The starvation deaths of three ethnic Chinese residents of North Korea, who were cut off from their economic lifeline to China by a border closure to fight the coronavirus pandemic, has shocked North Koreans by showing that the economy is failing even privileged groups, sources in the country told RFA.
Called Hwagyo in Korean, ethnic Chinese are usually among the wealthiest residents in North Korean port and border cities, because they are allowed to travel to China frequently, enabling them to run profitable import-export businesses.
Though they historically have been able to weather times of food insecurity in North Korea by traveling to China, Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s decision in January 2020 to close the border and suspend all trade due to the coronavirus has left many of them destitute.
“A Hwagyo living in Wonsan was found to have died alone of starvation in June. He had applied to travel to China in April and was scheduled for a trip in mid-July, but he died of hunger a month before his departure,” an ethnic Chinese resident of the eastern coastal city of Wonsan told RFA’s Korean Service July 15.
“As it became known that Hwagyo are among those who starved to death, the people began saying the economic crisis must be so bad that we are at rock bottom,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said the June starvation death was one of two such cases among ethnic Chinese in Wonsan since January 2021.
“Since Wonsan is a major hub for tourism and development because of its port, the standard of living here was more stable than in other areas,” the source said.
“Even when people were starving to death in other parts of the country, Wonsan was always an exception,” said the source.
The source said that people have been starving in Wonsan since the beginning of the year due to measures against COVID-19. The border closure has proved disastrous for local economies in North Korea, especially in areas near the border and port cities, whose economies depend on buying and selling goods either imported or smuggled from China.
Food prices have also skyrocketed after severe flooding and natural disasters last summer decimated harvest yields.
U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”
“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” said the report.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.
Authorities have been accepting applications for travel permission from ethnic Chinese since January, according to the source, but the steep application fee of 170 yuan (U.S. $26) and the requirement to personally pay for a two-week quarantine period in a hotel has precluded many from even applying.
“Even now, some Hwagyo are living in extreme poverty due to the coronavirus emergency. They can only helplessly wait for the lockdown to be lifted, because they don’t have the money,” the Wonsan source said.
Another Chinese resident of North Korea told RFA that members of his community always been relatively affluent compared to Korean residents of Chongjin, a port city in the country’s northeast.
“They sold Chinese goods and were envied by the people around them. However, due to the unexpected outbreak of the virus, trade was stopped, and they became among the city’s poorest residents,” the second source said.
“Authorities have accepted applications from Hwagyo to travel to China five times since January this year. Many have left for China or are preparing to leave,” said the second source.
But just as in Wonsan, many of Chongjin’s Chinese community have given up hope of leaving because they lack funds for the application fee and the self-quarantine hotel stay, according to the second source.
“At the end of May the big news was that a Hwagyo who lived in Chongjin’s Chongam district starved to death. The Hwagyo had been delaying the submission of the application because there was no money and no relatives in China who could offer help,” the second source said.
“Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Hwagyo were legally allowed to make multiple entries into China, so they were fairly wealthy as traders of Chinese goods, and they were the object of envy. But now that even Hwagyo are dying during this crisis, the residents are expressing extreme anxiety, saying, ‘How did the economy of North Korea end up like this?’”
The several thousand Chinese residents of North Korea are not recent immigrants from the People’s Republic of China. Most entered the Korean peninsula at a time when the Republic of China (ROC) controlled the Chinese mainland or during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).
RFA reported last week that about 90 Hwagyo residents of North Korea arrived by bus in the Chinese border city of Dandong, just across the Yalu River from North Korea’s Sinuiju. The buses were then used to forcibly repatriate about 50 North Korean escapees who had been in the custody of Chinese authorities.
Reported by Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.