GWANGYANG, South Korea (AP) – Abandoned, according to him, 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 of his life in South Korea, 15 years after fleeing North Korea.
Most of the North Korean defectors to the South are of Korean descent, but Cho, 53, is a third-generation Chinese immigrant. While ethnically Korean defectors are entitled by law to a package of benefits intended to facilitate their relocation to South Korea, Cho cannot receive this assistance because he has retained his Chinese nationality in North Korea, even though his family has lived there for generations.
“I don’t need a state subsidy or any other help. I just want South Korean citizenship so I can work diligently until I die, ”Cho said in an interview in the southern port city of Gwangyang, where he recently worked as a temporary laborer, his first job in eight. years.
It is not known how many Chinese-North Koreans have come to South Korea over the years. Activists say around 30 of them have been designated as “stateless” after unsuccessful attempts to impersonate North Korean nationals took them to jail or detention centers in South Korea.
This designation of ‘stateless’ makes it extremely difficult for them to find employment and enjoy basic rights and services in the South, and, although their numbers may be relatively small, their campaign for better treatment highlights a little known but important human rights issue.
“They are probably the most pitiful overseas Chinese in the world because they have been abandoned by North Korea, China and South Korea,” said Yi Junghee, professor at the Academy of Chinese Studies. from Incheon National University. “They are not receiving aid from any country.
Returning to North Korea would mean a long jail term, or worse. Relocating to China is often a problem as many do not speak Chinese and have lost contact with loved ones there. It could take years to obtain local Chinese residence cards.
In 2019, Cho and three others applied for refugee status as part of the first known joint efforts of ethnic Chinese from North Korea, and had their long-awaited first talks with immigration officials in June. The chances of getting approval are not good. South Korea’s acceptance rate for refugee claims has been below 2% in recent years.
In response to questions posed by The Associated Press, the Justice Department said it would examine the likelihood of Cho and three other Sino-North Koreans being persecuted if they leave South Korea, the consistency of their testimony and the documents they have previously submitted. it determines whether to grant refugee status. The ministry declined to release the content of the June interviews, but said it could take a long time to review.
The main Chinese colonies on the Korean peninsula date back to the beginning of the 19th century. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 ethnic Chinese now live in North Korea. They are the only foreigners with permanent resident rights among North Korea’s 26 million people, analysts said.
They can retain Chinese citizenship, travel to China once or twice a year, and do cross-border business. Men are exempt from compulsory 10-year military service. But their ethnic origin also often makes them the subject of greater state scrutiny, prevents them from joining the ruling Workers’ Party and limits their political opportunities.
In general, they consider themselves to be North Koreans.
Cho said that in his youth, he learned to revere 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 North Korean city of Chongjin in the midst of the 1920s.
About 34,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea to avoid economic hardship and political repression since the late 1990s. This 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 arriving in South Korea in 2008, when questioned by intelligence officers, Cho posed as one of his best North Korean friends, who died in a traffic accident. He said he wanted to make a fresh start by hiding his Chinese origin, which he sees as a disadvantage in both Koreas. Cho said he was unaware of the seriousness of his deception.
He was given South Korean citizenship, an apartment, and other financial aid under a law that protects North Korean defectors because South Korea legally considers North Korea to be part of its territory. But in 2012, his lie was detected by authorities who initially believed he was a North Korean spy. Cho was cleared of espionage charges, but was stripped of his citizenship and other benefits and sentenced to one year in prison for immigration and other offenses.
Another Sino-North Korean refugee, nicknamed Yoon, said he was held in a government facility for about 20 months in a similar attempt to impersonate a North Korean national. The 60-year-old avoided conviction because his lie was detected shortly after his arrival and before his release from the company.
“Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have come here. I don’t know how many more years I’ll live. But I want to die after obtaining nationality, ”said the man, who wished to be identified only by his last name because of security concerns for his relatives in the North.
During their June talks, the four Sino-North Koreans told officials that their return to North Korea would expose them to sanctions and that they could face difficulties in China due to the lack of residence permits, the absence of parents and the language barrier, according to Kim Yong. -hwa, a North Korean defector turned activist who helped them with their asylum applications.
For South Korea, adopting the Chinese and North Koreans is a delicate matter because it could entice other ethnic Chinese from the North to come to South Korea, which would anger the leaders of Pyongyang and complicate the efforts of Seoul to seek reconciliation, Kim said.
“We lived and suffered together in North Korea (…) so it makes no sense to decide that they are not North Korean defectors,” said Noh Hyun-jeong, a North Korean defector. in Seoul, which has Sino-North Korean friends. from the North who came to South Korea.
Unlike Noh, many other North Korean defectors often ignore “stateless” Chinese-North Koreans, who often fail to get along with other ethnic Chinese who have lived in South Korea for generations, Kim said. .
Yoon said he was dependent on Kim and a church for financial help. Cho, who lives with a North Korean defector, said he had not told his defector friends in South Korea about his ethnicity and legal status.
“I don’t think we would move away from ourselves, but I’m afraid people who are not close to me will learn about my background and my status. I just don’t know how they would react, ”Cho said.