Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Kazakhstan and the Korean Diaspora

A large number of Koreans arrived in Central Asia and Kazakhstan in 1937, but according to the first general census of the Russian Empire in 1897, there were a few dozen Koreans living in the central Asian territory. Koreans were also registered by the First All-Union Census of the population [1926] in three oblasts (prefectures) of what is now Kazakhstan: Akmolinsk, Semipalatinsk and Syr-Darya. 42 in total were registered : 36 in Uzbekistan and 9 in Kirghizstan.

At the end of the 1920s a small group of Koreans found themselves in Kazakhstan. Koreans, known for their superior rice production at the time, demonstrated great skill in rice and land cultivation. Because rice was viewed as a very important crop and so to develop rice production in Kazakhstan "it was planned to invite Koreans to Kazakhstan to assist in the organization of rice cultivation and sharing their experience." The Koreans who moved from the Far East to Kazakhstan formed "Korean agricultural labour artel 'Kazakskiyris'". In total 220 Koreans represented by 117 households immigrated to Kazakhstan at that time, (1929).

A lot of conjecture and legend surrounded the social acceptance of the Koreans who immigrated to Kazakhstan. Many believed that Korean immigrants to Russia were pure and illiterate peasants who lived in Korean villages in the maritime region of the Far East. This is easily debunked. The Koreans held themselves somewhat separated from the Kazakhs; they had a sense of elevated thoughts, the desire to pursue education, and though they were brought in as agricultural workers, the Korean women dressed fashionably for the times, the young boys (and some girls?) got educated.

Then the larger group of Koreans came in to Kazakhstan. Stalin deported a massive Korean population from the Russian Far East in 1937 in an endeavor to exterminate them. Many died, but when survivors arrived in Kazakhstan, they were willing to work and so thrived.

The Koreans valued education and, when compared with the Kazakh households, the Korean households were scholarly. Many old books were arguably brought with the Stalin refugees, and these books are now highly treasured and valued for their scholarship and good condition. 
Kazakhstan holds a significant collection of books in Korean and legends about the origin and value of this collection abound. It is clear that one of the most valuable items in the collection of the Kazakh National Library is a 19th Century edition of the 50-volume encyclopedia Dongguk Munhon Bigo (동국문헌비고 [東國文獻備考]). However, the question of how these books came to be in the Library of Kazakhstan remains uncertain. Little is known about how the collection was assembled in the Far East, how it was brought to Kzyl-Orda, and how it came to be in Almaty. 
No doubt, the books came to be in Kazakhstan in connection with the deportation of Koreans from the Soviet Far East in 1937 and the relocation of the Korean Pedagogical Institute from Vladivostok to Kzyl-Orda. It is likely that the books arrived along with the Institute’s deported students and teachers. In 1938 the Korean Pedagogical Institute in Kzyl-Orda and the Korean Pedagogical College in Kazalinsk (Kzyl-Orda oblast’), which was moved from Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk, began teaching in the Russian language. Korean educational establishments, as well as educational institutions of other national minorities (Germans, Poles, Tatars etc.), were eliminated and the names of those institutions were changed. Thus, there was no longer a need for Korean books in Kzyl-Orda and for a long time they were just silently shelved.  
[RAS lecture by German Kim, PhD and Doctor habilitatus from the Kazakh National University and  Director of the International Center of Korean Studies and Professor of World History in the KazNU. He is a noteworthy scholar on the history of Korean immigration and the Korean diaspora.]
Stalin intended to eliminate Korean language and culture but the Koreans were hardy, and proudly and privately cherished their culture, transporting it with them when they were forced west. To this day, Kazakh-Koreans share their culture with their original motherland, albeit in unique and altered ways.
  • Korean traditions mark important life milestones: first birthday (tol), the wedding (kyoron chanchi) and 60th birthday (hwangab).
  • National holidays based predominantly on the lunar calendar are mutually observed: spring (hansik) and autumn (chuseok) equinoxes, and on those days all Koreans visit their ancestors' graves. Solnal, the most joyful holiday on the lunar calendar, is the most popular for both Korean culture groups. 
New Challenges and Diasporic Strategies

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of sovereign Central Asian states opened a new page in the history of the Koryo saram. Opposite to other ethnic minorities, which have chosen to leave the Soviet Central Asian Republics, the Koreans have stayed but they are again being forced to adapt and this time to the nationalizing states.

Collapse of the Union of the Soviet Republics lead to the beginning formation of new communities of the Koryo saram: Kazakhstani/Kazakh, Uzbekistani, Russian and more, who are similar in some ways and different in others as regard to the strategies of choices:

  • choice of the place of residence and/or migration
  • choice of labor activity and profession
  • choice of ways and forms of diasporic associations
  • choice of identity and ethnocultural determinants 
  • choice of relationship with the historical motherland

Already one-fifth of the Korean-Kazakh diaspora have moved to Seoul, 20,000 of the 100,000 from Kazakhstan have relocate back to the motherland. Interestingly, the Koran-Kazakhs are viewed very favorably and held in high-regard in Kazakhstan. This stems back to the Koreans who held themselves to high educational standards when they immigrated or were forcibly immigrated. They valued and embraced education, dressed well, established a community with laws and community-controlled social controls. Now, in present-day Kazakhstan, many Korean-Kazakhs are judges, university professors, lawyers and are government employed. For having a 0.07% of the population, the Korean-Kazakhs are valued and respected for their high contribution to nation-building/maintaining, a nation that the Korean-Kazakhs identify with in similar ways that they identify with Korea.

Religion of Koreans in Kazakhstan

Originally most Korean immigrants were Buddhist but significant numbers became Orthodox Christian (the Russian law says that to be a citizen a person must be an Orthodox Christian). In result, Korean immigrants, at least publicly, changed religions. This allowed them the right to own fields. Many Korean might still practice Buddhism privately, like ancestor veneration and other family rituals, but this was done away from the public eye. Over time, Buddhist practices declined and, for many who were Orthodox Christians for appearance sake, religious identities faltered and atheism began to dominate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Korean missionaries ventured to Kazakhstan and others came from the US and Canada, and religions was accepted again.

Korean Language

The official status of Korean language in FSU (?) is as the "native language" of the Koreans. Korean spoken by the Koryo saram exists basically in the oral form. As to dialect, ancestors of the Korean immigrants hailed from the Hamkyongnam province [present-day North Korea] but who migrated from the south of the peninsula during the 15th-16th century. Long isolation from Korea, absorption of elements from southern dialects, and finally Russian-language influences led to the linguistic phenomenon now referred to as "Koryo mal". 

  • The prevailing number of Korean-Kazakhs do not know Korean at all.
  • Those from 40-60 years of age typically have a passive mastery of the language.
  • The senior age group, from 60-80 years old, could possess fluency. 


Unlike many immigrant ethnic groups that are uncertain whether they will adapt themselves in the host country, the Diaspora is aware that its future is related to the new homeland.
  • The term Diaspora will remain until the group refers to itself as "we" instead of incorporating the pointed polarizing pronouns of "we" and "they".
  • Koryo saram are neither Hanguk saram nor Choseon saram.
  • Koryo saram are not less Koreans than Koreans of the Korean peninsula or other countries. They are Koreans; they are just different. Different experiences creates different identities; shared experiences homogenize. Time and experiences have altered the sociocultural homogeneousness but the core of their cultures is still the shared nucleus, the center where the vitality of both of their beings coexist. 

"Before we were homogeneously the same, now we are different. We have made choices and now we are valuing our differences," concludes German Kim.

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