A North Korean Overseas Chinese Man’s Tangled Identities in South Korea

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A North Korean Overseas Chinese Man’s Tangled Identities in South Korea

Born in North Korea, ethnically Chinese, and a defector to South Korea, Yu Woo-sung’s high-profile case highlighted the plight of the hwagyo

A North Korean Overseas Chinese Man’s Tangled Identities in South Korea

In this Dec. 8, 2012, file photo, Chinese paramilitary policemen build a fence near a concrete marker depicting the North Korean and Chinese national flags with the words “China North Korea Border” at a crossing in the Chinese border town of Tumen in eastern China’s Jilin province.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

In a world that craves simplicity, the origins of the South Korean National Assembly’s first-ever impeachment of a prosecutor on September 21, 2023, can be traced back to a man who defies straightforward categorization. Yu Woo-sung, a living embodiment of intertwined identities, stands at the epicenter of this groundbreaking legal chapter. 

Born in North Korea, ethnically Chinese, a defector to South Korea, holding citizenship in China and South Korea, Yu’s complex narrative is intricately woven into the fabric of this historic impeachment. His multifaceted identity and high-profile espionage case have not only challenged conventional perceptions of immigration, refugees, and citizenship, but have also significantly influenced the legal and political landscapes of South Korea.

Yu’s journey as a “border person” is emblematic of the growing global phenomenon where lives span multiple geopolitical landscapes, reflecting the complexities of cross-border relationships and multiple identities. His story illustrates the evolving concepts of belonging and identity in a world increasingly characterized by both visible and invisible divisions. 

Yu’s experiences navigating through diverse national and cultural identities illuminate the broader discussions on how people forge their place in an interconnected world. His narrative is a compelling testament to the multifaceted nature of modern identity and the intricacies of life in a transnational context.

The Middlemen of North Korea

Although little discussed, North Korea is home to an overseas Chinese community, known as hwagyo. These hwagyo in North Korea, like Yu, are Chinese nationals who hold North Korean resident cards designating their nationality as “Chinese.” Once numbering around 60,000 in the North Korean region immediately after World War II – out of 80,000 on the entire Korean Peninsula – this community has dwindled to an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 individuals today.

This decline in numbers, however, has not diluted their influence; if anything, it has concentrated it. Traditionally engaged in Sino-North Korean trade, these overseas Chinese hold a unique position in North Korean society. Particularly during the 1990s, when North Korea underwent a severe economic crisis, the hwagyo became pivotal as suppliers of goods, often sourcing them from their relatives in China. As the North Korean regime began to focus on economic recovery in the 2000s, it expanded preferential policies towards the hwagyo, leveraging their existing relationships with China for cooperative ventures.

The hwagyo community’s impact has only grown with China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse and North Korea’s incremental moves toward marketization. They have evolved into something more complex – financial intermediaries, lenders, and even policy facilitators between North Korea and China. The hwagyo function as critical nodes in a network that links the isolated corridors of Pyongyang to the bustling markets of China’s northeastern provinces. In this intricate web, they exercise influence that belies their relatively modest population size, becoming indispensable links that hold considerable sway in Sino-North Korean economic relations.

Navigating the Legal Maze: The Odyssey of Yu Woo-sung and Hwagyo Defectors

Yu Woo-sung’s journey offers a window into the tangled realities of hwagyo defectors. Under South Korea’s law on the protection of North Korean defectors, only individuals with a direct address, family, or workplace in North Korea – and who have not acquired foreign nationality – are recognized as defectors, who are automatically entitled to South Korean citizenship. Yu navigated this tightrope by obscuring his Chinese heritage during the vetting process when he defected to South Korea in 2004. 

While South Korea may offer naturalization to hwagyo defectors on humanitarian grounds, they are not officially acknowledged as North Korean defectors. This distinction affects the level of government aid received, as evidenced when Yu secured a contract position in Seoul by leveraging his “defector” status.

However, the story twisted dramatically in January 2013. Yu found himself ensnared in espionage charges leveled by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), accused of funneling information about North Korean defectors back to the North. He was convicted on separate counts: receiving resettlement funds meant for North Korean defectors and using a South Korean passport under false pretenses. The case unearthed loopholes in South Korea’s defector policies, highlighting the precarious legal standing of hwagyo defectors like Yu, who live in a murky space between their Chinese nationality and North Korean residency.

Yu’s legal odyssey continued to unspool like a courtroom drama. An appeal by the prosecution in 2014 was thwarted when documents, purportedly Yu’s travel records, presented by the NIS were exposed as forgeries. He was vindicated by a court of law. 

However, after several months, he was indicted again. After assisting North Korean defectors with money transfers to their families in North Korea from 2005 to 2009, Yu was charged in 2010 for violating foreign exchange laws. Although these charges were initially suspended, they were revived in 2014 after Yu’s acquittal on espionage charges. 

In 2021, South Korea’s Supreme Court affirmed the retaliatory nature of the foreign exchange law charges by the prosecution. This ruling was reinforced when, on September 21, 2023, South Korea’s National Assembly passed its first-ever impeachment motion against the prosecutor, specifically for such abuses of prosecutorial power.

Yu’s legal battles ironically reflect his faith in South Korea’s rule of law, contrasting with more authoritarian regimes in North Korea and China. Further solidifying his ties to South Korea, Yu married his defense lawyer and regained his South Korean citizenship during the prolonged legal battle. 

The case of Yu Woo-sung is not just a legal saga; it is a narrative microcosm of the emotional and psychological complexities hwagyo defectors face. Yu’s story stands as a cautionary tale, exemplifying the convoluted lives of those caught in geopolitical tangles, bridging disparate worlds yet fully belonging to none.

The Invisible Defectors: North Korea’s Stateless Hwagyo

The plight of hwagyo defectors takes a unique twist when viewed through the lens of asylum and statelessness. In May 2019, four hwagyo defectors applied for refugee status at the Seoul Immigration Office, marking the first time that defectors from this community had made such an application. These individuals are caught in a bureaucratic limbo: South Korea does not recognize them as defectors because they are viewed as Chinese citizens, but China does not recognize them as nationals either. Estimates suggest that about 30 such stateless hwagyo are living in South Korea, navigating a legal maze that restricts their access to employment and various social benefits like health insurance.

The South Korean government’s reluctance to grant these hwagyo defectors refugee status is compounded by their complex documentation status. They hold Chinese passports but also possess North Korean resident cards. To obtain long-term residence in China, they would need another form of identification, the criteria for which are stringent, including a minimum of three years of residence in China and a certain level of financial stability. Without meeting these conditions, these individuals are essentially stateless, despite possessing Chinese passports. Their foreign registration cards in South Korea list their nationality as “stateless,” requiring them to navigate intricate government procedures just to secure employment.

In a decision that further complicated the issue, on November 4, 2021, the four hwagyo defectors who had applied for refugee status were denied, based on the government reasoning that “it appears there was no experience of threats tantamount to persecution in North Korea.” Thus, the individuals remained stateless, holding a Chinese passport but not enjoying the rights and benefits accorded to nationals of either China or South Korea. The very systems designed to provide refuge and stability have instead further marginalized these stateless hwagyo, leaving them caught between identities and borders.

Neither Here Nor There: Straddling Borders and Identities

While much attention has been given to hwagyo defectors from North Korea, China also hosts a parallel community known as jogyo (chaoqiao in Chinese), North Korean nationals who have been living in China for long periods, sometimes for generations, without any formal ties to North Korea. Concentrated mainly in China’s northeastern provinces, they number in the thousands and periodically renew their North Korean citizenship at North Korean embassies or consulates in China. 

Unlike the ethnic Koreans in China who have Chinese citizenship, known as the joseonjok, their unique status presents an intriguing contrast to the hwagyo living in North Korea and adds another layer to the complex fabric of identities straddling borders and nationalities.

In a case that gained considerable attention, a jogyo woman in her 60s entered South Korea through Incheon Airport on June 30, 2019, holding a North Korean passport and seeking recognition as a defector. However, much like the hwagyo defectors in South Korea, she did not fit neatly into the legal definitions established by South Korea’s law on the protection of North Korean defectors. 

The cases of hwagyo and jogyo individuals serve as poignant reminders of the complexities surrounding national identity, particularly in the delicate geopolitical context of the Korean Peninsula. These communities embody the tensions and contradictions that often exist within legal systems and migration policies, providing compelling case studies for the need to consider more nuanced approaches to nationality and citizenship in a world where identities are increasingly fluid and complex.

Living on the Edge: The Politics of Identity in a Globalized Era

Navigating the labyrinth of multiple identities, as exemplified by individuals like Yu, opens up a complex and dynamic vista into how borders – tangible and abstract – can be crossed, manipulated, and even monetized. Yu’s life is a fluid mosaic of roles – hwagyo, Chinese, Korean, defector – that demonstrates the tactical management of identity for personal and collective advantage. 

Identities are not immutable badges but rather malleable assets. They are carefully revealed or concealed, validated or redefined, depending on the situational advantage. This approach is not just an individualized strategy; it feeds into a broader discourse on the fluidity of nationality and ethnicity, challenging and expanding the status quo.

While Yu’s life offers an intriguing case study, it also serves as an urgent call for a re-evaluation of prevailing ideas about citizenship, asylum, and identity. The complex tapestry of experiences observed among the hwagyo, as well as the jogyo population, demands a nuanced and more encompassing perspective on what it means to belong to a country or an ethnic group. It is time to move beyond mere legal definitions and embrace a more dynamic understanding of identity as an ever-evolving aspect of individual and communal life. 

These cases, rooted in the complex geopolitics of East Asia, offer invaluable insights for today’s diverse, pluralistic societies, compelling us to reexamine our own understanding of identity in an increasingly interconnected and pluralistic world.