For Chinese Koreans, life is hard but still better in South Korea

Yin Shuilian is a fighter.

For more than 11 years, the 45-year-old ethnic Korean tried to leave her hard life in China, where she toiled in fields and in restaurants, and make her way to South Korea.

The move wasn’t easy: She was repeatedly denied visas and cheated by unscrupulous brokers.

At last, Yin arrived here in 1998 lugging not only her belongings but also $80,000 in debts to her friends and family. When her husband followed eight months later, the couple faced the challenge of their lives: They worked for six years to repay what they owed and begin a new life in their chosen homeland.

“For us, going to Korea was like going to heaven, a place where money grew on trees,” Yin says. “There is nothing [in China]. Here, if you want to work, you can.”

But, like many Korean Chinese, Yin has learned that the life in her newfound utopia comes with sweat, hard labor and low wages that barely allow them to survive in the pricey nation.

Many are limited to jobs in restaurants, factories, construction fields or as domestic workers. They inhabit the very bottom rung of the workforce, but they are more than glad to be here -- for now.

Even a harsh life in South Korea is far better than the one they left behind in China’s northeastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang or Liaoning. And with the remittances they send home, the workers help improve the lot of their families.

Korean Chinese “make an economic contribution in sectors most Koreans don’t want to work in but need to be covered in society,” says Yoon In-jin, sociology professor at Korea University. “Their incorporation as foreign labor is smoother because they speak the language and are considered from the same race.”

There were 377,560 Korean Chinese legally registered in South Korea by the end of 2009, according to the Korea Immigration Service, but untold others work here illegally.

Yin works six days a week, 12 hours a day, in the kitchen of a traditional fish soup restaurant in Seoul’s bustling Gangnam business district, where she chops vegetables, slices frozen fish, cooks soup and washes dishes.

She spends more than two hours commuting to work. She leaves home at 9 a.m. and often isn’t back until just before midnight, when she prepares the next day’s breakfast, talks with her daughter in China using Skype and then collapses into bed.

“I work a lot, but I make more money than I ever dreamed of when I was in China,” says Yin, who barely survived working in restaurants and growing rice in Wuchang, her hometown in Heilongjiang province. “Here, I have a comfortable life.”

That life came at a huge risk. Yin lived and worked illegally in small restaurants for six years until she was able to register legally in 2005.

“I was always scared of getting caught,” she says. “I was running away and hiding whenever I saw the police, even if they came into my restaurant to eat.”

Korean Chinese began migrating to South Korea in the early 1990s when China’s economically hard-hit northeastern provinces were excluded from Beijing’s economic reforms. The Korean Chinese Human Rights Center of the Korean Chinese Church estimates that 200,000 Korean Chinese were living in South Korea illegally when the center was established in 1999.

In the last seven years, the number of Korean Chinese legally registered has nearly tripled, from 132,305 in 2003 to 377,560 last year, according to the Korea Immigration Service.

The increase follows a new law passed in 2004 allowing for immigrant workers, and a five-year working visa that was created for Korean Chinese in 2007.

As their numbers grow, the Korean Chinese workers have developed a crucial support network. They have relatives to assist them. There are churches with organized groups to help them adapt to life in South Korea or obtain information on jobs and services.

But many activists here want to see South Korea extend the five-year working visas so migrants aren’t eventually forced to abandon lives they have created.

“The situation has improved, but the solutions are only temporary,” says Lee Ho-hyoung, director of the Korean Chinese Human Rights group. “The problem is they can’t and won’t go back. We need to continue fighting for a long-term structural solution.”

For now, Yin’s family living in Seoul -- including her three sisters and only brother -- send part of their wages to their parents and extended family in China. Yin is also paying for her 21-year-old daughter’s university studies in China.

“Before, we just didn’t know if we were going to eat the next day,” says Yin, who took out a 20-year mortgage in 2008 to buy an apartment in her hometown for her relatives who remain and, perhaps, as a place for her retirement.

“Now all my family has a future,” she says.

Yoon is a special correspondent.