North Korea

A new life in China for N Korea traders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


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Li Xiang, the Chinese owner of a shop selling South Korean kitchenware in Dandong on the border with North Korea, was born in the isolated Stalinist state and lived there until she was 18. But she doesn't tell her North Korean customers that.

'I feel embarrassed and a sense of betrayal for selling South Korean products when my roots are in the North,' Li, 33, says.

She tells them instead that she is a member of the Korean ethnic minority community in China - almost two million strong, with most living in Jilin province in the northeast.

A descendant of immigrants from Shandong, she was born in Sinuiju to parents who were also born in Korea. They have since moved to China as well.

Despite their Chinese passports, such immigrants still feel culturally Korean. They talk to each other in Korean because they speak the language better than Chinese - even Li, who studied Chinese at university in Jilin. They attended Korean schools, prefer Korean food and would rather sit on the floor than on a chair.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died this month, they showed their sorrow like people in North Korea. Many took flowers to the Dandong branch office of the North Korean consulate in the Liaoning provincial capital, Shenyang. 'My heart missed a beat when I heard the news on TV,' Li said. 'He treated us Chinese well and gave us food, like 500 grams of pork or two pieces of tofu, during Chinese festivals.'

As well as the sorrow, a collective fear is apparent. Chinese who have left North Korea for China shy away from reporters, worried they will invite trouble if their names or faces are recognised.

A restaurant owner who deals with North Korean customs officials each day said he could not afford to be seen talking to reporters or caught making critical remarks because he still had family living in North Korea.

'We have all experienced or heard horror stories of people made to disappear, like a whole family gone overnight,' he said. 'They don't touch me but they could send my family to a labour camp. You don't know the fear.'

There were 4,000 people of ethnic Chinese descent living in North Korea three years ago, according to a Xinhua report. Dandong's city government says more than 8,000 have moved to China since the 1950s and registered their permanent residency in Dandong, becoming key players in cross-border trade and tourism. Many others have returned but not qualified for permanent residency.

Li went to university in Jilin when she was 18, got married and settled down in China. Many others also moved to China after completing high school in North Korea, in search of better prospects.

'You really need to work hard there. If you don't work you don't know where your next meal is coming from,' Li said. 'If I didn't come back my only choice was to work in a factory for a meagre wage.'

Despite her emotional attachment to North Korea, she moved to China without hesitation. In Dandong, she can earn thousands or even tens of thousands of yuan a month from her shop. Traders like Li send a steady stream of supplies to North Korea. 'Everyone I know seems to be in trade of some sort, sending stuff from China to North Korea to sell, from food, clothes and home appliances to flowers,' Li said.

For other Chinese who have left North Korea, freedom was the big attraction. Li's friend Xu Yan, who runs a restaurant across the street, left her home in Pyongyang 10 years ago to avoid factory work and seek better opportunities across the border. Now 31, she married a member of China's ethnic Korean minority and opened a small restaurant with her husband. Her parents are still farming in North Korea.

'As foreigners we were not treated as harshly as the locals,' Xu said. 'But we don't have any prospects of climbing the social ladder, either. Life is much easier here and we have more freedom to go anywhere.'

Her entire high school class of more than 50 students has moved to China. Here, they wear leather boots and smart coats, sport the latest hairstyles, enjoy an almost open internet, watch as many South Korean dramas as they like and call friends on mobile phones - none of which is easy to do in North Korea.

Xu's brother and sister, now in their twenties, also moved to China but have not been given permanent residency. Her sister works in the restaurant and her brother as a translator for an executive at a trading firm in Dandong. 'The residency registration was cancelled in North Korea one year after they left,' Xu's husband said. 'But here in China they are not given registration.' His sister-in-law has been in China for five years but has no identity card. 'She cannot even register for marriage because she does not have an identity and you are either stuck in an endless wait or have to pay big bribes.'

Xu moved back earlier and got permanent residency after a five-year wait. She registered her newborn daughter as being of Han ethnicity and wants to raise her like any Chinese girl. 'To Chinese we are North Korean. To North Koreans we are foreigners. I don't know who we are really.'