For Millions of Korean-Chinese, A Pied Piper Beckons: S. Korea

The south's influence grows in China's northeast

Yanji is in many ways a clone of a South Korean metropolis: Korean blues wafting out of neon-lit karaoke parlors mix with the singsong chatter of ethnic Koreans strolling past clubs, restaurants, and saunas at the pulsating heart of the city.

Billboards feature the latest in South Korean fashions or cars, and trendy cafes lure nouveaux riches with neon lighting in Korean and English.

Yet Yanji, which resembles Seoul more than it does Beijing, is actually a world within a world, the capital of a 2-million-strong ethnic Korean community in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.

South Korea, the top investor in this swath of China known as the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, is launching a peaceful invasion of not only the local economy, but also its culture.

Pop singers from the South are becoming Pied Pipers for many Korean Chinese youths, and films from China's onetime enemy are taking over local theaters.

As old influences fade ...

Although Yanji lies on the Chinese-North Korean border and is near Russian Siberia, the influence of China's former communist allies is fading as that of its newest trade partner grows, says a recent university graduate of Yanbian University.

"Some elderly ethnic Koreans here are still nostalgic about the past" says the graduate, who asked not to be identified. "But most young people have been caught up in the new wave of South Korean pop culture."

Socialist anthems and anticapitalist propaganda dating back to the 1950s, when China and the Soviet Union backed North Korea's war against the South, long filled Yanji's airwaves. But China's market-oriented reforms and integration with the global economy are quickly transforming Yanji.

... new ones dominate

"The influx of South Korean investors and tourists, cars, and computers here since 1992 [when China forged diplomatic ties with the South] has made people in Yanji realize how much richer the South is than the North," says a local trader.

"Respect for South Korea's prosperity has fostered a fascination with ... its customs and culture," says the trader, who is an ethnic Korean.

Most of the Koreans who live in China are descendants of refugees who fled Japan's occupation of Korea early this century.

During China's decade-long Cultural Revolution, Korean language, customs, and dress were forcibly wiped out here as Chairman Mao Zedong tried to impose a monolithic, Chinese communist culture.

But Mao's death in 1976 gave way to a partial loosening of Communist Party controls over culture and over ethnic minorities that were not perceived as a threat.

In sharp contrast with Tibet, which is still torn by a clash of civilizations between Chinese Communists and Tibetan Buddhists, a remarkably harmonious blend of Chinese and Korean societies has evolved.

Compatible cultures

"For centuries, Chinese Confucianism writing and thinking seeped across the border into Korea, and traces remain of a cultural bridge between the two countries," says Kongdan Oh, an expert on Chinese-Korean relations who heads a think-tank in Washington, D.C.

Storefronts, theaters, and dance halls all advertise in Korean in Yanji, where ethnic Koreans slightly outnumber Chinese.

"Newspapers, radio, and television in Yanbian are required to use both Korean and Chinese," says Ma Wenxue, the party's vice secretary in Yanji. These rules are part of China's spotty policy of granting a degree of autonomy to ethnic minorities.

Mr. Ma, an affable Korean Chinese who welcomes Seoul's growing investment, says South Korea long ago replaced the North as Yanbian's top trading partner.

As North Korea's economy collapses, it has fallen to last place among foreign investors in Yanji.

And while some newly rich local residents have purchased satellite antennas to watch South Korean TV, "The Chinese government has begun jamming TV and radio broadcasts from the North," says a Chinese government worker in Jilin.

The South is channeling funds into everything from universities to traditional Korean art in Yanji, and the trend is "helping fuel a renaissance of Korean culture," says a young office worker here.

As the syrupy lyrics of a song by a South Korean pop idol drift across the park at Yanji's center, young Korean Chinese newlyweds don traditional dress to have their photos taken in front of Korean-style pagodas or sculptures molded from ancient Korean myths.

Nearby, ethnic Koreans are completing work on the brick and glass, arched faade of the new Yanji Christian Church. "The original church was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and the government is financing the new building as part of its policy of religious freedom," Ma says.

But like many of the new structures that dot Yanji, the church is a joint venture with South Korea, says a young Korean Chinese outside the church.

The rush of South Koreans into Yanbian is also triggering a wave of migration in the opposite direction.

Matchmaker heaven

"Every day, the South Korean Embassy [in Beijing] issues about 450 visas for Chinese to travel to the South," says an Embassy spokesman.

About one-third of the visas, he adds, are for the Korean Chinese spouses of South Koreans.

"Yanbian is becoming an emerging market for South Korean men who are searching for wives," says a South Korean official.

"Matchmakers in South Korea have started advertising Yanbian wives for Korean bachelors, and with common links of language and culture, the trend is gaining momentum," he adds.

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