After 3 years, Chinese who left during pandemic return to North Korea

About 70 Hwagyo will soon return to their homes; some were separated from family members.
By Ahn Chang Gyu for RFA Korean
2023.12.22
After 3 years, Chinese who left during pandemic return to North Korea The sun rises behind the Friendship Bridge [left] and the Broken Bridge, which leads across the Yalu River into North Korea, in the Chinese border city of Dandong, Sept. 21, 2023. A group of Chinese residents of North Korea were scheduled to return to North Korea by bus across the Friendship Bridge.
Pedro Pardi/AFP

After about three years, dozens of Chinese residents of North Korea who left for China during the COVID-19 pandemic are set to return home, residents in China told Radio Free Asia.

Called Hwagyo in Korean, which means “overseas Chinese,” they are descendants of Chinese people who took up residence on the Korean peninsula prior to the founding of North and South Korea. 

But they don’t have North Korean citizenship; they are officially citizens of the People’s Republic of China, though for the most part, their ancestors arrived in Korea prior to the government that now controls the Chinese mainland was established. 

While their foreign status precludes them from certain rights available to North Korean citizens, their status as foreigners affords them certain privileges. For instance, they are able to travel to China and engage in cross-border business activities with more freedom.

During the pandemic, Beijing and Pyongyang closed down the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade. Many Hwagyo at that point had lost their means of support and petitioned the North Korean government to allow them to leave for China where they might fare better.

But now the North Korean Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shenyang are receiving applications from people who want to return to their homes in North Korea.

“Last week, the North Korean Consulate General in Shenyang and the Dandong Consulate sent notice to the Hwagyo who applied to return to North Korea that they had been approved for entry,” a resident of Dandong, China, which lies across the Yalu River border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, told RFA Korean on Dec. 17, on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

He said about 70 Hwagyo were scheduled to return to North Korea on Friday by taking a bus across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which connects Dandong to Sinuiju.

Those returning to North Korea this time are Hwagyo from Pyongyang, South Pyongan Province, and North Pyongan Province,” he said. 

Official statistics on the size of North Korea’s Hwagyo population are not public knowledge, but South Korea’s National Diplomatic Academy estimated in 2017 that there were around 5,000 living within the country that year.

Once the pandemic started much of the Hwagyo community decided to travel to China to weather the storm. 

“The Hwagyo returning to North Korea will stop in Sinuiju to present flower baskets to the statues of [national founder] Kim Il Sung and [former leader] Kim Jong Il at Sinuiju square,” the Dandong resident said. “Each person paid 20 yuan (US$2.80) to prepare their flower basket.”

Those returning will not have to undergo quarantine procedures and should be allowed to return directly to their homes, he said.

“The Hwagyo who want to return are those who have wives and children in North Korea, or they may be worried about their houses that have been empty for a long time, or have certain difficulties living in China,” the Dandong resident said, adding that some of the Hwagyo might decide to remain in China for good.

The long ride home

Though many Hwagyo and their families are elated that they will soon be reunited after three long years, some complain that choosing Sinuiju on the western end of the Sino-Korean border will place undue hardship on those who live in the northern or eastern parts of the country, a resident of the city of Yanji, also in Jilin province, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

Sinuiju is an optimal hub for cross-border activities with China because it is connected by rail to major cities south of it, including the capital Pyongyang. Rail trips to northeastern cities like Chongjin, Rason or Hyesan require an initial trip south, then transferring several more times on lines going northeast or due east.

For those in North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces, the trip could take two to three days, and the train only runs once per every few days.

Additionally the Hwagyo returning after three years presumably would have a lot of luggage, the Yanji resident said.

“For this reason, it seems that almost no Hwagyo from North Hamgyong Province, South Hamgyong Province, or Ryanggang Province were included in this round of returns,” he said.

Most of the Hwagyo who left for China were from areas of the country close to the border, and the ones from these far-flung northeastern provinces simply crossed into China from areas closer to their home, he said. It is therefore likely that they will wait for a later return date, perhaps from a northeastern border city.

The Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang and the consulate in Chongjin handle a lot of consular services for Hwagyo in North Korea. Once the pandemic started, the consulate in Chongjin closed down, and only the embassy remained open. Hwagyo living in the northeast therefore do not have easy access to Chinese consular services.

“The biggest concern among these Hwagyo is whether North Korea will allow them to travel back and forth to China as freely as before,” he said, alluding to the fact that their livelihood is closely tied to their cross-border traveling privileges.

Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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