestors’ tongue. If they wish, they can attend Yanbian University, where ethnic Koreans are given preferential treatment for the entrance exams.

The local television network broadcasts in Korean and the newsstands in the area sell a number of Korean-language periodicals. Some of these publications hardly need sponsorship, since they deal with the ever popular topics of sex, crime and violence, but many others, such as high-brow literary magazines or rather boring local dailies, would go out of business without their state subsidies.

A local law requires every street sign in the prefecture to be written in both Korean and Chinese, and it explicitly stipulates that Korean letters should not be smaller or placed below the Chinese characters. This even applies to advertisements.

The Korean heritage (or rather those parts of the heritage that are deemed politically safe) is much flaunted in the area because it is one of factors that make Yanji attractive to potential tourists. So Korean restaurants are everywhere and local advertisements frequently use images of beautiful girls clad in the Korean national dress or hanbok.

However, it would be a mistake to depict the Chinese policy in the area as an ideal to be emulated. The potential threat of irredentism has never been completely forgotten, and it is an open secret that radical Korean nationalists have dreamed about annexing this area since at least the early 1900s. They often say Yanbian is actually a “third Korea” (the other two being North and South), so it should be included into a Greater Korea that they believe will emerge one day.

Until recently such threats were not much pronounced, since the impoverished and grotesquely dictatorial North Korean regime could not inspire much longing for the lost homeland among the Chinese Koreans. Perhaps most local Koreans share the feelings of a middle-aged Korean with whom I had a long talk in the town of Tumen on the North Korean border. While pointing to the barren hills of North Korea, easily seen from a restaurant window, he said, “I am so lucky that my grandparents chose to get out of that place. I think we all would be dead had our grandfather stayed there. It is such an awful place. I do not understand how they manage to survive in North Korea.”

This seems to be the common feeling toward North Korea. There might be a lot of genuine sympathy, as demonstrated in the late 1990s at the height of North Korea’s great famine, when there was widespread grassroots support for the illegal migrants from that country. However, in most cases the North Korean regime is seen by local Koreans as an object of contempt and ridicule, and its unwillingness to emulate the Chinese example is often mentioned as the major reason for the disastrous situation of the country.

However, in 1992 China established formal diplomatic relations with prosperous South Korea, and soon the Yanbian area was flooded with South Korean business people, missionaries, students and tourists. These people were usually attracted by the opportunities to do business without dealing with a language barrier, but some of them began to preach the nationalist gospel as well. Their work was made much easier by the fact that South Korea came to be seen not as a land of destitution but one of prosperity and opportunity. South Korean nationalists love to stress that the lands of Yanbian once were part of the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo that lasted 700 years, from 57 BC to AD 668. Koguryo is presented by them – as well as many other Koreans outside of the area – as the most successful of the three ancient Korean kingdoms.
Therefore, Chinese authorities are on guard against this nationalist fervor and ensure that a Korean-language education does not mean an education in the spirit of Korean nationalism. At the Korean schools, children study exactly the same curriculum as their peers in the Chinese-language schools. Their textbooks are exact translations of the Chinese textbooks used at the same levels.

“We are a minority group of China, China is our country, so there is no need to study Korean history or literature,” one ethnic Korean told me. “When they teach national history at our schools, it means the history of China, and China only.”

As a result of this policy, the younger generations of Koreans are increasingly out of touch with their Korean heritage. Ko Kyong-su, a professor at Yanbian university, himself an ethnic Korean, remarked: “Nowadays, the Korean youngsters here do not learn about Ch’unhyang and Hong Kil-dong [characters from Korean classical novels] until they enter college, and only then if they chose to specialize in Korean studies.”

To what extent does this dualistic policy of support and restrictions work? This is a somewhat difficult question, but it seems that the overwhelming majority of the local Koreans indeed see themselves as “hyphenated Chinese”, not as proud overseas citizens of either Korean state. Their loyalties are, in most cases, firmly with Beijing.

Still, it is clear that the ongoing nationalist propaganda produces some response. A number of times my Korean conversation partners inquired whether I had seen the Koguryo remains, and once a woman in her early 30s, a fellow traveler on a train from Yanji to Shenyang, said nostalgically, “Two thousand years ago this used to be Korean land. We were so big then!”

This is not exactly a feeling that Chinese authorities would like to nurture, so it comes as no surprise that in official publications, Koguryo is mentioned as a “minority regime” that once existed as a part of multi-ethnic but unified Chinese nation. This nation, according to Beijing propagandists and court historians, existed since time immemorial.

In spite of all those problems and potential challenges, until recently Yanbian prefecture could be seen as a poster case for China’s “nationality politics”. Indeed, unlike the situation in Russia, Japan or the United States – three other major countries with sizable ethnic-Korean communities – the Korean-Chinese have remained fluent in their ancestors’ language, though they overwhelmingly belong to the third or even fourth generation of immigrants. They are also quite socially successful. If measured by such indicators as life-expectancy and infant-mortality rates, Koreans are the second-most-prosperous ethnic group in China. Their educational achievements are also well above average.

However, nowadays things are not that rosy – at least if judged from Korean nationalist perspectives. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the ethnic Korean population of Yanbian began to shrink, with its share dropping to 36.3% in 2000 (from 60.2% in 1953), and is still falling.

Local Korean schools are being closed for the lack of students, and Korean parents are increasingly unwilling to send their children to the ethnic schools. Until a decade ago, more or less every Korean family chose to educate their children at a Korean school, but this is not the case anymore. The number of children enrolled in Korean schools in 2000 was merely 45.2% of the 1996 level. In the 1990-2000 period, 4,200 Korean teachers, or some 53% of the total, left their jobs because of school closures. This does not mean Koreans are more poorly educated – on the contrary, the past two decades have witnessed a great education boom. But their education is increasingly conducted in Mandarin, not Korean.

Contrary to what many China-bashers want to believe, this process is not a result of some deliberate discrimination or the cunning policies of Beijing. No doubt some Chinese policy planners might feel a bit of relief when they see how a potentially “separatist” area is losing its explosive potential, but it seems they have done nothing to speed up such development. Rather, Koreans are becoming the victims of their own social success.

In the past, the aspirations of the average ethnic Korean was to graduate from a high school, settle down in his or her local village, and become a good farmer who could afford to have rice on the table for every meal. Now, success is increasingly associated with a university degree. However, the university education is in Mandarin, as are the entrance exams. Korean parents know that Chinese-language schooling gives their children better educational advantages.

This process is easy to see even without statistics. It is clear that a large proportion of younger people speak Korean, but it is also clear that many youngsters do not feel too comfortable when communicating in their parents’ tongue, and are happy to switch back to Mandarin at the first opportunity. It was instructive to see two Korean families who sat next to me on a train: the youngsters, in their 20s, spoke Korean to the parents but preferred Mandarin among themselves.

Another part of the crisis is the low fertility rate of the ethnic Koreans. The Koreans’ birth rate has always been lower than that of the Han Chinese, even though, as an ethnic minority, they are exempt from the “one-child policy”. In 2000, the average Korean woman in Yanbian had 1.01 births in her lifetime. This again reflects the higher education levels of the ethnic Koreans: better-educated groups tend to have less children.

Migration is also taking its toll. A large number of ethnic Koreans have moved away from their village communities. Some of them even went to South Korea – either for good, or just to make some money doing unskilled jobs. But for most of them the destinations of choice are the large Chinese cities, such as Shenyang or Beijing. While in the city, Korean settlers tend to maintain close relations with other Koreans, but they still live in a Chinese-language environment, and speak little Korean. The chances of marriage with a Han Chinese are high, and children from such marriages are usually monolingual – Mandarin.

So it seems that the days of the “Third Korea” are numbered. Even the infusion of South Korean money is not enough to reverse the unavoidable process of assimilation. Koreans are not subjected to forced Sinification; they are making a rational choice, even if it is one that Korean nationalists do not approve of. If things continue as such, in a few decades only hanbok-clad girls and the obligatory signs in Korean shops and restaurants will remind one of the Korean community that once thrived in Yanbian. But I hope it will always be a good place to feast on dog meat.


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