Ethnic Chinese stranded in North Korea when the border was closed last year amid coronavirus concerns have been allowed by Pyongyang to return home, but only after promising not to return to the reclusive country before the end of 2023, sources say.
The closure of the Sino-North Korean border and suspension of all travel and trade at the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 has devastated a North Korean economy highly dependent on China. Commerce has dried up, factories lay idle for lack of raw materials, and food prices have jumped sharply as shortages mount.
The ethnic Chinese, called “Hwagyo” in Korean, were authorized to leave for China on July 14, and quickly departed the country, but were made to sign documents pledging not to come back, a source living in China recently told RFA’s Korean Service.
“When the Hwagyos came out of North Korea, they signed promises that they would not re-enter North Korea through the end of 2023,” RFA’s source said, citing information learned from a conversation with one of those who returned, and speaking on condition of anonymity.
Many ethnic Chinese traveled regularly to and from North Korea on business before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and were left out of work and cut off from their families when the border closed, the source said.
Stranded in North Korea, the Hwagyos were unable to receive living expenses from their relatives in China or even to attend family members’ funerals, he said.
“So they asked North Korean authorities for permission to leave, and the authorities allowed them to do so on the condition that they not come back to North Korea for a certain period of time,” the source said.
In July RFA’s Korean Service reported that in previous months three ethnic Chinese in the North Korean cities of Wonsan and Chongjin had died of starvation under the heavy coronavirus restrictions.
Border may remain closed
The North Korea-China border may remain closed for some time, as the situation with the spread of COVID-19 in China has not improved, analysts in Seoul say.
“There was a rumor that the border would be opened in August, but I think the possibility was always very low,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, based in Seoul.
“North Korea may still be feeling a sense of crisis as the recent situation in China regarding the novel coronavirus has been unstable,” he said.
Pyongyang has not allowed foreign arrivals into North Korea since January 2020, Cho said, adding that the body of a North Korean trade worker who died in the Chinese border city of Dandong is rumored to still be kept in a freezer at Dandong Hospital.
“The Hwagyos have now left for China, but I don’t think they’ll be able to come back to North Korea until the pandemic ends,” he said. “It is highly probable that the Hwagyos recognized this, and have left the country only after promising not to return.”
Resumption of trade under review
Also speaking to RFA, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said that plans for a resumption of trade between the two countries are under constant review, with North Korea maintaining quarantine facilities in the border cities of Sinuiju and Uiju and the seaport of Nampo, and adopting a Law on the Disinfection of Imports.
No progress has made yet toward actually opening the border, though, a Ministry official said.
“We are closely monitoring the trends along the border, but there has been no change so far,” the official said, adding that some goods—mainly fertilizers and farming equipment not banned by international sanctions—are being delivered by sea, but that nothing has been seen coming across by land.
The several thousand Chinese residents of North Korea are not recent immigrants from the People’s Republic of China. Most entered the Korean peninsula at a time when the Republic of China (ROC) controlled the Chinese mainland or during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).
RFA reported in mid-July that about 90 Hwagyo arrived by bus in the Chinese border city of Dandong, after crossing the Yalu River from North Korea’s Sinuiju.
Reported by Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Richard Finney.