Friday, January 29, 2010

The Korean Diaspora in the Far East

More than 6 million Koreans are scattered worldwide although the largest number of the diaspora remain in the Far East (China, Russia and Japan) and US. To be thought of as a diaspora implies that though they no longer remain in their native country their hearts and minds are still connected as well as facets of their identity are still tied to their homeland.

Joon Lee, Fulbright fellow from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, discusses historical migrations and events (March 1st 1919 Movement and the Korean War) through the eyes of the diaspora to portray a fresh, transnational view of Korean history and how reasons for migration/displacement, migration/displacement location, economic and social status, among other significant aspects, affected ideologies of the diaspora which affected their political persuasions in what became key historical events within Korea itself. [Only included here are the periods and politics for border crossing and the nomenclature of the dispersed ethnic Koreans.]

Migrations/Displacement of the Diaspora
The migration of Koreans can be said to have started in the 1860s and 1870s. [Migration here discusses when large numbers of Koreans moved or were relocated. This in no way suggests that Koreans did not migrate or were not displaced before the 1860s, only that those going earlier were much smaller in number.] Although the Chinese-Manchurian border was officially closed until about the 1880s, due to droughts and famines as well, the Koreans living in what is North Korea now looked across the Yalu River into Manchuria, which was then an off-limits area allocated for the Manchurians, and took the risk of entering the underdeveloped remote territory. These early migrants called themselves the Chosun-jok [조선족, the tribe of Chosun, the name of the Korean dynasty when they emigrated]. They brought with them wet-rice farming methods which produced two-times the rice as the Manchurian Chinese's dry-rice farming method, and due to their contribution and productivity, they were welcomed. The largest number still lives in Yanbian (China) where they have continued to speak in Korea, eat Korean food and educate their children in the homeland language.

In 1864, Koreans started to emigrate to Russia across the Tumen River. This group called themselves the Koryeo-saram [고려사람, the people of Koryeo]. Relgion per se did not exist in the Koreas when they emigrated, so of significant note, this particular group adopted the Othodox church but could still retain many of their cultural living practices. In 1906, however, the Siberian Railroad was completed and Russians from the west began pouring into the newly accessible Far Eastern reaches.

Time passed and politics determine policies of nations on peoples seen as "foreigners" within their borders. Remembering that Russia was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Russia was again fearing the growing power of Japan in the Far East. Bolsheviks were pouring into the Russian Far East. The newly arrived Koreans, 여호인, in their poverty-stricken landless state tended to side with the Bolsheviks whereas the Koreans who had immigrated earlier, 원호인, as established businessmen and professionals productive to society sided with ?[not sure of the factions here]?. However, due to fear of the Japanese in the Far East and fear that the Koreans would strengthen Japanese numbers, in 1937, Stalin ordered the Koreans (고려사람) living in the Russian Far East to be rounded up, put into cattle cars and transported to Central Asia [mostly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan], where many died but where many applied their farming skills in rice and cotton fields to scratch out a living. The time of gulags and ethnic cleansing had arrived. [An interesting point, after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, some of the 고려사람 went back to the Russian Far East. Ironically or perhaps due to difficulties in returning to the motherland of the diaspora, they did not return to Korea.]

In 1910, Japan forcefully annexed Korea and referred to it in colonial jargon as Chosun. Due to involuntary conscription of both men's labor and women's (often sexual) labor as well as others seeking economic or other opportunities, by the 1920s Koreans were crossing over to Japan. This group was called the Chosunjin [조선진] by the Japanese. The term is insulting and connotes 'dirty' and 'low-class', partly due to their colonial status but also due to the segregated hovels on the edges of villages and cities where their reduced economic means forced them to live. They remained in Japan, however, as they could earn twice the income obtainable in Korea although it was half the income the ethnic-Japanese received. The positive point on their penurious living conditions is that they were left alone by the Japanese and so could speak Korean and eat their own food [another derogatory insult on the Koreans was "garlic-eater" due to ubiquitous garlic in their diets and eminating from their very persons.] The negative point concerning their perimeter living was that they were isolated from Korean networks and so in Japan could not organize as could the other groups of the Korean diaspora.

By the late 1930s the Chosunjin had earned another appelation, Zainichi meaning "staying in Japan". Parsing the meaning a little more, 'nichi' means 'second generation' so this name suggests that the immigrants had expanded in number within the border of the foster country. As is unfortunately true of foreigner-status in some countries, the Zainichi were treated as second-class citizens in Japan. Example: they had to carry a residence card with their thumbprint on it and the only other group requiring fingerprinting was the criminal ... this practice only became defunct in 1992.

From the fascinating discussion of Koreans as represented by a diaspora that remains connected with Korea but not homogenous in thought to Koreans remaining in the homeland, it becomes very apparent that ideas are porous across national boundaries. The diaspora, as a diaspora and not ethnically connected to their foster countries, does not have to accept unconditionally the culture of the birthland. Wars, revolutions, movement and changing ideologies have affected their choice of birthland but this is not synonymous with affecting their idea of their homeland.
June Lee highlights the unique spin-off identities that [the diaspora] created as the result of straddling national and cultural borders. As the diaspora became "Americanized," "Sinicized," "Russofied," and "Japanized," these identities have challenged Korea’s traditional belief in a race-based concept of ethnic identity. Today there is much debate in Korea over how the diaspora should be treated legally and socially.

Joon Lee draws the conclusion that the diaspora should not be separated by their distances but reach beyond the learned culture to grasp mutual cultural roots. For though they are displaced from the ethnic homeland, the homeland still pulls at the 마음, the non-English entangled concept of the heart, mind and soul.

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