A brief history of the Koryo-saram Diaspora

The Russian-speaking ethnic Korean minority is scattered around the world, but most of them live in Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan today. They have retained their Korean ethnicity and Korean surnames, but usually carry Russian first names and speak Russian as their mother tongue.

They are neither North Koreans nor South Koreans – they are simply Koryo-sarams, descendants of 19th- and 20th-century Korean settlers in the Russian Far East. In 1863, the first Korean families furtively crossed the Tumen River into Russia. Other Korean families joined to flee hunger or for political reasons, especially after Japan annexed Korea in 1910.

They were quickly Russianized and welcomed by the Russian government, for they were able to cultivate rice and other products in cold areas which had hitherto been deemed as non-arable. But in the aftermath of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo’s creation in 1932 (not too far away from the Koryo-saram’s settlements), they caught Stalin’s attention. He knew that minorities were receptive for subversion, especially in areas bordering turbulent conflict zones.

The forced resettlement from the Russian Far East

The political situation was tense – the persecution of Trotskyism slopped over to the Russian Far East; in 1935, little skirmishes between Russian and Japanese troops occurred in the banks of the rivers Amur and Ussuri; the Spanish Civil War in 1936 gave leeway to Germany’s and Japan’s Anti-Comintern Pact; and a moment later, Japanese aggression incited the Second Japanese-Chinese War.

It was during this politically complex atmosphere that the Russian newspaper “Pravda” in April 1937 first reported that Koryo-saram were used as collaborators of the Japanese secret service, while at the same time vast areas of Central Asia were still recognized to be waiting for productive usage. So, in August 1937, Molotov and Stalin signed a secret ordinance to simply have the 180.000 Koryo-saram near Vladivostok relocated to Central Asia (mainly to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) within a few months – the first forced mass deportation under Stalin.

The Koryo-saram were then settled in agriculturally arable lands such as in Chirchiq, Tashkent, Choresm, Samarkand, Karakalpakistan or in the border regions near the Syr Darya and Amu Darya river where new Korean villages were established. Poor conditions did not allow proper accommodations, which led to a deterioration of the health situation; the elderly and the children suffered most. A 1938 census indicates that 1.500 Koreans had died within the first months, and memoirs and other kinds of Koryo-saram literature include endless strings of sad experiences. Families were divided during the deportation, children lost their parents, and the Soviet policy of restricting mobility did not make the reunification of families any easier.

This violent uprooting of an already deracinated people proved to be utterly traumatic, even though the Koryo-saram soon recovered, cultivated the land, integrated into the domestic societies and experienced social advancements.

From the memory of my Grandmother

My grandmother Nyura or Anna Kim was born in the Russian Far East. When she reached the age of seven in 1937, she and her family’s whole neighbourhood were part of the ca. 180.000 ethnic Koreans to be deported to Central Asia. The political tensions in these Russian borderlands near Japanese-led Korea, Manchukuo, and China made our ethnic minority suspicious. They were all commanded to pack their properties within several hours and enter the trains without knowing why they had to abandon their homes. As Anna’s father had recently had a surgery, he was not able to supply the family of four children with food.

Anna with 8 grandchildren, summer 1992, Uzbekistan

Their wagon neighbours, luckily, were generous to share with them some nutrition to help them to survive the trip towards unknowingness. It took more than one month. They landed in wild places along the river regions of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and were now supposed to cultivate these virgin lands. The next decades saw a turmoil of all kinds of migration and Russification policies that deeply impacted all spheres of their life – language, education, culture, food and religion.

Koryo-saram in Central Asia

After the second World War, and especially after Stalin’s death, the image of the Koryo-saram was restored. They then generally fared well. They integrated into the domestic societies, experienced social advancements, pursued higher education, moved freely around and obtained well-positioned jobs in the (post-)Soviet society. However, complex their identity developed in Central Asia of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods – they retained significant parts of older customs that still shaped their daily routines, and which originally stemmed from the genuinely Korean culture generations ago. These well-preserved old customs comprise food, festivities, the appellations of relatives, and other facets of everyday life.

Even though almost every Koryo-saram who arrived in Uzbekistan in 1937 spoke Korean (a specific dialect called Koryo-mar which points towards the north-eastern part of the Korean peninsula, namely Northern Hamgyong and Southern Hamgyong), after deportation, Soviet education policies soon made Russian the main language of schooling. Their original dialect is barely spoken today; only those Koryo-saram in Uzbekistan who are older than 60 can still use it, at least in fragments.

The main motifs of the Koryo-saram written literature narrate migration-related topics in a grateful manner, thanking Kazakhs, Uzbeks and other peoples for their welcoming attitude in difficult times. The Korean-Kazakh writer Lavrentij Son, for example – by the way, note the typical name of a Koryo-saram bearing a Russian prename and the characteristically monosyllabic surname (the sole syllable remaining from a Korean identity, as the poet Stanislav Li gloomily said) – the writer Lavrentij Son remembers the solitudes of his childhood, lonely and left behind every day because his impoverished parents were forced to work hard in their new Central Asian lands.

First- and second-generation children from deported Koryo-saram often report their loneliness. This orphaned emotion is emblematic for their seclusion from their people’s history, and it led to a perpetual search for identity. Most Koryo-saram writers, always alien to the land where they were born, refrained from naming a certain geographical territory as their home. Vladimir Kim confessed to be completely rootless, Vladimir Li regarded his own memory as his native land, Mikhail Pak abstractly detected happiness as his homeland, and Anatoly Kim spiritually found his essential home in the act of writing. 

“They say, being born and brought up in a foreign country cannot create any nostalgia – how can one yearn for the unknown? But in each of us, there is an ineradicable craving to know where we come from and what it is, the land of the ancestors, and who they are, the brothers in blood – are they still there? How could we satisfy our eternal desire to understand ourselves without this knowledge?” (V. Kim 1997; own translation)

Written by Svetlana Kim-Pacher. Parts of this article were already published in Nouvelle Europe before – I am grateful for the permission to reprint them.

© Svetlana Kim-Pacher, Felix Shegay


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