The China-Korea Frontier — Yánjí and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture


Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (in red). Map courtesty of Wikipedia.

All North Korea watchers inevitably get to Yánjí at some point in their careers.  Yánjí is a small frontier city of approximately 400,000 people, capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province, China.  Why is this area of interest to people with research interests like mine?  Yánjí is like a “little Seoul” in northeast China, with a large ethnic Korean (Zhonguo Chaoxian minzu) population navigate dual identities as Chinese citizens of Korean heritage.  Many Chaoxian minzu have relatives living in North Korea.  Yanbian is nestled in the important strategic border region where the Chinese, North Korean and Russian frontiers meet.  Yánjí is an important transition point for cross-border trade with North Korea, as well as a staging point for clandestine South Korean and American Christian missionary activity in North Korea and an initial stop for North Korean defectors escaping across the Tumen River.  It is also a distribution point for the export of North Korean-manufactured narcotics to China and other distination countries across East Asia.

For all these reasons I ventured to Yánjí in December 2011 to get a feel for this fascinating city, a place where very few Australians venture.  Despite the temperature being -10 degrees celcius on arrival and a winter sun setting at 3:30 PM, Yánjí was a unique, culturally diverse city that I enjoyed immensely.  I offer my heartfelt thanks to the Yanbian University students who showed great hospitality in sharing some of their city and their life experience with me.  This photo essay is a record of my wanderings through Yánjí, one of China and Northeast Asia’s most curious locations.

Further Information:

Sam Byfield, “Signs of hope for North Korea along the Tumen River,” East Asia Forum, 23 November 2010.

Xiangming Chen, “Beyond the Reach of Globalization: China’s Border Regions and Cities in Transition,” in Fulong Wu (ed), Globalization and the Chinese City, Routledge: New York, 2006.

Sébastien Colin, “A border opening onto numerous geopolitical issues: The Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture,” China Perspectives, Vol. 48, July-August 2003.

Si Joon Kim, “The Economic Status and Role of Ethnic Koreans in China,” in C. Fred Bergsten & Inbom Choi (eds), The Korean Diaspora in the World Economy, Institute for International Economics, 2003, pp. 103-130.

Hazel Smith, “North Koreans in China: Definins the Problems and Offering Some Solutions,” University of Warwick, December 2002.


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.



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