Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sakhalin and Its Forgotten Korean Exiles

[Oops, 6 months after listening to this awesome lecture I find my notes on it and now enter the synopsis. However, there may be some small mistakes due to my note-taking shorthand and understanding it so many months hence. Please take any small errors into consideration ... they are my own and not to be reflected on the lecturer - July 2011]

Dr. Andrei Lankov, a research fellow at the China and Korea Centre, Faculty of Asian Studies, Austalian National University, received both his MA and PhD from Leningrad State University. He wrote his thesis on factionalism in Yi Dynasty Korea (Political Factions and Conflicts in Korea, 16th - 18th C) and submits regularly to Korean newspapers.

The RAS Carrot

Not only does Dr. Lankov write rather prolifically on Korea, but he also speaks enthusiastically and knowledgably on topics concerning Korea, a very entertaining lecturer indeed! So being a phenomenal lecturer and reading the RAS carrot on the displaced Korean diaspora, many people flocked to his lecture. The carrot is as follows:

The Sakhalin Korean community is one of the most interesting parts of the 5,000,000 strong Korean diaspora. There are some 40,000 Koreans who live on this sparsely populated island which in the recent decade or so became remarkably rich due to the gas and oil deposits. Some of [the disapora] are descendants of the miners and loggers who were moved there in the 1940s by the Japanese authorities, while many more are descendants of North Korean workers who were recruited by the Soviet administration in Korea. Their history was full of tribulations. For long, they remained stateless, and then many of them became citizens of North Korea (a decision which cost some of the dearly). For decades they worked hard to return to their native lands, and this struggle [has been] full of dramatic and tragic episodes. But they should not be seen as passive victims: in essence, the history of their community is also an example of remarkable social and economic success.

Some Comments on the Diaspora

Of the approximate 400,000 Koreans in Central Asia (descendants of people who fled in the colonial times, political refugees, and others deported to Central Asia), roughly 10,000 of that number were Koreans who were first relocated (for whatever reason) from Sakhalin Island, the long island above Hokkaido Japan.

But what first took Koreans to Sakhalin Island? In the 1930s, a mass migration from the combined Korea began. Many were sent there to work in mines (in the colonial period ruled by the Japanese) as miners were paid 80 yen per month whereas a steel worker in the homeland of Korea received only 15 yen a month. Others moved there of their own volition. However, with the Japanese losing the war and the Russians claiming the island in 1945, the Koreans on the island were viewed discriminatorily and some ethnic cleansing began, effectively forcing the remaining Japanese to return to Japan. Koreans desired to leave too, but Russia needed the Korean man-power so by the end of 1945, Koreans were forbidden to leave. Only those who were involved in mixed marriages (Japanese and Korean spouses) were given the choice to leave or stay; many departed.

The Russians now actively occupied the island and exploited its resources (coal mining, forestry, fishing), and the displaced diaspora could be exploited as a resource too. A larger workforce than existed was needed and so Russians recruited 10,000 Koreans from the Korean provinces under Russian control, those in present-day North Korea. The earliest 10,000 or so Koreans did not mix with these latter recruits, due to politico-cultural reasons: principally, the earlier were Koreans who had mainly come from the southern Korean provinces, and most specifically, the Kyungsando area in the lower southeast corner of the Korean peninsula. Ideologies were different and they did not mix well.

Thus, in the 1930s, Koreans were recruited from the southern areas as miners (and other jobs) to Sakhalin; in the 1940s, the Koreans were shipped in as a mandatory work force; and in 1945, the Russians further changed the dynamics by recruiting Koreans from northern provinces. In 1950, 2,000 Soviet Koreans from Central Asia (loyal soviets and with even a more radically different ideology) were sent to "control" the Koreans on Sakhalin. They were brought in as supervisors, "spies", policemen, educators while those directly from the Korean peninsula were only given menial and laborious jobs.

In 1952, the Koreans (in Japan, on Sakhalin, wherever they were) who had been declared as Japanese citizens under colonialism were suddenly denied Japanese citizenship, approximately 42,000 Koreans from the southern provinces on Sakhalin (8,000 Koreans from the northern provinces and 2,000 Soviet Koreans). In effect, 50,000 stateless people! And so most Koreans were "foreigners" in their (frequently) birth country which disallowed freedom of movement and enforced police checks every 3 months on its "foreign" population. In 1958(?), Russia so briefly allowed the Koreans to acquire Russian citizenship ... but only 3% accepted. Why? Because they would NEVER be allowed to go "home" due to the Russian immigration policy of Russian citizens. [This immigration policy lasted until the 1960s and very few were allowed immigration privileges.] The displaced diaspora with second and sometimes third generation children had a yearning to return "home".

In the late 1950s, about 4,000 of the displaced group were allowed to return to North Korea, although not all had originated from the norther provinces. As an aside, Dr Lankov mentioned the tension between the returning diaspora and those in power and many of the 4,000 ended up in prison.

As citizen-less people, they were forbidden to do many types of occupation as to "work" would be to have legal permission from the government, but without citizenship, no legal permission could be given. In the late 1950s, the Koreans discovered yet another job that they could do with citizenship: agriculture. They were fortunately the only ethnic group that was allowed to have private farms, although they had to give a fixed percent to the state and the rest would then be theirs. This was a great advancement as they could then have something besides dried potatoes and onions.

Time passed and 2 kinds of discrimination are found to exist. (1) official discrimination against the Koreans (principally the older generation) who are stateless (not so many left now), (2) non-offical discrimination exists from the Russians as prejudice although, thankfully, not all Russians have this prejudice. By the time the third generation was old enough to get jobs, they were fluent in Russian, had been able to get good eduation and thus were able to be equally employable with the Russian-Russians. Dr. Lankov conluded that there is little prejudice against the displaced diaspora to this day on Sakhalin.

Some Personal Comments

For two years (2001~2003) I lived on Sakhalin Island and worked at a university there that had several Korean-Russian students and employees. I also was involved in the Korean church in Yuzhno-Sahkalinsk and visited many Korean home churches in isolated places. I was accepted as I was great friends with the Korean pastor and spoke some Korean as well as had lived in their "home"land. What the Korean-Russians told me does not reflect a country without prejudice. I met a few citizen-less Koreans (men) and their lack of "good" work prevented the family from getting accepted. The Korean-Russians were often segregated from the others; some of this segregation was due to still using the Korean language and eating somewhat differently, and some I'm sure comes from the more independent attitude of Russian non-conformity. Other reasons exists too which would be interesting to explore.

Of the many Korean-Russians I met, only two had highly educated positions: a doctor and a manager; the others didn't have very estimable positions, but then the whole of the Russian community that I moved within was lower-middle-class. The one theme which I found most interesting, however, was the point of discrimination. Many Korean-Russians said that Russian-Russians discriminated (to some extent) against them. However, the vast majority talked about the discrimination experienced by themselves or others by South Koreans, who many identified with, as being even more discriminatory! The South Koreans, they said, treated them like they were provincial (an insult in Korea), as if they were uneducated (perhaps less educated but certainly the Korean-Russians are not uneducated), and worst of all, that they were inferior because they did not speak Korean like the South Koreans or behave like the South Koreans (South Koreans are still very collective and homogenous in a lot of their behavior).

As a white American female expat in Korea, I get treated very well. Sometimes I get preferential treatment (which can irk me at times) because I'm white and I'm American and I'm trying to speak Korean. My Korean-American friends who speak Korean even better than I get some of the discrimination however, because they do not speak Korean like the South Koreans. And so when the Korean-Russians speak of South Korean discrimination being worse than that in their birth country, I so understand. [I know of several Korean-Russians who were able to move to South Korea, their "home"land, only to realize that Sakhalin Russia is their true home, and so they returned.)

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