North Korea usually grants entry permits to those with Chinese citizenship. However, a background of connections with or visits to South Korea will disqualify a Chinese citizen from entering North Korea, particularly if they are an ethnic-Korean. These special restrictions do not apply to people of Han Chinese descent.
Lee Kang-ho* is an ethnic-Korean resident of Dandong province. He explains, “Ethnic-Korean Chinese who have ever visited South Korea cannot normally enter North Korea. My friend, who is a Chinese citizen, wanted to visit his relatives in North Korea. He applied because he was unaware of the tight restrictions, and he was refused entry.”
It has been suggested that North Korea prevents entry to ethnic-Korean Chinese who have visited South Korea because it is afraid that these people may act as spies, spreading news about the outside world among North Korean civilians.
Ironically, the paranoia is reciprocated in part by South Korea, which generally forbids South Korean citizens from traveling to North Korea, as well as preventing them from accessing DPRK propaganda websites.
Activities claimed by North Korea to be considered espionage include asking about the welfare of prisoners of war who are living in North Korea. Family members in South Korea of prisoners of war have made such requests of ethnic-Korean Chinese in the past.
It is standard procedure for North Korea to ask repatriated refugees, “Have you ever listened to South Korean broadcasts or met a South Korean citizen?”
According to refugee testimonies, the North Korean authorities are extremely sensitive to South Korean influence on its citizens, and even regard ethnic Korean-Chinese who have been to South Korea as if they are South Korean nationals.
This sensitivity may be attributed in part to the ‘misery endured by our Korean brethren down south’ being a fundamental motif in North Korea’s ideological claims to being the legitimate and superior Korea.
Nevertheless, there are loopholes in such border controls. Other Chinese, especially those who can speak Korean, constantly bring outside information into North Korea during their frequent visits.
In addition, most ethnic Korean-Chinese have comprehensive access to the news and culture of South Korea whether or not they have actually been to South Korea or have contacts with South Koreans.
Through word-of-mouth along the border, information is trickling into North Korea and alerting North Koreans to the world that lies beyond their increasingly porous northern border.