The ethnic Koreans in China, called Joseonseok in Korean or Chaoxianzu in Chinese, are one of the 56 ethnicities recognized by the Chinese government, most of who settle in Northeast China, especially in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. They descended from Korean migrants who crossed the border into China between 1860s and 1940s fleeing from famine and Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, with the population growing to roughly 1.83 million as of 2010.
After Beijing began a policy of reform and opening in 1978 and established a diplomatic relationship with Seoul in 1992, however, South Korea has seen an increasing number of them moving back home; as of the end of 2011, some 297,000 lived in South Korea, according to government data.
"It is nothing new to see Korean-Chinese here anymore. They are almost everywhere particularly in restaurants and factories as employees. But more and more people do not speak Korean well, particularly the young folks," said a 48-year-old Korean-Chinese from Yanbian. He declined to be identified.
"I've heard that the young ethnic Koreans in Yanbian and neighboring areas nowadays go to Chinese schools, not Korean ones, and they don't study Korean," said Kim Gap-seok, a 54-year-old ethnic Korean from Tumen. "Here, we often see young people from China struggling to get a job due to their poor Korean."
The immediate cause is that the South Korean government decided to abolish the Korean language test required for the visa issuance in 2011 amid growing such calls from potential migrants for more chances of entry and the test being poor at assessing a person's skill.
The more fundamental reason, however, is a shift in the generation of the ethnic Koreans who arrived here, with the youth having a weaker sense of the national identity and a stronger appetite for being part of where they were born and had lived, according to experts.
In fact, an increasing number of young Joseonjok people come here with a short-term C-3 visa at the invitation of their parents staying here. Between January and November last year, a total of 1.93 million arrived in South Korea on C-3 visas, up 60.2 percent on-year.
"Among those who were born after the 1990s, few received education in schools run by the Korean people, as many such schools had closed for financial difficulties and the young folks are showing a tendency of assimilating with the Chinese society," said Lee Jin-young, a politics professor in Inha University.
"Even graduates of the Korean schools in China would have difficulties in communicating in Korean, as what they've learned was close to the standard language not used in South Korea but in the North, and a large number of those who come here for a job tend to have a low level of education," he added.
Their failure to speak in Korean amid their increasing presence here can cause diverse social problems, according to experts.
"The Korean-Chinese who do not speak the mother tongue well would not be able to land a desirable job, which may be a huge stumbling block for their adaptation to the new circumstances," said Kwak Jae-seok, the chief of the Migration and Diaspora Research Institute in Seoul.
"They might be stuck in the middle, failing to get a job in South Korea but having difficulties in going back to China. That means they will be left in the grey area in terms of employment, education and welfare," said Kim Bong-seop, an expert on the matter in the Overseas Korean Foundation.
The lack of ethnic Koreans who speak fluent Korean could also present challenges of supplying adequate manpower of factory and restaurant workers and caregivers, which require a relatively cheap workforce who at the same time understand the Korean language.
According to the data compiled by the Justice Ministry, 106,739 out of 238,765 Korean-Chinese residing here with a work visa were officially confirmed to be employed, with 27,360 working for a restaurant business, and some 3,500 for housekeepers and caregivers for the sick, each.
"The decrease in the Joseonjok pool may cause more lower-quality foreign workers. It is in this context that the South Korean government should pay more attention to how to boost the ethnic Koreans' language skills. That will not only reduce social and economic costs but create benefits for the future of the country as a unified nation," Kwak said.
"The Korean-Chinese can play a bridging role between South and North Korea in the unified era, as they were born and lived in the socialist country of China but experienced a free, capitalistic Korean society," said Kim in the Overseas Korean Foundation.
"A comprehensive educational program for the ethnic Koreans about language, culture and history is a must for the national integration in both the short and long terms, and for making the best use of the manpower."