Chinese eyes on Koreans in Yanbian

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Chinese eyes on Koreans in Yanbian

Earlier this month, I was in Helong City in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture on the Duman River. Across the river, which is the China-North Korean border, is a village in Musan County, North Hamgyong Province. The road was empty, and I took out my camera. About a minute later, a military vehicle with a satellite communication device arrived.

The soldiers said that taking photography was not allowed in the area. While I was let go with an informal warning, questions remained. How did they know I was taking pictures? How on Earth did they arrive so quickly? Cameras on the Broken Bridge of Liangshui in the lower Duman River, destroyed in 1945, turn 360 degrees, and closed circuit cameras are installed along parts of the river. The network of surveillance is extensive. A local resident informed me that cameras can also be found on tree branches and, supposedly, in the grass.

The Dandong region around the Apnok River, frequented by Korean and Japanese reporters, is quite different. The steel bridge is a popular attraction that tourists make sure to take a picture of. Cruise ships constantly bring in Chinese tourists, and you can rent a motor boat to get close to the North Korean side of the river without much restriction. Luxury hotels and a large-scale industrial complex are right across the river from Hwanggeumpyeong, North Korea. Several steps from my hotel, I could see North Korean soldiers working in the field on the other side of a wired fence. Why are these two border regions so different?

In the cities on the Duman River, shabby lodgings offer various Korean television channels, North Korean Central Television and local Korean-language broadcasting. Since it is a Korean autonomous province, road signs are in Korean. Korean tourists visiting Mount Baekdu say they often get confused as to whether they are in China or Korea after looking at Korean signs for hours.

More than 100 years ago, when Yanbian was called Bukgando, there was no distinction between the Koreans who moved there and the people currently living in South and North Koreas. Koreans shared their history, language and traditions and were fighting to take back their homeland. While Koreans live in three countries now, we still are one people. The region is a strategic point in transportation connecting three northeast provinces, Mongolia and Russia’s Primorsky Krai, and a geopolitical key point connected with Najin Port in North Korea.

Yanbian is close to Korea economically and culturally, and 830,000 people who share blood ties with South and North Koreans live there. China may be afraid of the hidden, pent up power of Yanbian. If the ethnic Koreans in China are allowed to have free exchanges with the people of South and North Korea, they could create some chemical synergy - or an explosive reaction. While they are Chinese citizens, the ethnic Koreans may be people with potential to ignite national integration.

*The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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