North Korea bans criticism of China as economic dependence grows due to pandemic

North Korea bans criticism of China as economic dependence grows due to pandemic
AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin
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North Korea has reportedly banned criticism of China and prejudices towards Chinese residents living in North Korea. The move to punish citizens criticizing China or discriminating against the Chinese comes as North Korea becomes increasingly dependent on China’s support, as the country enters an extended lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports that ethnic Chinese residents, referred to as Hwagyo in Korean, are not considered citizens of North Korea despite having lived in the region for many generations. They are seen as foreigners in the largely homogenous North Korean society and have been the targets of prejudice.

It is unknown how many Hwagyo currently reside in North Korea, but South Korean newspaper the Chosun Ilbo claims that there were around 10,000 ethnic Chinese residents as of a decade ago. 

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the North Korean economy, impacting the Hwagyo as much as their ethnic North Korean counterparts. Observers told Radio Free Asia that they believe that the move to protect the ethnic Chinese comes at a time when North Koreans are growing increasingly hostile to the Chinese residents due to the coronavirus, even as authorities depend on the Chinese government’s handouts to survive. 

RFA reports that in the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, neighbourhood watch units in the city held meetings to inform residents that they would begin punishing people for criticising China or discriminating against the Hwagyo. 

“It is true that there have been various forms of criticism and slander against Hwagyo over the years because of latent prejudice and fear. The Hwagyo bundle merchants sell Chinese goods, but there have been conflicts and disputes, so North Koreans often call them by racial slurs,” said the source to RFA. 

“Some North Koreans really dislike Chinese leadership for saying publicly that China is part of a ‘socialist brotherhood’ with North Korea, but Beijing does very little to support us even though we are living through economic hardship due to the coronavirus. Even the authorities in the past have been wary of our unconditional dependence on China and the expectations that they’ll take care of us, saying ‘Don’t trust China too much,’” he added. 

North Korea is no stranger to censorship and has previously banned colloquialisms popularized by South Korea. North Korea fears that “degeneracy” imported from South Korean culture will infect the minds of young North Koreans, and make them less pliable to the hardline communist ideology espoused by the state.

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