The China-North Korea Border: Family, Trade and Changing Trend

Yanbian Prefecture is in southeastern Jilin Province, bordered with North Korea. It is the only Korean autonomous prefecture in China. While declining in number, Chosunjok (ethnic Koreans; in Chinese, Chaoxianzu) still make up 30% of the prefecture’s total population. Many of the Chosunjok families in Yanbian originally migrated from the northern provinces of North Korea and have family and relatives still living in North Korea. Linked by family networks, relatives on both sides frequently visited each other up until the early 1990s. The border since then has become increasingly impermeable for family visits.

Almost every elderly Chosunjok I met and talked to in Yanji, the capital city of Yanbian, had either immediate family members or distant relatives in North Korea. Many of their parents had migrated from North Korean areas close to the Tumen-Aprok River border during the Japanese colonial period. Chosunjoks pride themselves on playing a crucial role in the Maoist Revolution as well as pushing back the Americans in the Korean War, after they had experienced decades of fighting against the Japanese army. Some of those who participated in the Korean War decided to remain in North Korea and contribute to the country’s reconstruction. In the 1960s, many university graduates returned to North Korea for ‘homeland reconstruction’. These young, educated people sought a greater opportunity for social contribution in North Korea. Others crossed the river to North Korea to escape poverty in China. As a result, almost all the elderly people I encountered in Yanbian had at least one sibling who had returned to North Korea sometime between 1945 and 1970. When things were difficult in North Korea, some migrated back to China. All this happened quietly.

In the 1970s, Chosunjok families were delighted by nylon socks and school bags made in North Korea and brought into Yanbian by their relatives. For ethnic Korean Chinese visiting North Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s, items smuggled in from Japan by North Korean returnees from Japan were eye-opening. For instance, a Chosunjok trader bought a box of second-hand European brand neckties, and made a fortune in China. (North Koreans did not wear ties.) On some occasions, triangular smuggling took place on a much greater scale. In the early 1990s, district governments in Yanbian tacitly allowed the smuggling in of thousands of Japanese second-hand cars at night, collecting taxes on them and using the money as the basis of local administrative funds.

When China implemented its economic reform in the 1980s, Yanbian people, like other Chinese, were exhorted to open up their eyes to money-making opportunities. At that time, a Chosunjok person could visit North Korea with a letter of invitation written by a North Korean relative. Many women and elderly people visiting family in North Korea brought bags of manufactured goods like clothes and shoes, which their North Korean relatives quietly sold to acquaintances and neighbors. On their way back, the Chosunjok brought seafood and herbal medicines that would sell well in China. Others found business partners in the border area, who pretended to be the visitors’ relatives and housed them in return for rice and other goods brought in from China. Such houses became headquarters for the quiet selling of Chinese goods and the buying of things that could be brought back home to China.

Perhaps market in North Korea was introduced by Chinese relatives. Changes in Yanbian seem to have brought changes in North Korea, especially in the regions close to the border. Before the North Korean Workers’ Party began to allow women and the elderly to do jangmadang (market) trading in 1995, people in the border regions used to gather in an open space and trade any goods available to them. Many sold manufactured goods brought in from China.

As life in North Korea became more difficult in the mid-1990s, ordinary women and elderly people from Yanbian stopped crossing the border. Instead, families from North Korea sent letters or visited China asking for help. Chosunjok families sent anything they could that might help their relatives. Thousands of North Koreans escaping the famine in the 1990s came to Yanbian until the Chinese government responded to international criticism by tightening the border and enforcing repatriation of North Koreans who came to China illegally.

The hardship in North Korea has lasted too long; Chosunjok families in Yanbian have lost the hope that their help can have a lasting positive impact on their families on the other side of the river. At the same time, with Sino-South Korean normalization, many Chosunjok people have now gone to South Korea. Rural towns are empty, as all the young people have gone to South Korea for work. Now the elderly Chosunjok who are still in Yanbian have children living and working in South Korea, but they have lost contact with their siblings in North Korea.

A growing number of North Koreans are visiting into China, reaching 200 thousand in 2013. In the city of Yanji alone, about 2,000 North Koreans are known to be officially residing and working, filling in at jobs left open by the outmigration of Chosunjok people. Yet, family visits continue to remain difficult on both sides. When hardship came, people crossed the border and sought refuge in their family networks. Family was the ultimate refuge. To whom can people now rely on and seek a refuge and where can they escape to when uncontrollable forces threaten their lives?