The starvation of three ethnic Chinese residents of North Korea, who were cut off from their economic lifeline to China by a border closure to combat the coronavirus pandemic, shocked North Koreans by showing that the The economy is lacking even to privileged groups, according to sources in the country told RFA.
Called Hwagyo in Korean, ethnic Chinese are generally among the wealthiest residents of North Korean port and border towns, as they are allowed frequent travel to China, allowing them to run profitable import-export businesses.
Although they may have historically been able to overcome times of food insecurity in North Korea by traveling to China, Beijing and Pyongyang’s decision in January 2020 to close the border and suspend all trade due to the coronavirus has left many behind. ‘between them in misery.
“A Hwagyo living in Wonsan died of hunger alone in June. He had applied to visit China in April and was due to leave in mid-July, but died of starvation a month before he left, ”an ethnic Chinese resident of the eastern coastal town of Wonsan told the service. Korean from FRG on July 15.
“As it became known that Hwagyo was among those who died of starvation, people started saying that the economic crisis must be so bad that we are at the bottom,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said the starvation death in June was one of two such cases among ethnic Chinese in Wonsan since January 2021.
“As Wonsan is a major hub for tourism and development due to its port, the standard of living here was more stable than in other areas,” the source said.
“Even when people were starving in other parts of the country, Wonsan was still an exception,” the source said.
The source said people have starved to death in Wonsan since the start of the year due to measures against COVID-19. The border closure has proved disastrous for local economies in North Korea, especially in areas close to the border and port cities, whose economies depend on the buying and selling of imported or past goods. smuggled from China.
Food prices have also skyrocketed after severe flooding and natural disasters last summer that wiped out crop yields.
The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned in a report published in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border and restrictions on the movement of people could lead to a “serious food crisis”.
“Deaths from starvation have been reported, as well as an increase in the number of children and the elderly who have resorted to begging because families are unable to support them,” the report said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated in a recent report that North Korea will be short of about 860,000 tonnes of food this year, about two months of normal demand.
Authorities have been accepting travel authorization requests from ethnic Chinese since January, according to the source, but the high application fee of 170 yuan (US $ 26) and the requirement to personally pay for a two-week quarantine period in a hotel prevented many from even applying.
“Even now, some Hwagyo live in extreme poverty due to the coronavirus emergency. They can only wait helplessly for the lockdown to be lifted because they have no money, ”the source from Wonsan said.
Another Chinese resident of North Korea told RFA that members of his community have always been relatively wealthy compared to Korean residents of Chongjin, a port city in the northeast of the country.
“They were selling Chinese products and were envied by those around them. However, due to the unexpected outbreak of the virus, trade was cut off and they became among the city’s poorest residents, ”the second source said.
“Authorities have accepted Hwagyo’s requests to visit China five times since January this year. Many have left for China or are preparing to leave, ”said the second source.
But just like in Wonsan, many members of the Chinese community in Chongjin have given up hope of leaving because they lack funds for application fees and self-quarantine hotel stay, according to the second source. .
“At the end of May, the big news was that a Hwagyo who lived in the Chongam district of Chongjin died of starvation. The Hwagyo had delayed submitting the application because there was no money and no relatives in China who could offer help, ”the second source said.
“Before the coronavirus crisis, Hwagyo was legally allowed to make multiple entries into China, so they were quite wealthy as traders of Chinese goods, and they were the object of envy. But now that even Hwagyo is dying during this crisis, locals express extreme anxiety, saying, “How did North Korea’s economy end up like this?”
North Korea’s few thousand Chinese residents are not recent immigrants to the People’s Republic of China. Most entered the Korean Peninsula during a time when the Republic of China (ROC) controlled mainland China or during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).
RFA reported last week that around 90 Hwagyo residents from North Korea arrived by bus in the Chinese border town of Dandong, just across the Yalu River from Sinuiju in North Korea. The buses were then used to forcibly repatriate some 50 North Korean escapees who were in the custody of Chinese authorities.
Reported by Jeong Yon Park for the RFA Korean service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.