Interview: with Mr. Nobody
Hwagyo is the Korean term for Chinese citizens or their descendants who live outside of China. ‘Mr. A,’ who defected from North Korea in 2007, lived under a hwagyo status in North Korea. Upon arrival in South Korea, he lied that he was defecting as a North Korean, out of fear that he would be rejected by the South Korean authorities. New Focus International interviews Mr. A, a hwagyo in North Korea and a North Korean defector in South Korea.
How did you end up living as a hwagyo in North Korea?
During the Japanese imperialist era, my grandfather left China for North Korea at the age of fifteen. He stayed in North Korea, where my father was born. Needless to say, I was born and bred in North Korea as well.
Are there schools in North Korea specifically for hwagyo children?
In contrast to the current Sino-NK relationship, relations in the past were positive, which encouraged a number of hwagyo schools to be established. Other than the fact that hwagyo students do not participate in agricultural volunteer activities, there is no significant difference between them and students who attend ordinary North Korean schools. We learn the same subjects: the revolutionary history of Kim Il-sung, Communist ethics, Korean language and so on. All the teachers are North Koreans. There is no big difference.
Did you have an identification card in North Korea?
At nineteen, the North Korean government grants you the right to choose. Between a hwagyo ID card and a North Korean ID card, I chose the former. One cannot choose both. I chose a hwagyo ID because a North Korean ID may be convenient for business and trade inside the country, but a hwagyo ID is much better for business with China.
What identity did you live under in North Korea?
Isn’t my country of birth and growth North Korea, despite my Chinese citizenship? My identity was North Korean. If I spoke any Chinese, I would have felt a national connection; because I didn’t know the language, I thought of myself as a North Korean, not Chinese. Choosing a hwagyo ID was solely for money-making purposes.
What were the advantages of being a hwagyo in North Korea?
When Sino-NK relations were positive, hwagyos were given preferential treatment. In the days when North Korea was receiving a great deal of support from China, the government was still able to distribute rations to the public. Hwagyos received extra rations. They are also exempt from the 10-year military service that ordinary North Koreans must undertake.
What were the disadvantages of being a hwagyo in North Korea?
There are a number of inconveniences, including the difficulty of getting a travel permit. But one of the most uncomfortable aspects of being a hwagyo was constantly being subject to surveillance by the Ministry of State Security. If you are not seen for several days, security agents visit your house. After coming back from business trips to China, I was frequently questioned by neighbors about whom I met and what I did. The Ministry did not ask these questions directly.
What happens to a hwagyo who commits a crime?
They receive the same punishment as North Koreans. Some are sent to rehabilitation camps; I knew someone who was shot for being associated with a coup d’etat attempt in Chongjin. Being a hwagyo does not mean your sins are pardoned.
How many hwagyos are there in North Korea?
There were quite a few in the past, but many moved to China in the ’80s and ’90s as North Korea’s economic crisis worsened. Today, not many hwagyos remain; by the time I defected, there were slightly more than 100 living in the entire province of North Hamgyong, including Chongjin, Hoeryong and Onsong.
Have you heard of Yoo Woo-sung, a hwagyo who entered South Korea under a false identity as a North Korean defector, and accused of espionage against South Korea? (Editor’s note: Yoo, a former Seoul city employee, was accused by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) in 2012 of releasing defector-related information to the North Korean government. NIS also accuses Yoo of recently re-entering North Korea, although the authenticity of the evidence NIS provides is under debate.)
I do not know.
What punishment do you expect a hwagyo to receive, if he or she comes to South Korea but returns to North Korea?
I cannot confirm the exact degree of punishment. What is certain is that you will be treated as a political criminal. Are we not talking about the Ministry of State Security in North Korea, whose agents vigilantly checked whether I came into contact with South Koreans after my trips to China? North Korea is a country where even meeting a South Korean turns you into a political criminal. It is indisputable that the same fate awaits anybody who returns to North Korea after living in South Korea. I am not a spy and have no intention of returning to North Korea.
Why did you defect?
I became quite successful in doing business with China. There was nobody in my town who did not know me. But no matter how hard I worked, nothing constructive was built. I was better off than other people, but I did not receive the compensation I deserved for my labor. Through my trade, I learned about South Korea and thought I would be better rewarded there.
Why did you conceal your hwagyo status when entering South Korea for the first time?
I was afraid of being denied entry. Had I known that South Korea accepts hwagyos, I would not have felt the need to hide my identity. But I heard rumors in China that South Korea refuses entry to hwagyos. So I fabricated my identity as a North Korean defector.
Is life in South Korea hard?
In North Korea, it does not matter whether you start work at 5 a.m. or 5 p.m., as long as you show up at some point. How can anyone be motivated to work under such circumstances? This is why the North Korean economy is in the gutters. Life in South Korea can be difficult and lonely, but I work diligently because I get the rewards that I deserve.
What is your current identity in South Korea?
Frankly, I don’t know. There are so many advantages to living in South Korea — but because I was dishonest about my hwagyo status when I first came here, I am currently under charges of espionage.
There is no place to ask for help. I cannot get employed, other than temporarily, because my South Korean ID has been taken away from me. After I came to South Korea, I lived as a South Korean, but now I am confused.
Reporting by Choi Dami.
Read in Korean.
Translated by Jumin Kim. Edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons (two versions of Chinese passports since 1949)