Sino-North Korean defectors are in dire straits in South Korea

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GWANGYANG, South Korea (AP) – He feels abandoned by three countries, Cho Guk-gyeong shows a visitor his South Korean card, which describes him as “stateless”. It is a fitting description of his life in South Korea, 15 years after his escape from North Korea.

Most of the North Korean defectors to the south are ethnic Koreans, but Cho, 53, is a third generation Chinese immigrant. While ethnic Korean defectors are legally entitled to a benefit package to help them relocate to South Korea, Cho cannot receive this assistance because he retained his Chinese citizenship in North Korea, despite the fact that his family has lived there for generations.

“I don’t need any government funding or other support. I just want South Korean citizenship so that I can work hard until I die, ”Cho said during an interview in the southern port city of Gwangyang, where he recently worked as a temporary worker, his first job in eight years.

It is unclear how many Chinese and North Koreans have come to South Korea over the years. Activists say about 30 were classified as “stateless” after unsuccessful attempts to impersonate North Korean citizens ended up in jails or detention centers in South Korea.

This designation as “stateless” makes it extremely difficult for them to find a job and enjoy basic rights and services in the South, and although their numbers are relatively small, their campaign for better treatment highlights a little-known but important human rights problem.

“They are probably the most pathetic overseas Chinese in the world as they have been abandoned by North Korea, China and South Korea,” said Yi Junghee, professor at the Academy of Chinese Studies at Incheon National University. “You don’t get any help from any country.”

A return to North Korea would mean a long prison sentence or worse. Settling in China is often a problem because many do not speak Chinese and have lost contact with relatives there. It could take years to get local residence permits in China.

In 2019, in the first known joint effort by ethnic Chinese from North Korea, Cho and three others applied for refugee status and had their long-awaited first interviews with immigration officials in June. The prospects for approval are not good. South Korea’s acceptance rate for refugee status applications has been below 2% in recent years.

In response to inquiries from The Associated Press, the Justice Department said it would be reviewing the likelihood of Cho and three other Sino-North Koreans being persecuted if they leave South Korea, as well as the consistency of their statements and the documents they previously submitted it determines whether refugee status is granted. The ministry refused to disclose the content of the June interviews, but said its review could take a long time.

The ministry said the four and several other Sino-North Koreans are likely still legally Chinese but cannot prove their citizenship. The authorities regard them as “de facto stateless” people and allow them to stay in South Korea.

A significant Chinese settlement on the Korean peninsula dates back to the early 19th century. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 ethnic Chinese now live in North Korea. They are the only foreigners with permanent residency among North Korea’s 26 million, analysts say.

You can retain Chinese citizenship, visit China once or twice a year, and do business across borders. Men are exempt from 10 years of military service. But their ethnic origin also often makes them more closely monitored by the state, denies them entry into the ruling workers’ party and limits their political options.

They generally refer to themselves as North Koreans.

Cho said that in his youth he was taught to worship the ruling Kim family with his North Korean friends in school. He worked for a state factory and lived as a naturalized North Korean citizen for two years.

“My ancestors’ roots have dried up, and to be honest, I feel like North Korea is my home,” said Cho, whose grandfather moved to the North Korean city of Chongjin in the northeast in the mid-1920s.

About 34,000 North Koreans have moved to South Korea since the late 1990s to avoid economic hardship and political repression. This includes some Chinese-North Koreans like Cho. Without passports issued by Beijing, they often hire brokers to take them to South Korea via Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, the same route North Koreans use.

When he arrived in South Korea in 2008 when he was interrogated by intelligence officials, Cho posed as one of his best North Korean friends, who had been killed in a traffic accident. He said he wanted to start over by hiding his Chinese background, which he sees as a disadvantage in both Koreas. Cho said he was unaware of the seriousness of his deception.

He was granted South Korean citizenship, housing, and other financial assistance under a law protecting North Korean defectors because South Korea legally sees North Korea as part of its territory. But in 2012, his lie was exposed by authorities who initially thought he was a North Korean spy. Cho was acquitted of espionage charges, but he was stripped of his citizenship and other benefits and sentenced to one year in prison for immigration and other crimes.

Another Sino-North Korean refugee named Yoon said he was detained in a government facility for about 20 months in a similar attempt to impersonate a North Korean citizen. The 60-year-old escaped conviction because his lies were exposed shortly after arriving and before he was released from society.

“I sometimes think I shouldn’t have come here. I don’t know how many more years I’ll live. But I want to die after I get citizenship, ”said the man, who only wanted to be identified by his family name due to security concerns for relatives in the north.

During their interviews in June, the four Sino-North Korean officials told officials that returning to North Korea would subject them to punishment, according to Kim Yong. Difficulties in China due to missing residence cards, missing relatives and the language barrier -hwa, a North Korean defector who became an activist who helped them with their refugee applications.

For South Korea, embracing the Chinese and North Koreans is a delicate matter as it could lead other ethnic Chinese in the north to come to South Korea, which would upset Pyongyang’s leadership and make Seoul’s efforts at reconciliation difficult, 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 who is Sino-North Korean friends in the North, who is following South Korea came.

Unlike Noh, many other North Korean defectors often ignore “stateless” Chinese-North Koreans who also often cannot get along with other ethnic Chinese who have lived in South Korea for generations, Kim said.

Yoon said he needed financial support from Kim and a church. Cho, who lives with a North Korean defector, said he hadn’t told his defector friends in South Korea about his ethnic background or legal status.

“I don’t think we’re alienated, but I’m afraid that people who are not close to me will learn about my background and status. I just don’t know how they would react, ”said Cho.

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