The ‘third Korea’ Yanbian in decline

As everybody knows, there are two Koreas – North and South. There is also, however, another area that is often described as the ‘third Korea’ – the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture, located in northeast China, along the border with North Korea.

Large Korean-speaking populations can be found in many countries, but in nearly all cases Koreans are urban dwellers who live in cities alongside other ethnic groups. There are ‘Koreatowns’ in some major American cities, for instance. There are Korean villages in formerly Soviet Central Asia, to be sure, but when Koreans were exiled there in 1937, Comrade Stalin made sure that Korean villages would not form a belt, and the villages are dispersed across Central Asia.

Yanbian is different. Ethnic Koreans constitute about 75% of the local population in the border areas of this prefecture, and they make up 35% of the total population of the prefecture. Ethnic Koreans also make up slightly over half of the city of Yanji – the largest city and administrative center of the prefecture and they dominate the surrounding countryside.

Chinese Koreans overwhelmingly speak good Korean, even though in most cases they are third- or fourth generation migrants whose ancestors moved to the area about a century ago, in 1890-1940.  Most Koreans in the area attend Korean-language schools, where they study content which is otherwise identical to that of Mainland Chinese schools, and where textbooks are exact translations of similar textbooks in Chinese.

When it comes to the politics, this situation is seriously different to what we can see in some other parts of China (tensions in Tibet spring to mind). The Yanbian autonomous prefecture might be seen as a showcase of China’s nationalities policy. Even though local Koreans have overwhelmingly preserved their identities, as well as their language, there is little if any support for separatist or irredentist causes in the area. It is almost universally agreed that Yanbian Koreans are overwhelmingly loyal citizens of the People’s Republic.

At first glance, this might appear rather strange. Surely, the economically successful and intensely nationalistic South Korea would exercise much influence over Yanbian Koreans. Some of my Chinese government contacts have even admitted that such fears were quite common in Chinese political circles back in the 1990s when, following the normalization of relations between Seoul and Beijing, the area was first flooded with South Korean missionaries, business people, political activists and, almost certainly, spies. Such fears of Korean irredentism led the Chinese government to initially object to South Korean plans to establish a consulate in Shenyang (near Yanbian).

It was expected and feared that an influx of South Koreans would lead to a nationalist upsurge in the area, but such fears did not come to pass.

A prominent Chinese scholar/official once frankly told me that, ‘We used to fear that ethnic Koreans in China would become anti-Chinese nationalists, but this did not happen, and we must thank both Korean governments for this. North Koreans are not attractive to our ethnic Koreans because they are so poor, violent and irrational. Conversely, South Koreans also do not treat Chinese-Koreans as equals, or as part of their community.’

This rather cynical viewpoint is generally correct. North Korea for Chinese citizens (including Yanbian Koreans) is the object of pity and black humor, and cannot possible be considered to be a motherland for all Koreans. South Korea became attractive for Yanbian Koreans around 1990 when they began to travel there in search of work. This labour migration has continued up until now (at any given moment, up to one fourth of all adult able-bodied Yanbian Koreans are working in South Korea).

For Koreans in the region, a long work trip to the South has become a rite of passage, something most people do in their twenties or thirties in order to make money.

Indeed the money tends to be good. While the Yanbian autonomous prefecture is one of the most prosperous parts of China (Yanji has the highest ratio of car owners among all Chinese cities), the average salary in the area is around $400-500 per month. In South Korea, a migrant worker can easily earn between $1500 and $2000, so a few years of hard work in South Korea can make a Yanbian Korean very affluent by the standards of his/her home community.

However, experiences of South Korean prosperity and popular culture does not usually transform the average Yanbian Korean worker into a zealous South Korean patriot. Having spent a few years in the South, ethnic Koreans from Yanbian tend to realize that they have little if any chance of succeeding in the highly competitive and close-knit South Korean society. If they stay in the South, they have few opportunities to advance socially because they lack the correct education, connections or understanding of the rules of social behavior that dominate South Korean society. There are some exceptions, especially when women marry South Koreans, or Yanbian Korean  students who graduate from South Korean universities. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Yanbian Koreans cannot do more than be an unskilled or semi-skilled labourer. The income which would make them solidly middle-class within China is also well below the South Korean average.

At the same time, there lives in China are not bad and improving rapidly. The area is now enjoying ever growing prosperity, and it helps that the ethnic Koreans of the area – as they themselves openly admit – do not feel discriminated against. They are in the main of the view that, in China, unlike South Korea, they do have numerous opportunities to climb the social ladder.

Ethnic Koreans have always been a remarkably well educated group within China (actually the best-educated ethnic group within China). It suffice to say that the percentage of college graduates among ethnic Koreans is almost three times that of the Han Chinese.

Therefore, for the average ethnic Korean in China, South Korea and its economic or technological wonders might be a source of pride, but seldom becomes the focal point of his/her loyalty.

However, the economic success of the Yanbian Koreans has its downside. New money that flood into the area through South Korean investment, as well as the effects of labour migration has allowed Yanbian Koreans to send their children to universities in ever greater numbers. Gone are the days when success was embodied in a small farm with oxen or tractor. Younger Koreans want to become administrators or industrial managers, doctors or engineers and they often think it best not to go to a mere local university or college. They move to major cities, and never return to their native lands to live.

Things are further exacerbated by the extremely low – even by region standards – fertility rate of Yanbian Koreans (little more than 0.9 children per women). Well educated and higher income-earning families tend to have fewer children worldwide, but this figure is exceptionally low, even by such standards. Chinese Koreans are also exempt from China’s ‘One Child Policy’, which makes this figure even more striking. Korean villages have begun to close their Korean schools, while young Koreans are moving away, to big cities and brilliant careers.

As a result, the share of ethnic Koreans in the area is declining. The ‘third Korea’ is being gradually absorbed into the Chinese ocean that surrounds it. As of today, though, one can still negotiate the streets of Yanji using only Korean, and the kimchi they serve in local restaurants might well taste better than Seoul’s equivalent (at least, that is my highly subjective opinion).

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