Yanji was still the same tightly packed mass of greying apartment and office blocks, divided by the Buerhatong River, I had encountered on previous visits. But if Yanji looks like a typically undistinguished third-tier Chinese city, it feels very different from one. The first hint of its dual nature is the fact that the street signs are in same-sized Chinese and Korean characters. They are symbolic of the way Yanji’s 400,000 people are divided almost equally between Han and ethnic Korean, and how they coexist in a far more amenable atmosphere than is normal for Chinese and minorities in the borderlands.
There is no sense that the city is segregated, as Lhasa and Urumqi are rigidly divided between Han and Tibetan or Uighur neighbourhoods. Stand at a bus stop in Yanji and you will hear Korean in one ear and Mandarin in the other until they seem to blend into one bizarre new tongue. And the longer you stay in Yanji, the more South Korean it feels. Restaurants offering Korean delicacies like dog meat outnumber Chinese eateries. The city has its own TV channels in Korean, along with newspapers and magazines offering the latest updates on celebrity scandals in Seoul.
Security is unobtrusive here too. There are plenty of soldiers in the surrounding Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the official Chinese name for the region, mounting guard along the nearby border with the DPRK. But in Yanji itself the main hint that the military is around are the jets from a nearby air-force base that scream over the city at regular intervals, coming in so low that the red stars on their fuselages are clearly visible.
Yanbian, Yanji apart, is one of the least densely populated regions of China outside the high plateau of Tibet and the deserts of Xinjiang. Around 2.2 million people live in an area of Jilin Province about half the size of South Korea, which has a population of fifty million. After the packed cities and countryside of eastern and southern China, where every inch of land is utilised, the empty landscape is both a shock and a relief. Forty per cent of the residents of the prefecture are ethnic Korean, the rest Han, with the remaining million-plus Chinese Koreans mostly spread throughout the rest of Jilin, or in neighbouring Liaoning Province.
Ethnic Koreans are known in China as Chaoxianzu [朝鲜族] which translates as ‘North Korean race’ [more literally ‘Chosŏn tribe’ or ‘morning calm tribe’], Chaoxian being the Chinese name for the DPRK [because the DPRK uses the same name]. It is a way of distinguishing them from South Koreans, but also an accurate description of their origins because nearly all Chinese Koreans come from areas that are now part of North Korea. [In current Japanese usage, North Korea is called Kita-Chōsen (北朝鮮 = North Chosŏn) and South Korea Kankoku (韓国 = Hanguk), but the use of “Chōsenjin” to refer to Korean people has a long history of derogatory usage and, at least to my ears, the Sino-Japanese reading of 朝鲜族, Chōsenzoku ‘Chōsen tribe’, sounds even worse.]
By , there were 1.7 million Koreans living in Dongbei. With Japan occupying Korea, almost all supported or fought for the CCP in its battles against the Japanese and the nationalist armies, including Kim Il-sung who would later wildly exaggerate his success as a guerrilla leader, despite having spent much of the Second World War living safely in the Russian Far East. Even after the defeat of Japan in 1945, most Koreans in China chose to stay on, with only half a million returning to their homeland.
As Korea was plunged into the war that formalised the division of the peninsula into two separate countries, another Korea was being created. Beijing didn’t forget the sacrifices of the Koreans in Dongbei during the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. They were given land and, in 1952, became one of the first ethnic groups to be granted their own official region. Now Yanbian is a third Korea, only one inside China. With its people hailing from North Korea but bound culturally to South Korea, it presages what a reunified Korea might be like.
China’s Koreans enjoy advantages denied to other minorities, which only reinforces the sense that Yanbian is more like a mini-state than just another autonomous area. The most notable of these is the right to education in their own language at school as well as college. Unlike in Xinjiang, where the government has closed down Uighur-only schools, or Xishuangbanna and Tibet, where the only way to study Dai or Tibetan is to become a monk, the Yanbian government actually funds schools that teach in Korean.
Nor are the Koreans as obviously subordinate to the Han as most other ethnic groups, being well represented among local officials. Apart from during the Cultural Revolution, when the Chaoxianzu suffered along with all the minorities, the Han have always maintained a mutually respectful relationship with the Koreans. On the surface at least, the Han approach in Yanbian seemed to me to be a model which if followed elsewhere would certainly reduce, while not eliminating, tensions between the Chinese and the most restive minorities.