While most North Korean defectors to South Korea are Korean-ethnic, Cho (53), is a third generation Chinese immigrant. Although ethnically Korean defectors have the right to receive a package to aid their resettlement in South Korea under law, Cho is not eligible for that support as he has maintained his Chinese citizenship in North Korea despite having lived there for generations.
"I don’t need any state subsidy or assistance. Cho stated that he only wants South Korean citizenship to be able to work hard until his death. He spoke out in a interview in Gwangyang, a southern port city. This was Cho's first job since eight years.
It is not known how many Chinese-North Koreans have migrated to South Korea in the past. Activists estimate that around 30 people have been declared "stateless" after they failed to pretend to be North Korean nationals. They are currently in South Korean prisons or detention centers.
They are often called "stateless", which makes it difficult for them to find work and enjoy basic rights in the South.
Yi Junghee, a professor of Chinese Studies at Incheon National University, said that they are "probably the most pitiful Chinese overseas" and had been left by China, North Korea, and South Korea. They don't receive any help from any country.
A return to North Korea could result in long imprisonment or worse. Many people have difficulty settling in China because they don't speak Chinese or have lost touch with their relatives. It can take many years to obtain Chinese residence cards.
Cho and three other North Korean ethnic Chinese applied for refugee status in 2019, the first such effort by North Korean ethnic Chinese. They had long-awaited interviews with immigration officials in June. The prospects of getting approved are not good. In recent years, South Korea has had a lower acceptance rate than 2% for refugee status applications.
The Justice Ministry responded to questions from The Associated Press by saying it would review Cho's and Cho's likelihood of being persecuted if they flee South Korea. It will also examine the consistency of their testimony as well as the documents they have submitted to it before deciding whether or not to grant refugee status. Although the ministry did not disclose the content of the June interviews, it said that its review could take some time.
According to the ministry, they are likely legal Chinese but cannot prove their nationality. They are allowed to remain in South Korea because authorities consider them "de facto stateless".
The Korean Peninsula is home to significant Chinese settlements dating back to the 19th century. North Korea is home to an estimated 3,000-5,000 ethnic Chinese. Analysts say they are the only foreigners who have permanent resident rights in North Korea, which has 26 million inhabitants.
They are allowed to keep their Chinese citizenship, visit China at least once a year, and engage in cross-border commerce. The mandatory 10-year military service is not required for men. Their ethnicity can make them more vulnerable to state surveillance. This makes it difficult for them to join the Workers' Party, and restricts their political options.
They consider themselves to be North Koreans in general.
Cho stated that he was taught in his youth to worship the Kim family by his North Korean classmates at school. Cho worked in a state-run plant and was a naturalized citizen of North Korea for two years.
Cho said that his grandfather, who moved to Chongjin, northeastern North Korea, in the middle of the 1920s, had "dried up" his ancestral roots and that he feels like North Korea is his home.
Since the late 1990s, 34,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea in order to escape economic hardships and political oppression. Cho, a Chinese-North Korean, is one of these people. They often use brokers to guide them through Southeast Asia countries such as Thailand without Beijing-issued passports. This is the same route used for North Koreans.
When Cho arrived in South Korea in 2008, he posed as one his closest North Korean friends who had been killed in a traffic accident. Cho claimed he wanted to start over by concealing his Chinese heritage, which he considers a disadvantage in both Koreas. Cho claimed he didn't know the gravity of his deceit.
Because South Korea considers North Korea part of its territory, he was granted South Korean citizenship and an apartment. Authorities discovered his lies in 2012, believing he was a North Korean spy. Cho was found not guilty of spying, but was denied citizenship and other benefits. He was sentenced to one-year imprisonment for other immigration offenses.
Yoon, a Chinese-North Korean refugee from China, claimed that he was held in government custody for around 20 months after attempting to pretend as a North Korean national. The 60-year old was not convicted because his lies were discovered soon after his arrival, and before he was released into society.
"I think sometimes that I shouldn't be here. I don't know how long I will live. "But I want to die once I get nationality," said the man. He preferred to use his family name due to safety concerns about his North-related relatives.
During their June interviews, the four Chinese-North Koreans told officials that returning to North Korea would expose them to punishment and that they could face difficulties in China because of a lack of residential cards, no relatives and the language barrier, according to Kim Yong-hwa, a North Korean defector-turned-activist who has helped them with their refugee applications.
South Korea's decision to embrace Chinese-North Koreans is delicate. This could cause other ethnic Chinese from the North to visit South Korea, which would anger Pyongyang and make it difficult for Seoul to seek reconciliation. Kim stated.
"We lived and died together in North Korea... it doesn't make sense for them to be North Korean defectors," stated Noh Hyun-jeong (a North Korean defector living in Seoul) who is close to Chinese-North Korean friends who have emigrated to South Korea.
Kim stated that unlike Noh, many North Korean defectors tend to ignore "stateless Chinese-North Koreans", who are often difficult to get along with ethnic Chinese who have lived in South Korea over generations.
Yoon stated that he depends on financial help from Kim and a church for his finances. Cho, who lives in South Korea with a North Korean defector woman, said that he has not told his South Korean friends about his legal and ethnic status.
"I don’t believe we would become estranged. But I’m afraid about people who aren’t close to me finding out about my past and status. Cho stated that she doesn't know how people would react to Cho's comments.