GWANGYANG, South Korea — Abandoned, he feels, by three countries, Cho Guk-gyeong shows a visitor his South Korean alien registration card, which describes him as “stateless.” It’s an apt description for what his life is like in South Korea, 15 years after he fled North Korea.
Most North Korean defectors to the South are ethnically Korean, but Cho, 53, is a third-generation Chinese immigrant. While ethnically Korean defectors are entitled by law to a package of benefits designed to help their resettlement in South Korea, Cho can’t receive that support because he maintained his Chinese nationality in North Korea, even though his family has lived there for generations.
“I don’t need a state subsidy or other assistance. I just want South Korean citizenship so I can work diligently until I die,” Cho said during an interview in the southern port city of Gwangyang, where he recently worked as a temporary manual laborer, his first job in eight years.
It’s unclear how many Chinese-North Koreans have come to South Korea over the years. Activists say about 30 have been designated as “stateless,” after unsuccessful attempts to pose as North Korean nationals landed them in prison or detention facilities in South Korea.
That “stateless” designation makes it extremely difficult for them to find jobs and enjoy basic rights and services in the South, and, while their numbers may be relatively small, their campaign for better treatment illuminates a little-known but important human rights issue.
“They are probably the most pitiful overseas Chinese in the world, as they’ve been abandoned by North Korea, China and South Korea,” said Yi Junghee, a professor at the Academy of Chinese Studies at Incheon National University. “They don’t get help from any country.”
Returning to North Korea would mean lengthy imprisonment, or worse. Settling in China is often a problem because many don’t speak Chinese and have lost touch with relatives there. It could take years to get local residence cards in China.
In 2019, Cho and three others applied for refugee status in the first known such joint efforts by ethnic Chinese from North Korea, and had their long-awaited first interviews with immigration officials this June. Prospects for getting approval aren’t good. South Korea’s acceptance rate for refugee status applications has been less than 2% in recent years.
In a response to queries posed by The Associated Press, the Justice Ministry said it will review the likelihood of Cho and three other Chinese-North Koreans facing persecution if they leave South Korea, the consistency of their testimony and the documents they’ve submitted before it determines whether to grant refugee status. The ministry refused to disclose the contents of the June interviews but said its review may take a long time.
The ministry said the four and some other Chinese-North Koreans are still likely legally Chinese but are unable to prove their nationality. It said authorities view them as “de facto stateless” people and are allowing them to stay in South Korea.
Major Chinese settlement on the Korean Peninsula dates back to the early 19th century. An estimated 3,000-5,000 ethnic Chinese now live in North Korea. They are the only foreigners with permanent residents’ rights among North Korea’s 26 million people, analysts say.
They can maintain Chinese nationality, visit China once or twice a year and engage in cross-border business. Men are exempt from the 10-year mandatory military service. But their ethnic background also often makes them the subject of greater state surveillance, bars them from joining the ruling Workers’ Party and limits their political opportunities.
In general, they consider themselves North Koreans.
Cho said that in his youth he was taught to worship the ruling Kim family with his North Korean friends at school. He worked for a state-run factory and lived as a naturalized North Korean citizen for two years.
“My ancestral roots have dried up, and, quite honestly, I feel like North Korea is my home,” said Cho, whose grandfather moved to the northeastern North Korean city of Chongjin in the mid-1920s.
About 34,000 North Koreans have moved to South Korea to avoid economic hardship and political suppression since the late 1990s. That includes some Chinese-North Koreans like Cho. Without Beijing-issued passports, they often hire brokers who guide them to South Korea via Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, the same route used by North Koreans.
Upon arrival in South Korea in 2008, when he underwent questioning by intelligence officials, Cho posed as one of his best North Korean friends, who had died in a traffic accident. He said he wanted to make a fresh start by hiding his Chinese background, which he sees as a disadvantage in both Koreas. Cho said he wasn’t aware of the seriousness of his deceit.
He was given South Korean citizenship, an apartment and other financial assistance under a law that protects North Korean defectors because South Korea legally regards North Korea as part of its territory. But in 2012 his lying was detected by authorities who thought initially that he was a North Korean spy. Cho was cleared of the spying charges, but he was stripped of his citizenship and other benefits and sentenced to one year in prison for immigration and other offences.
Another Chinese-North Korean refugee, surnamed Yoon, said he was held in a government facility for about 20 months for a similar attempt to pose as a North Korean national. The 60-year-old avoided conviction because his lying was detected soon after his arrival and before his release into society.
“I sometimes think I shouldn’t have come here. I don’t know how many more years I will live. But I want to die after getting nationality,” said the man, who wished to be identified only by his family name because of safety worries about relatives in the North.
During their June interviews, the four Chinese-North Koreans told officials that returning to North Korea would expose them to punishment and that they could face difficulties in China because of a lack of residential cards, no relatives and the language barrier, according to Kim Yong-hwa, a North Korean defector-turned-activist who has helped them with their refugee applications.
For South Korea, embracing Chinese-North Koreans is a delicate matter because it could prompt other ethnic Chinese in the North to come to South Korea, which would anger Pyongyang’s leadership and complicate Seoul’s efforts to seek reconciliation, Kim said.
“We lived and suffered together in North Korea … so it doesn’t make sense to decide that they aren’t North Korean defectors,” said Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector in Seoul who has Chinese-North Korean friends in the North who came to South Korea.
Unlike Noh, many other North Korean defectors often ignore “stateless” Chinese-North Koreans, who also often fail to get along with other ethnic Chinese who have lived in South Korea for generations, Kim said.
Yoon said he relies on financial assistance from Kim and from a church. Cho, who lives with a North Korean woman defector, said he hasn’t told his defector friends in South Korea about his ethnic background and legal status.
“I don’t think we would become estranged, but I’m scared about people who aren’t close to me learning about my background and status. I just don’t know how they would react,” Cho said.