Christopher Green and Steven Denney, NK News
Economic decline, Southern culture explain North's gradual loss of appeal to provincial residents of Korean origin
Image from, with caption: Yanbian (red) in Jilin (orange) and China
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. ...
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.
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. ...
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.