This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea have threatened to punish citizens caught criticizing China or acting in a discriminatory manner toward the country’s ethnic Chinese residents, sources told RFA.
Called ‘Hwagyo’ in Korean, the ethnic Chinese residents are not North Korean citizens. Though their families have lived on the Korean peninsula for many generations, Hwagyo are still seen as foreigners in the homogenous North Korean society and are the targets of prejudice during times when anti-Chinese sentiment is running high.
The exact number of Hwagyo in North Korea is unknown as the country’s last census in 2008 classified people as Korean or “other.” Estimates published in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper put the ethnic Chinese population at around 10,000 as of 2009.
The coronavirus pandemic has hurt the economic fortunes of both North Koreans and Hwagyo alike, with some Hwagyo hit harder by Beijing and Pyongyang’s January 2020 decision to close down the 880-mile Sino-Korean border and suspend all trade on virus concerns. The move was a disaster for North Korea’s economy, especially for those who made their living in ways connected to cross-border trade.
Though the border remains closed, North Korea has received Chinese aid by both rail and ship. Sources said that Pyongyang could be concerned that the people are acting hostile to China and Chinese people at a time when the government is looking to Beijing with its hand out.
A resident of the northwestern border city of Sinuiju told RFA’s Korean Service April 21 that neighborhood watch units in the city held meetings to tell the people that the provincial party committee would start punishing people for slanderous criticism of China and Hwagyo residents of North Korea.
“It is true that there have been various forms of criticism and slander against Hwagyo over the years because of latent prejudice and fear. The Hwagyo bundle merchants sell Chinese goods, but there have been conflicts and disputes, so North Koreans often call them by racial slurs,” said the source.
“Some North Koreans really dislike Chinese leadership for saying publicly that China is part of a ‘socialist brotherhood’ with North Korea, but Beijing does very little to support us even though we are living through economic hardship due to the coronavirus. Even the authorities in the past have been wary of our unconditional dependence on China and the expectations that they’ll take care of us, saying ‘Don’t trust China too much,’” said the source.
The central government is worried about optics at a time when North Korea needs help from China in the form of aid to get back on its feet, according to the source. This is why it ordered the lecture meetings nationwide.
“The authorities banned any form of demeaning of Chinese people, saying they would put North Koreans on the stage of the ideological review sessions and make examples out of them if they were found to be using racial slurs against Hwagyo,” said the source.
“Soon a lot of Chinese aid will come in, which is said to have been made possible on the direct orders of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Central Committee banned the criticism of China and the Chinese as it became apparent that there is no way for North Korea to solve her own problems, such as shortages of food, construction materials, and agricultural resources,” the source said.
Another source, a resident of nearby Ryongchon county, told RFA that the county’s party branch ordered people not to use racial slurs against Hwagyo.
“This is the first time that the party legally banned prejudice against Hwagyo, or criticism against China. The people are spreading rumors that the Highest Dignity has formed a brotherhood with Chinse President Xi Jinping,” said the second source, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Given the current economic situation in the country, all the people know that North Korea’s lifeblood is in China’s hands. Some say that the North Korean people are like children with bad parents who cannot avoid suffering because they have to rely on China all the time,” the second source said.
The second source said it is unfair to the Hwagyo that they should be targeted for North Koreans’ gripes with the Chinese government.
“The Hwagyo in Ryongchon county also suffered the same hardships as North Koreans over the past year. It’s enough to say that the Hwagyo have been living with even more difficulty than North Koreans,” the second source said.
North Korean authorities banning the use of specific words is very common, but usually the banned terms are an attempt to prevent South Korean speech and mannerisms from infiltrating the language spoken in North Korea.
That North Korea banned a specific racial slur may be a callback to the Chinese government’s 2016 ban of the irreverent nickname “Jin San Pang,” which has been translated as “Kim Fatty III” in reference to Kim’s weight and status as the third generation of the Kim family dynasty to rule North Korea.
North Korea has historically depended on China to bail it out of crises and shield it from international criticism.
China came to the aid of North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, losing as may as 400,000 soldiers. Beijing has used its clout in the United Nations largely to protect Pyongyang from tough penalties sought by the United States and others, although at times supporting UN Security Council resolutions over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests.
China for decades has been North Korea’s largest trading partner and provider of aid that props up the North Korean government, preventing the country’s collapse.