China’s Triple-Korea Problem: Transborder Peoples and Transborder Sentiments

David Lundquist, University of Michigan

Transborder peoples have only recently begun to receive systematic scholarly treatment.  Drawing on a comparative perspective in the study of PRC ethnic minorities, this paper problematizes the transborder character of Korean ethnicity: North Koreans, South Koreans, and China’s Chaoxianzu (Choseonjok) minority. The Chaoxianzu share with ethnic Mongolians, Kazaks, Uzbeks, among others, the property of having a corresponding nation-state populated by co-ethnics. This article sketches the history of Koreans in China and the institutionalization of ethnicity in the PRC. I argue that the shortcomings of PRC ethnic minority policy increase the potential for minority separatism in China, even for a “model minority” like the Chaoxianzu. I then make the case that Chaoxianzu are highly relevant to Korean reunification insofar as rising pan-Korean political cooperation – even short of reunification – would undermine PRC stability and border security by striking at the state-management of Korean ethnicity that has prevailed for more than a century in Northeast Asia. Instability may arise in at least two ways, either (1) by overturning the particular role that the PRC has established for Chaoxianzu in Chinese society, or (2) via a repair of frayed cultural and social ties between the ‘three Koreas.’ I support this reasoning with a review of PRC economic and border policy in Chaoxianzu counties along the DPRK border. Then I turn to Korean nationalist discourse regarding the ancient state of Koguryo, suggesting that perceived common heritage is but one tool of consciousness-building among ethnic Koreans. Chaoxianzu labor migration to South Korea, assistance to DPRK refugees, and trade with the DPRK also demonstrate how ethnic cohesion and separation in 20th century Northeast Asia has been mediated by state political institutions. Markets and the renewed salience of ethnic affinity present a strong challenge to this.