The Newsletter 83 Summer 2019

Contradictions, communication, and reconciliation between the ethnic Koreans of the Tumen River Area and the South Korean people

Jin Hu Xiong

Many ethnic Koreans from the Tumen River Area have made a second home for themselves in South Korea. In 2014, there were approximately 400 thousand ethnic Koreans from China residing in South Korea. Prior to 1988, they mainly came to the ‘motherland’ to visit relatives and were met with warm greetings and showered with gifts. However, the ethnic Koreans from China soon came to realize that South Koreans were willing to spend heavily on traditional medicinal ingredients from China, such as deer antler, and stimulated by the transition to a market economy that was taking place in China at the time, they began to regard South Korea as a place where money could be made by selling illegally smuggled traditional medicinal ingredients. This phase, from 1988 to 1990, is known as the ‘medicine peddler phase’ of ethnic Korean migration. Following this phase, the ethnic Koreans from China began to (illegally) provide much needed labor for the South Korean economy, but it is only from September of 2003 that they gained the right to remain in Korea as legal economic migrants. This is, in short, the historical background of the ‘Korean Dream’.

The experiences of these ethnic Koreans in South Korea are represented in the novels of authors from the Tumen River Area, published in literary journals such as Yanbian Literature, Doraji, and Jangbaeksan. The early novels that deal with the ‘Korean Dream’ present a relatively negative view of South Korea, as a place responsible for taking away wives and breaking down happy and peaceful families, eventually bringing about misfortune to the local community. In reality, however, much more was achieved than lost through the ‘Korean Dream’. So what may have led to the formation of such a demonic image of South Korea in these early novels? Differences in the cultural consciousness of the two groups, stemming from differences in ideology and the socio-political system, may have certainly played a part. However, the limited experiences of these ethnic Korean writers in South Korea must also be taken into consideration. For these writers, South Korea was a place where they worked as low-wage employees (or even as illegal immigrants) and it is likely that they would have come into contact and experienced friction with people at the bottom of the South Korean social ladder.

More recently published novels dealing with the ‘Korean Dream’, however, have aimed to overcome the contradictions between the ethnic Koreans of China and the South Korean people. These novels are full of considerations on the issue of ‘ethnic identity’ and contain a great deal of love and humanism. They also show that the authors from the Tumen River Area have come to arrive at the understanding that both groups share a mutual agony and are now able to show sympathy for the South Korean people as well. In particular, through reflections upon their own ethnic community, the ethnic Korean authors have come to form a philosophy that maintains that only based on self-esteem, self-love, and self-reinforcement will it be possible to reach true equality and frank dialogue, and co-exist in harmony with the South Korean people. It can therefore be said that the horizon of novels by the ethnic Korean authors of the Tumen River Area is further expanding.

Upon reading Korean Dream by the ethnic Korean Chinese author Hye-sun Lee, the South Korean novelist Wanseo Park voiced frankly that “it is painful to see that we are sometimes perpetrators or in the position of being the one that oppresses and exploits”. This shows that the image of the South Korean people depicted in the novels of ethnic Korean Chinese authors provides much inspiration not only to the ethnic Koreans of the Tumen River Area but also the people of South Korea. The governments of China and South Korea should also take note of such images. For the South Korean government, in particular, it is imperative that they obtain (through these novels and other forms of media) an understanding of the experiences and mindsets of the ethnic Koreans of the Tumen River Area and how they perceive the South Korean people, for this has important implications for future interactions and reconciliation between the peoples of the two Koreas, which will hopefully take place in the future.

Jin Hu Xiong, Professor of Korean Language and Literature, Center for North and South Korea Studies, Yanbian University