YANJI, China — When Eun-byol crossed the Tumen River from North Korea into China three years ago, she was nearly bald from malnutrition after subsisting on a diet of grass and bark mixed with an occasional spoonful of rice.
The 27-year-old woman had nowhere to go in a land where the Chinese police arrest North Korean refugees and return them, she says. So she allowed a marriage broker to sell her to Young-shik, an ethnic Korean farmer in search of a wife. Though her hair has since grown back and she had borne a child who rides around tied to her back with a blanket, the couple hardly feel settled: They have moved four times in the last three years to avoid the Chinese police.
Like many here in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Eun-byol might seem like someone who would eagerly watch for signs of a thaw between North and South Korea as a historic summit approaches. The presidents of the Stalinist North and democratic South plan to meet June 12 to 14 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to discuss economic cooperation, reunification of separated families and political reconciliation. The talks could eventually lead to a peace treaty between two nations that have been formally at war for 50 years.
But Eun-byol has little hope that the discussions will spark serious changes in North Korea. The government vilifies the South and enriches itself selling rice donated by foreign countries, offering a kilogram for the equivalent of two months’ wages. In her view, the North Korea is unwilling to change.
“It would be good, but it’s impossible,” said Eun-byol (her and her husband’s name have been changed in this story). “Maybe the best thing would be if relatives could go back for visits.”
In fact, while South Korean media buzzes with news of the upcoming summit, the prospect seems to stir less interest on the street in Yanji, capital of the Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Part of the reason is that many of Yanbian’s Koreans have lived in China for generations and see their future as bound with China. Part may be skepticism that any accord can be worked out between North and South. And for many peasants, Korea, North and South, is too removed from daily life to be of much interest.
Zhengji, a Korean-Chinese tofu maker, puzzles that a foreign reporter has materialized to demand her views on geopolitics. She is in the middle of a backbreaking job — shoveling coal from the street to her yard — and the Korean summit is not at the forefront of her concerns.
“If reunification were achieved, it would be good,” she said. “But I am afraid it cannot succeed.”
Nevertheless, Yanbian could benefit if the North and South ever did beat their swords into plowshares. If the nations are ever unified or even if South Korea were granted rail-transit rights through the North, the South would cease to be effectively an island, linked to the world only by air and sea. This region’s importance for investors would grow.
For that matter, many South Korean firms are already selling burgers, cars, refrigerators and rice cookers in Yanbian. In the prefecture there are more than 500 Chinese-foreign joint-ventures or companies owned exclusively by foreigners, many of them South Korean. Foreign capital for these companies totals $700 million, the prefecture administration reports in its Web site.
But while the strong Korean presence may attract investment from Seoul, a demographic change is under way in Yanbian. A generation ago, Koreans comprised 60 percent of the 2.2 million population of this region, while ethnic Chinese amounted to 40 percent. But that proportion has reversed in the past decade, even though the government allows ethnic Koreans to have two children — an exception to China’s one-child population control policy. In fact, the government provides a small stipend to Koreans if they have a second child.
But the sum is insufficient to cover the expense of raising a child, Koreans say. More to the point, women are fleeing the villages, heading for Yanji to work in restaurants and karaoke bars. This leaves farmers struggling to find a bride, except for those willing to pay enormous sums to brokers who bribe Chinese and North Korean border guards.
Some 200 women a year are smuggled out of North Korea into Yanbian, part of a $20 million a year business in selling women between China and Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, said Harry Wu, a research fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Assimilation, too, plays a role in diluting Korean culture in Yanbian. Tomoo Kasetani, a Japanese visiting professor at Yanbian University who has studied Koreans here and in South Korea, said Korean ethnicity is likely to be preserved for the long-term in the region. But their culture may fade as many parents see blending in with the Chinese as the road to their children’s success.
“Recently, some Korean parents have started sending their kids to ethnic Chinese schools,” Kasetani said. “They think that in China, if their children cannot speak Chinese, it is not so good.”
Another professor here, Aquinus E. Choe, was an earlier refugee from the North — but he headed into South Korea. Choe, who now teaches international law at Yanbian University, fled the northern city of Songnim in 1948, after Korea was divided into communist and capitalist sectors, but before civil war broke out in 1950. He was 13 years old, and his older brother, who lived in the south, sent his wife to retrieve the boy and several other relatives (women could cross the border with greater safety).
“We walked for four days to find a safe place to cross the river (into the south),” he said. “I remember the date: Nov. 7, 1948 — at midnight we were awakened by our guide and we had to cross. I still remember my sister-in-law; she was a very clever and very brave woman.”
Choe, at least, is eagerly following the summit. He spent 35 years working for the South Korean Red Cross, and from 1971 to 1985 he took part in 10 rounds of talks with North Korea on the subject of family reunification. But apart from an exchanges by 50 people from each country in 1985, there was little progress.
He is hoping that South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North will reap rewards, but he says Pyongyang remains suspicious of Southern intentions. It pointedly refuses to use Kim’s term, “sunshine policy.”
“I think that in North Korea, they do not like to experience ‘sunshine,’ ” Choe said. “In North Korea, they think sunshine is something like a plan to make the North surrender.”
Whatever happens at the summit, refugees from the North are likely face a tough time in China in the foreseeable future. While their ethnic Koreans kinsmen try to help when they can, Yanbian’s Chinese sometimes dislike the poverty-stricken refugees.
A Chinese taxi driver in Yanji, who asked that his name not be used, said he has driven several women to the border as policemen handed them over to North Korean police. “I heard that if they have to send a girl back, she might be tortured,” he said.
It is this fear — not hopes for North-South dialogue — that consumes Eun-byol. Her son is not registered and therefore will not be able to attend school when he grows older. Her own life is at risk. And it is hard to think that a conference will change anything.
Now the couple fall silent as they sit on the floor of their traditional home. It is clear that the visitor should leave. Before long it will be dark out. The husband and wife are afraid.
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