Transcript Episode 2: The Korean Corner of China

(This is the transcript of a Travel Tape podcast. To listen to the show click here.)

At 22,457km* in length, China’s border is the longest in the world. 14 sovereign and very distinct nations cozy up to that line, including North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, India, Burma, Laos, Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam, and 5 Stans. It’s a long list. China is a big place.

*(according to CIA Factbook)

It’s a continent really. It’s not a country. You go from east to west or north to south and you are going through massively different places where they could be separate countries.

That’s David Eimer a journalist and travel guidebook writer from the UK. David’s been exploring China
for the past 30 years and has a particular interest and sympathy for the people living on the borders, far from the political centre in Beijing and very far from the centre of what we think of as Chinese culture.

The people in the borderlands are mostly members of ethnic minority groups and they don’t necessarily regard themselves as part of China.

Their identity is more about their ethnicity rather than the fact that they are technically a Chinese citizen.

These minorities also usually have a bigger connection with the people across the border, in the neighboring countries, than they do with the Han Chinese.

There are 55 official ethnic minorities in China. In total they make up about 8.5% of the population, just over 100 million of China’s 1.37 billion.

They also occupy about 60% of China’s land, and much of that along the borders.

Of those 22,457 km I mentioned earlier, 19,000 are in minority regions.

As David said, minorities tend to have a strong connection with neighboring countries sharing much the same culture, language and ethnicity. This is of course not unique to China. The border regions of Europe, for example, are a complete mix of peoples and language groups.  

But for Beijing at least, a messy multi-cultural landscape is a big problem.  

So for many minorities in China preserving their cultural distinction while showing clear loyalty to Beijing is one of the central challenges of their lives.   

David recently published a book on all this called The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.

He covers 4 large regions and today I’m going to focus on one. The very very little known Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. And that is in China, on the border with North Korea.

But first, I want to hear about the inspiration for David’s decades long fascination with people living on the borders.

My first visit to China was in 1988. And in many ways, that was when the idea for this book really took root.

1988 was a different era in China. The cultural revolution was 11 years in the past. While Tiananmen was still a year away The economy was opening. The cities were modernizing. The music was changing. And getting rich was glorious.

But the country as a whole was still quite poor, and travel was something for foreigners only, like David.

After tramping across southern China, he made his way to Chengdu.
And then….

I drifted round toward the borderlands and in this case it was Xinjiang, and I started to realize there are some people who look like me. And that China in away was becoming less Chinese.

And I thought this was interesting. When you don’t know anything about China you think it is hermetically sealed.

Certainly it was when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, when occasionally you’d see TV footage of huge crowds on public holidays or in Tiananmen Square and you`d see just this mass of people and you’d have this idea of a homogenous entity which is very far from the reality.     

In 2005, after nearly two decades of travel in China, David moved to Beijing to work as a foreign correspondent. He wrote a lot about Tibet, and Tibetans, and their struggles for autonomy and religious freedom, but almost nothing about other ethnic minorities.

And that bothered him.

I began to realize that people around the world just aren`t really aware that not only are there all these other ethnic minorities in China but they are also not particularly happy being run by Beijing.

So David began taking long research trips out to regions very far from the capital, settling in small towns for months at a time, talking to people, planning his book.

And like any writer on China, looking for a way to par down his oversized subject.

I made the decision that I wasn’t going to cover the entire borderlands but I would do the most interesting and contentious regions.

If you want to give it the Hollywood high treatment, people have been writing about China since Marco Polo,
but no one has really written about what it is like to be an ethnic minority living two, two and a half thousand miles from Beijing.

So let’s start to look at one of those minorities, the 2 million or so ethnic Koreans, living far north of Beijing,
across a vast area of forest, farmland, and smokestack towns. It’s a place we used to call Manchuria.

When I got to Yanji, the capital, I really notice how Korean it is in terms culturally and just hearing the language and the food on offer in restaurants. And newspaper were carrying stories of celebrity scandals in South Korea.

And I found this fascinating. I mean I knew there were ethnic Koreans in China. But I didn’t know there were 2 million of them. I didn’t fully understand the relationship they had with the Chinese. And the relationship they have with North Korea.

Almost all the ethnic Koreans in China have their roots in what is now North Korea. They started moving across in the 19th century.

Their heartland is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in Jilin Province.

The region borders both North Korea and Russia. And the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which flow down from the high snowy Changbaishan Mountains form natural boundaries between the countries.  

From Yanbian, the North Korean countryside looks about what you’d expect: hilly, and desolate. It’s not quite grey, but even the vegetation looks pale like in a de-saturated photo.

Yanbian itself is still quite lovely overall. Like a lot of border regions it’s not heavily populated, and most of the land is still used for farming. The corn fields are endless and you end up riding through them for hours when entering and leaving the prefecture by bus or train.

The towns look much the same as elsewhere in China: modern, tiled, fluorescent and functional. But they also lack the nervous aggressive energy of most urban areas of China.

Yanbian is roughly 1/3 the size of North Korea, but in the 19th century people began moving here for the better opportunities, the better farmland, or just to escape the deadly famines which still plague North Korea today.

By the 1930s there were 1 million Koreans living in China. Most in the Yanbian area.

And they never stopped crossing over. Or returning, for that matter.

After 1949 and the communist takeover of China there was still a lot of movement between NK and China
with ethnic Koreans going back. I spoke to one ethnic Korean lady in a village near Tumen which is a town right up on the border with North Korea and she was telling me how in the 1960s people in her village used to move back to NK.

This was happening particularly at times like the Great Leap Forward when China was suffering from its own famine. Also that happened during the Cultural Revolution when there was a huge amount of turmoil in China.

In those days NK was propped up by its allies in the eastern block and was a reasonably prosperous place.
All that changed obviously after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just at the time China really started to hum economically. And then as a very bad famine took hold in the early 1990s, and you started to see North Koreans moving back to China or going to China just to escape or look for food really.
I thought that was fascinating. We always think of North Koreans fleeing into China but that’s only the latest wave of migration. Previously people were going in both directions.  

The Kim’s for example. They went both ways.

Yes, those Kims. Kim Il Sung, the first Supreme Leader, and now the Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, grew up in northern China.

Kim’s family went to Jilin City, in 1920. He was 8 years old then and he didn’t return to Korea until he was in his 20s.

The Kim family journey was pretty typical of journeys taken by Koreans at the time. There were better opportunities in China. You could have a better life.

One thing I didn’t put in the book which is revealing is that when Kim first started giving speeches
in North Korea he had a real problem.

Having grown up in China, and later spent time in Russia Kim spoke Korean with quite a strong Chinese accent. And of course people wondered why their supreme leader didn’t speak with a Korean accent. So he kind of had to learn to speak Korean again.
I’ve been to the Yanbian prefecture twice. I covered the region for the Lonely Planet China guide after David, in 2010 and 2012.

There’s very little to do in the prefecture itself, but just being there makes you curious and on those long bus and train rides through the endless corn fields you end up reading a lot, on Chinese history, on trade and security between North Korea and China. And you watch a lot of Youtube and Youku videos.

In Yanji, the capital, If you just wander around, you can also see a casual and equal co-existence between Han Chinese and ethnic Koreans. Koreans are trusted by the majority, and by the CCP. They are seen as model citizens. But many ethnic groups are not.

I found an old newpaper clip while I was researching for this podcast that described a Tibetan delegation being sent to Yanbian in 1952. This was just after their territory had been annexed by China so the Tibetans were being educated in how a proper ethnic group should behave in the new People’s Republic.

The ethnic Koreans were actually one of the first minorities to be given their own autonomous region.
I think it was 1952.

Just a few years after the Chinese Civil War had ended. In that war, the Koreans had supported the Communists over the Nationalists just as a few years earlier they had supported China in general against the Japanese.
And so it was a kind of reward for their loyalty that they were given their own autonomous region so quickly.
And they were also given advantages that other ethnic minorities don`t get.

There are still schools in Yanbian where you can be taught in Korean. It has its own university. Students can even take the gaokao, the China-wide university entrance exam in Korean to get accepted into that university.

Korean language media is also encouraged. In Yanji, Korean newspapers are sold on the streets. Korean television stations play in your hotel room. Streets signs are bilingual. And by law the Korean words
cannot be squeezed into the corner of a sign. They have to appear just as prominent as the Chinese script. And then there’s soccer.

One the key cultural things in Korea whether it`s the south or North is that the number one sport is soccer or football. And Yanbian has always been known for producing high quality soccer players for the Chinese national team.

At one stage the local club was the best in China. It’s like the equivalent of Manchester United or Real Madrid.
They dominated Chinese soccer up till the 1990s. The team in Yanbian was also the only ethnic minority team in China. It was one thing that marked the Koreans out from the other minorities. They were known across China for it.

If you asked a Han Chinese 20-30 years ago about ethnic Koreans they probably hadn’t met any but they knew they were good at soccer.
In the same way if you asked a Han Chinese person in Beijing about ethnic minorities in Xishuangbanna
they would say oh they are good at dancing. It’s a stereotype.

But playing soccer is something fewer and fewer young ethnic Koreans are doing. It’s one of the ironies of minority life in China. The groups that are doing well, that are well integrated, they are the most in danger of losing their cultural distinction.
The ethnic groups that have the best relationship with the Han, the Zhuang, which is the largest, or the Koreans, their culture is being denuded. Because one of the by-products of that good relationship with the Han is that they tend to marry the Han.  

And what usually happens when an ethnic Korean, for example, marries a Han Chinese is that the children they have are brought up Han rather than ethnic Korean. That means they may not play soccer…

…that means they’ll go to a Han Chinese school rather than a Korean school. So Mandarin will be their first language rather than Korean.

And that means the minority numbers are dropping as kids of mixed marriages tend to be counted as Han.
It’s like being victim of your own success really.

So let’s recap. Ethnic Koreans migrated into China, from North Korea, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled mostly in the north close to the Motherland, and periodically gauged the relative prosperity of each country and moved back and forth according to opportunities.

Ethnic Koreans are currently on very good terms with the dominant group in China, the Han, but this leads to intermarriage and a decline in official minority numbers, and the closing of schools, and the loss of cultural awareness and distinction.

It’s all very interesting, but where is the controversy that David wanted for each of the border regions that he covered?  Well, Yanbian has a secret:

Before the Korean Peninsula was divided, a very significant numbers of North Koreans were Protestants  
and Pyongyang was one of the most Christian cities in Asia.

Western missionaries had become active in North Korea in 1884. By 1907 Pyongyang was being dubbed The Jerusalem of the East.
There was a sizeable foreign missionary population in the city which included the schoolgirl Ruth Bell, who went on to marry the American celebrity preacher Billy Graham.

Also among the faithful at that time were Kim Il Sung’s parents, and his maternal uncle who was a pastor.

After 1948, and the formation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, Kim began to persecute the community. He saw religion as the greatest threat to his cult of personality, And it is said he revealed the first statue of himself on Christmas Day, in 1949, just to drive the point home.

In the following decades, Korean Christians fled to the South. And here, the church not only survived but did astonishing well in converting millions more to the faith. Currently, around 30% of the population of South Korea is now Christian. The country is an evangelical powerhouse. With the exception of the United States,
South Korea sends out more missionaries than anywhere else in the world.

And this, this gets us back to Yanbian as much of this missionary initiative goes here, to the autonomous prefecture in China. In Yanbian’s small capital, Yanji, crosses poke up into the skyline.
But these belong to official Beijing-approved churches.

Most ethnic Korean Christians attend what might be called unofficial underground house churches.

This is a huge bone of contention with their government. And it was exactly the sort of thing that David was looking for.

I mean I knew there were a lot of missionaries in the region and they were active. And I also knew that the Chinese communist party views religion as a threat, and has always been very anti-missionary.

And yet here was this model ethnic minority, not only practicing religion but openly engaging in missionary activity.

Since Xi Jinping took over there has been a noticeable increase in crackdowns not just in Yanbian, but across China, on Christians. Christianity is definitely seen a threat. It’s a western religion for a start. And that alone would mark it out as a problem.

One of David’s contacts in the underground church scene was an ethnic Korean man called Pastor Kim.
Kim’s conversion story is a typical one and tells a lot about the economic and social forces that are making Christianity explode in China.

I was introduced to Pastor Kim by a girl who was helping me with the translation when I was doing interviews with ethnic Koreans. He was happy to meet me but he didn’t want me to come at a meeting at his church.
So we ended up meeting at a café near the university.

And over a coffee Kim told David why he had become a Christian.

Chinese life is increasingly about material things. Getting enough money to buy a car. Buy an apartment. Take care of your parents, and wife. Move into the middle class.

And Kim found that rather oppressive. He didn’t say it but I suspect he was depressed.

And while he was at college a friend of his suggested he go to church with him.

They went to an official church at first, a church approved by Beijing, but it still seemed to do the trick for Kim.

He felt comforted, and at peace. Some time later he moved on to an unofficial house church. And eventually he became an unofficial pastor himself complete with his own unofficial house church.

A house church will range. It could be something as simple as the back room of a restaurant where the people just sit at tables an d the pastor stands up in the middle and preaches and leads a service or bible study group.

They might play gospel hymns such as you are hearing now, but they certainly won’t have a large choir.

The small size is not so much about the numbers of Christian, as the need for security. Christianity is booming
and a lot of the house churches have simply become too big.

While officials will turn a blind eye to a house church that is small they won’t if it’s a big one. Then you really are risking being arrested or certainly the pastor is risking being arrested.
And yet some Yanbian Christians are astonishingly open about who they are and what they believe and are even continuing the evangelical tradition of America and South Korea within China itself.

I was impressed by how brave some of them were. Some of them actually go out onto the street and stop people like they do in the west and ask have you welcomed Jesus into your life.

And they won’t just do this in their home province. Some will go to quite distant regions like the southwest or
even Ningxia which is a Muslim area, which is quite brave.

Certainly if they were caught it would mean a prison sentence.

But a lot of it is just word of mouth. They talk to their friends at university, at school, or their colleges at the companies they work and say “hey you should come along to a church you may like it.”

But this evangelizing is a big problem for Beijing. It’s never like missionary activity, whether it’s done by foreigners or locals.

Churches are organized communities and anything which smacks of potential resistance to the Chinese Communist Party is going to be targeted. 

In northern China, however, the pre-eminent security threat is always going to be the instability of North Korea, and the potential for a flood of refugees across the border.

I think if the North Korean regime collapses, inevitably you’re going to see a large number of North Korean refugees coming into Yanbian.

And that would be a problem for Beijing. In ethnic regions, it always wants the Han Chinese to outnumber locals. In a border area like Yanbian, this numerical superiority is supposed to guard against irredentism. There are Nationalist Koreans who refer to Yanbian as the Third Korea, after the North and South, and a flood of new ethnic Koreans into the region would certainly bolster their claims.

It’s difficult to say how serious anyone really takes the threat. David found only one supporter in Yanbian,
and he was completely drunk, but China isn’t taking any chances.

I think the combination of a surge in Christianity, and North Korea’s ongoing issues means that China likes to keeps the Kims in power it wants to keep the Kim Dynasty in power as it basically reduces the chance of the country collapsing and so lots of North Koreans coming into China.

There is still migration going on, but what is happening now, is you are getting fewer long term refugees.

You are getting people coming in for a few months to work on a farm, to work on a construction site just to earn some money.
And then they go back.

And some people will come over for a weekend just to try and get a few bags of rice and some clothes.

And then they’ll just wade back across the river. There are places where it is literally no more than a few meters across to the other side. And in winter, when the rivers freeze over it’s just a few steps.

Some North Koreans are also using Yanbian and its network of churches as a springboard to other countries
via a sort of Underground Railway that smuggles them across China.
There are a couple, you can call them, underground railroads that are designed, or their routes designed, to get North Koreans out. One goes to Mongolia which deports all Koreans to South Korea automatically.

The biggest route in my understanding would be down to Yunnan then across the border to Laos and down into Thailand to Bangkok from where they can make their way to South Korea.

That route through to SE Asia is now much harder. David was in Yunnan last summer and says he couldn’t believe how heavily guarded the Bannan border was in comparison to a few years back.

You still get across the border if you know the right people…
He did.
But that’s another story.

Before I end I want to mention that there are 2 more episodes in the Borderlands series coming up over the next few months.

One will cover the eastern region of Tibet, a borderland of a borderland where a Chinese Princess is one of the key cultural figures for the local Tibetans.

In another show, David Eimer will join me again to talk about his travels and book research in the southwest of China along those increasingly heavily guarded Yunnan-Thai-Burma borders.

We’ll also talk about just how China came to recognize 55 official ethnic minorities. Because it actually has hundreds more.

And there’s even a bonus at the end of that podcast where David retells an illicit trip he took while researching,
which entailed sneaking across China’s border into Burma.

He went into Wa State. That is the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, one of the world’s centres of illegal drug production. It’s a great story.

Don’t miss it.

And if you want to read more about this topic check out David Eimer’s book. It’s available at
and lots of other places and it’s called The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China.