Confessions of a Koryo Saram

A human perspective on the lives of Korean settlers in Kazakhstan.

I was born in Ushtobe, Kazakhstan – a small town that people used to call jokingly the “Korean capital.”  In my school, one third of the children had short last names like Kim, Pak, and Lee. When I was a child I thought that Koreans had been living here from time immemorial and that everything around was familiar and belonged to us.  I did not speak Korean in kindergarten or at school because my native language is Russian.  Some Koreans my age who grew up in rural areas can express themselves in our Korean dialect quite well.  I cannot although I can understand when elderly people speak in Koryo Mar (a Korean dialect spoken by Koreans living in the former USSR). I learned Korean only in the early 1990s as a KGS Fellow in the Language Institute of Seoul National University.

My father’s name is Kim Dyunbin. As an orphan, he was not able to finish secondary school. He was expelled from school for writing an announcement about a Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth, a youth division of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) meeting on the back of a poster with Stalin’s portrait on it.  He passed his unfulfilled thirst for knowledge on to me and I was doomed to study with all my might to realize his dreams and hopes.  I heard that a Korean soothsayer once told my father that one of his sons would become a great man in the future.  I was the “chosen” one and neither of my two brothers received the attention that I did from our father. I was very studious and read all the books in the school library. Still, I found myself in front of my father once a week, listening, yet another time, to his endless lecture that if I did not study properly I would not become a man.  Well, I have not become a great man but I have become a scholar.

For the sake of their children, my parents sold a big house with a vineyard and vegetable garden and moved to the capital- Almaty, where I found myself in a new school.  The school’s full name “Labor Polytechnic High School named after V. Chkalov No. 55” sounded strange to me. There were only two Korean boys in the huge school. From over 100 graduates in my year, almost all took up natural sciences and some entered prestigious universities in Moscow or Siberia (famous for its technical universities).  I was the exception – I chose the humanities.

I considered myself lucky.  I entered the specialized group of the History department of Kazakh State University and for six years I studied history and German and finished with two majors.  After graduation I taught German and world history at my alma mater for ten years. The time passed quickly, I liked my work and was determined to take up German studies seriously. 

April of 1985 came. Worn out leaders of the Stalin era were replaced by Gorbachev who opened a new page in the history of the giant nation.  Gorbachev announced to the world that the Soviet Union was entering the period of glasnost’, democratization, and perestroika.  Soon, those three words became known in all the languages.  It was then, that for the first time, people started talking about the deportation of Koreans.  There appeared a great thirst for learning our history, our roots and for the restoration of ethnic culture and national language. I was lucky again; I managed to enter a post-graduate program and could devote myself to the study of our history.  That was in 1986.  I was 33 at that time and I started my life from a blank page.  I was not very experienced as an historian, but as a person I was no longer a boy but a man with some life experience. Such a combination was useful because there was no need for me to get rid of old ideological dogmas and stamps of official Soviet historiography.  

So, I started to research the history of the Soviet Koreans during the first years I worked with extraordinary delight and enthusiasm.  Soon I learned a lot about the past of my people.

My ancestors, whose names I do not know, moved from Korea to the Russian Far East sometime in the mid-1860s to the beginning of the 1870s.  They were driven by famine, disasters, and by the tyranny of Korean rulers.  At first there were dozens, then hundreds of such settlers, but soon thousands of poor Koreans rushed to the lands of the Primorskiyi krai (Maritime region).

The first generation of Koryo Saram tried as quickly as possible to adapt to the new living conditions in the Tsarist Empire and later in Soviet Russia. That generation learned Russian, accepted orthodoxy and then refused the religion a couple of days later. They ploughed the virgin lands and prepared it for sowing.  They engaged in wheat growing instead of rice cultivation, and lived in Russian izbas (wooden dwellings).   

The second generation did not have enough time to taste the first fruits of their labor in the new lands.  They were forced to repeat the mission of the previous generation - to adapt again to the conditions presented to them in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Though they had to settle in new lands thousands of kilometers away from the homes they had left, it was at least in the same country and they did not have to learn a new language and adapt to a new system. The generation of my parents heroically withstood all the difficulties and created a solid foundation for us- the third generation.

We- the third generation, also turned out to be pioneers. Now we have to adapt to the conditions of new sovereign states of the post-Soviet region: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, etc. During the last 10 years the places where we Koryo Saram lived became quite different. The living conditions and the ethno-cultural, linguistic, and religious situations in these newly independent countries have become considerably different from each other.   

So what are we Koryo Saram? On the one hand, we are Koreans and we have a lot in common with “ true” Koreans from the Korean peninsula and with the millions of fellow Koreans  living all over the world. We have common genetic roots, are of the same anthropological type, and share an ethnic culture and language. On the other hand, we are very much different from other Koreans.  Over the past century and a half, we have undergone many changes in our mentality, ethnic identity, language, customs, cuisine, and even our appearance.  When we refer to ourselves as, “we–the Koryo Saram”, we emphasize that we are neither Hanguk Saram (South Koreans) nor Choson Saram (North Koreans), just Korean.    

People often say that we Koryo Saram have practically lost our language.  The Korean language for the fourth and 5tht generations is as foreign as Chinese or Japanese. We can do without seafood quite well, we do not wear hanbok (traditional Korean dress), and do not believe in Buddha or Confucius.  Even a Korean child knows more than we might about the basic elements of our native culture and the rudimentary events of Korean history.  Moreover, we cannot imagine our cuisine without Russian bread, shashlik (Russian kebab), or pilaw.  From early childhood we learned Russian folk tales, learned European languages at school and were taught European literature, music, and art. Even our given names are not Korean. Only family names are still Korean.

I am often asked: What makes you Koryo Saram Koreans?

First, we realize and feel a genetic, ethno-cultural, and historical kinship with the modern population of the Korean peninsula.  Secondly, we Koryo Saram have never tried to hide our ethnicity and when asked about our nationality, we always answered “Korean”. Our Korean nationality has always been written into passports.  Koryo Saram have never denied their ethnic origin, even during Stalin’s repressions and deportation.  Thirdly, it was not only that we called ourselves Koreans, but other people called us that as well. It is worth noting that the attitude to Koryo Saram from the outside has always been positive.  To be a Koryo Saram has never been considered shameful in Russia, Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan.  It may be surprising, but in the former Soviet Union when anecdotes were told about everybody and everything, there is practically nothing blame-worthy repeated about Koreans except for a couple of harmless jokes about their weakness for Korean delicacy.

They say there are no bad people, cultures, or national characters.  I fully agree with this notion. However, I believe that there are some peculiarities in the ethnic characters of different peoples that have formed over centuries in response to the many natural, ecological, geographical, economical, cultural, and geopolitical situations that people living in various territories have faced.

Koreans as a settled people have been engaged in vegetable growing for centuries.  As a result, nearly all point out extreme diligence as a national trait.  It is not by chance that in the countries where Koreans live, they are called “laborholics”. In his interview Torkunov A., President of the Moscow University of International Relations, was asked, “In what way are Koreans different from other people?”  He responded, “Diligence, patience, goodwill, persistence in achieving their goals.”  I agree with our respected Professor.

Many scholars have also mentioned the ability of Koreans to adapt to new economic and social conditions.  This adaptation transforms into acculturation in a very short time and does not readily give way to assimilation.

After the deportation, Koryo Saram have adapted and achieved great success in a relatively short period of time.  From a mostly agrarian population, we have transformed ourselves into a well- educated, urbanized community.  Among Kazakhstani Koreans there are dozens of Heroes of Socialist labor, hundreds of people with PhD degrees, former and present ministers, Members of Parliament, and well-known people in culture, art, and sports. Koryo Saram have never constituted even one percent of the total population of Kazakhstan, but we are nevertheless noticeable, and it seems that there are more of us than there really are. Whenever I am asked about the number of Koreans living in Kazakhstan, my answer causes a great deal of surprise: “So few?!” Yes, we are 100,000 or 0.6% of the total population.

It is not just that we the Koryo Saram, have become Russian speaking and have absorbed the culture, customs, or traditions of the people around us; we have also exerted influence on them. For instance, rice cultivation and vegetable growing - especially onions, melons, and watermelons -has developed thanks to Koryo Saram.  In every market in Kazakhstan one can see Korean women selling all kinds of Korean salads next to women of other ethnic origins and their customers are mostly non-Korean. Now practically every Kazakhstani family holiday table includes Korean carrot salad.  Local Korean salads, quite different from South Korean panch’an (side dishes and appetizers), are on the menu of most restaurants and cafes. In restaurants and cafes of Korean cuisine the majority of customers constitute non- Koreans.

Another important transformation in the life of Koryo Saram is exogamous marriage. Currently nearly every second Koryo Saram, whether man or woman, is married to a person of a different nationality. In one of my questionnaires for non-Korean students I asked:  “Are there any Korean relatives in your families?” I was surprised by the answers – most Almaty non-Korean students had Korean relatives.  This means that the roots of Koryo Saram in Kazakhstan are very deep, and relations with other peoples are very close.

I am often asked: Germans return to their Fatherland, Jews go back to the Promised Land, Greeks to Greece, and Russians to Russia; what about Koreans?  Sometimes I joke – No way!  But it is true that we Koryo Saram have long since decided that our motherland is here.

What are the reasons for the absence of a desire to return to the motherland?  It is not as if the government of the South and the North are even interested in the repatriation of Koryo Saram.  Such interest would even be illogical.  But even if such an appeal materialized, I do not think that many Koryo Saram would move to their historical motherland.  I have already explained the reasons: we would be aliens there, we do not know the language, we have different mentalities, habits, customs, ways of life, we cannot live in a mono-ethnic environment, and we would be incompetent there.  In Korea, despite the distant but existing kinship, the complex of being alien, of being a stranger, is, for most Koryo saram, much worse than in Germany or the United States.

We, Koryo Saram, used to be united in the great country of the Soviet Union.  Now we are divided into parts. We are not the only ones. The same has happened to Kazakhs in Uzbekistan or Russians in the Ukraine.  But they have a chance to return to the land of their ancestors.  What will become of us? Will we in some 100 years turn into Kazakhstani, Uzbekistani, and Russian Koryo Saram? Will Kazakh or Uzbek become a native language for our descendants?  Will the 7th and 8th generations adopt Islam? Will we disappear without a trace in the endless lands of Eurasia, having been totally assimilated by the dominant peoples? Millions of other foreign Koreans living in America, China, Japan and elsewhere are facing such questions.

To be honest, I do not have answers. One thing I can tell for sure – I do not have any feeling of fatalism. It is rooted in my belief that we will not disappear without any trace and will not sink into oblivion. Maybe we will simply become different.

Once I remarked to a Kazakh friend that the too-quick transfer to the Kazakh language after the emergence of the Republic of Kazakhstan was causing a feeling of uncertainty and discrimination among the Russian-speaking peoples of Kazakhstan.  He responded, “Don’t feel hurt, you have your historical motherland. You have two Korean states that, sooner or later, will be unified and everything national, including the language, will be preserved for centuries, even if you Koryo Saram forget it here. But we Kazakhs do not have another country and we have to preserve what we have here in this land”.                    

What could I say to my friend’s words?

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