From Liberation to the Great Leap Forward: Ethnic Koreans and Assimilation in Northeast China, 1945-1962

Today I completed a new research article on the broad subject of Maoism’s impact on ethnic Koreans in northeast China. The work is slated to appear next year as a chapter in a volume on transnationalism in East Asia, edited by two talented colleagues at University College Cork.

A 1961 Korean version of Mao Zedong’s 1930 essay On Investigation

The chapter describes shifts in the political environment for ethnic Koreans in Yanbian, framing the chapter with the Chinese civil war and the Great Leap Forward. The materials drawn from are mainly in Chinese, including a relatively rare sets of published documents (some of ‘neibu’ or ‘internal circulation’ vintage) which were compiled in Yanbian in the 1980s and 1990s. This new data is linked to some more recent heavy-hitting in Western scholarship on Yanbian and the foundations of the socialist state by Jaeeun Kim, Hyun Ok Park, June Hee Kwon, and particularly Dong Jo Shin, whose recent writing on the Great Leap Forward in Yanbian I found to be both illuminating and foundational.

While my new chapter threads in a few recent articles from PRC academics on ethnicity and border security in Yanbian, and it covers some new ground with respect to violence in the borderland in the mid-1940s, I consider its main empirical contribution to be with respect to Yanbian in the Great Leap Forward.

The chapter provides new detail on how the Great Leap Forward changed the demographic shape of Yanbian, reducing its ethnic Korean majority amid the drive to pool labor for mass projects. It discusses purges and criticism of intellectuals, demonstrating how not simply ties to North Korea but listening to or praising North Korean broadcasts could become grounds for political ‘othering’ that in some cases lasted twenty years — although Zhou Enlai’s trip to Yanbian in early 1962 was able to reverse or mitigate some of the arbitrary verdicts.

Zhou Enlai in Yanbian in 1962 with Prefecture Party Secretary Zhu Dehai/ Ju Deokhae, right

To underpin the argument, the chapter uses rare materials (picked up in flea markets and second-hand shops in Yanbian) as well as effectively limited but present self-criticisms of CCP actions in Yanbian in the 1950s, published in Party presses just prior to Xi Jinping taking power in Beijing. Among the pamphlets utilized is one set of recollections from rural Wangqing, which includes some frank discussion of food shortages during the Great Leap Forward in Yanbian.

Citation: Adam Cathcart, ‘From Liberation to the Great Leap Forward: Ethnic Koreans and Assimilation in Northeast China, 1945-1962’, in Kevin Cawley and Julia Schneider, eds., Transnational East Asia (Liverpool University Press, 2022).

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