Deportation of Koreans in the Soviet Union
Deportation of Koreans in the Soviet Union, originally conceived in 1926, initiated in 1930, and carried through in 1937, was the first mass transfer of an entire nationality in the Soviet Union. Almost the entire Soviet population of ethnic Koreans (171,781 persons) were forcefully moved from the Russian Far East to unpopulated areas of the Kazakh SSR and the Uzbek SSR in October 1937. The official reason for the deportation was to stem "the penetration of the Japanese espionage into the Far Eastern Krai", as Koreans were at the time subjects of the Empire of Japan, which was hostile to the Soviet Union. Estimates based on population statistics suggest that 40,000 deported Koreans died in 1937 and 1938 from starvation, exposure and difficulties adapting to their new environment.
Korean immigrants first appeared in the Russian Far East in the 1850s and early 1860s. By the 1890s, they had received the right to register as citizens of the Russian Empire, under the terms of a Russo-Korean treaty that determined their citizenship status at that time. Korean migrants who had moved to Russia referred to themselves as the Koryo Saram. As more Korean immigrants arrived in the Russian Far East, the Korean minority became one of the largest border minorities in the Soviet Union, facing in the 1920s and the 1930s the Japanese-occupied Korea on the other side. This minority had been gradually building up since the second half of the 19th century, as poor Korean peasants migrated across the border in search for land and livelihoods. The Korean immigration increased dramatically during the early 1920s, after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–1905 and Japan’s subsequent establishment of a protectorate over Korea.
By the October Revolution in 1917, there were about 100,000 Koreans in Russia. During the Russian Civil War, Korean allegiance lay primarily with the Bolsheviks, due at least in part to the fact that, “Japanese oppression in Korea and occupied Siberia made most Koreans, if not Bolsheviks, then enemies of the Bolsheviks’ enemies.” Korean immigrants began to submit applications for citizenship in the emerging RSFSR. Suspicions of the “political unreliability” of Koreans, however, meant that in practice relatively few would ever receive citizenship; in 1923, 1300 out of 6000 applicants were accepted for citizenship, and in the following year, 1247 out of 4761.
In 1917–1926, the Soviet Korean population tripled to nearly 170,000 people, and by 1926, Koreans represented more than a quarter of the rural population of the Vladivostok region. Under the circumstances, the official Soviet policy of national minorities prescribed formation of a Korean autonomous territory (the proposed Korean ASSR) for the large Korean community in the Russian Far East. After the Soviet government approved the formation of a Jewish Autonomous District in Birobidzhan, members of the Koryo Saram petitioned for the establishment of a Far Eastern Korean National District. This was denied in 1929, due to opposition from the local Russian population fearing competition for land, as well as the political goal of maintaining a peaceful stance toward Imperial Japan.
As a result, a contradictory policy emerged. On the one hand, the State authorized smaller Korean national territories, and established Korean-language schools and newspapers, representing Koreans as a model Soviet national minority. This was presented with stark contrast to the Korean population suffering under the yoke of Japanese occupation across the border. On the other hand, however, the central government confirmed a secret plan (adopted on December 6, 1926) to resettle half of the Soviet Koreans (88,000 people) north of Khabarovsk on suspicions of disloyalty to the Soviet Union.
This resettlement plan was not implemented before 1930 for a variety of political and budgetary reasons, however. The first forced transfer of Korean immigrants to the north, excepting those who were explicitly proven loyal, began in 1930, initially in small amounts (by 1931, when the plan was officially abandoned, only 500 Korean families (2,500 individuals) had been resettled in the north.). Though this was the first case of ethnic cleansing by the Soviet Union, large-scale resettlement was delayed until 1937 out of the fear that Japan might consider it casus belli.
Resolution No. 1428-326CC : Planning the forced relocation
The resettlement plans were revived with new vigor in August 1937, ostensibly with the purpose of suppressing "the penetration of the Japanese espionage into the Far Eastern Krai". From September to October 1937, the Soviet authorities deported tens of thousands of persons of Korean origin from the Russian Far East to Soviet Central Asia.
More than 172,000 Koreans were deported from the border regions of the Russian Far East as part of Joseph Stalin's policy of systematic population transfer. Its legal basis was the joint decree #1428-326сс of the USSR Sovnarkom and VKP(b) Central Committee of August 21, 1937, "About Deportation of the Korean Population from the Border Regions of the Far Eastern Krai" ("О выселении корейского населения из пограничных районов Дальневосточного края"), signed by Stalin and Molotov. An additional resolution, No. 1647-377cc, on the total deportation of Koreans from all without any exception territories of the DVK including non-bordering, remote regions and neighboring oblasts, was passed on September 28 of that year. The initial decree #1428-326cc of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars and the CC of the VCP (b) August 21, 1937 stated:
The Council of People’s Commissars and CC of the VCP (b) hereby order: To prevent the penetration of Japanese espionage to the Far East region undertake the following acts:
- deport all Korean population from the border regions of the far east . . . and relocate it to the south—Kazakhstan region, areas near Aral sea, Uzbek SSR
- deportation will begin immediately and will finish by Jan 1, 1938
- allow Koreans subject to relocation to take movable property, livestock
- compensate the cost of abandoned movable and real property and crops
- increase the frontier troops by three thousand soldiers to secure the border in the Korean relocation region
The justification for resolution 1428-326cc was that it had been planned with the aim to “prevent the infiltration of Japanese spies to the Far East." However, no conclusive documents or other information on the matter have ever been found. Central Asian historian German Kim provides further consideration on the causes of the deportation of Koreans to Central Asia from the Far East: namely, that
- By 1937 the Korean population was largely integrated into the social-political, economic and cultural life of the Far Eastern Krai, and such an accumulation of population and influence could be perceived as a threat, and
- The establishment of a Jewish autonomous oblast led to demands from Soviet Koreans for increased regional and nationalist autonomy, indicating another potential threat for the State.
For the implementation of the decision, Genrikh Lyushkov was transferred from Rostov and assigned chief of the Far Eastern Krai NKVD. Soviet Koreans were resettled to Kazakh SSR and Uzbek SSR (in the latter case including Karakalpak ASSR).
The deportation was preceded by a typical Soviet scenario of political repression: falsified trials of local party leaders accused of insurrection, accusations of plans of the secession of the Far Eastern Krai, local party purges, and articles in Pravda about the Japanese espionage in the Far East.
The deportation was executed by NKVD Troikas of several levels — oblast troikas, raion troikas, and "group" troikas (кустовая тройка) — under strict monitoring of deadlines. Hundreds of party functionaries were purged and repressed for failures in this operation.
The deportation was performed in three batches, graded by the remoteness to the border; the first was the Posyet raion and "raions adjacent to Grodekovo". The deportees were transported by railway trains of about 50 carriages each, with 25–30 people per carriage. Travel to the destination took between 30 and 40 days.
Nikolai Yezhov reported the completion of the deportation of Koreans from Far Eastern Krai on October 25, 1937. In total, 36,442 families counting 171,781 persons were reported to be resettled. The Koreans remaining in Kamchatka, fishermen in the sea, and those on business trips were to be deported in an additional train by November 1. Mikhail N. Pak has suggested that the resolution may have been part of a larger concessionary agreement between the Soviet Union and Japan, due to Japanese perception that the Soviet-Korean community in the Russian Far East presented a threat.
Experience in Exile
Approximately 100,000 Koreans were deported to Kazakhstan and 74,000 were sent to Uzbekistan. Many Koreans were placed far from each other in isolation to prevent contact with each other. 34,000 Koreans were placed on the desolate outpost of Ushtobe, Kazakhstan with no food and no shelter and were forced to survive on their own for almost three years. Monetary assistance promised by the government never materialised, and furthermore, most of the deported were rice farmers and fishers, who had difficulty adapting to the arid climate of their new home. Thousands died of starvation, sickness and exposure during the first few years in Central Asia. Estimates based on population statistics suggest that 40,000 deported Koreans died in 1937 and 1938 for these reasons. The ethnic Kazakhs were essential during these first few years for the Koreans. They provided shelter and food to help the Koreans suffering from starvation and cold.
Joseph Stalin ordered the Korean people to work on kolkhozes, or collective farms, in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Koreans thrived as farmers, and until the collapse of the USSR over 100 Koreans were bestowed with the highest honor of the Soviet Union, the Gold Star. The Korean people worked hard and proved to be dedicated and resilient workers while working under extremely difficult conditions. Koreans began to organize schools and theaters to salvage their culture and language but were suppressed by the Soviet government, who burned all Korean textbooks. This suppression of Korean culture and language permanently damaged the ability of Soviet Koreans to learn Hangul (the native writing of Korea) and practice their traditions.
Even though the Korean language was banned, the Soviet government established multiple Korean newspapers to show off the success of the Koryo Saram. Ironically, as time passed fewer and fewer Koryo Saram could read and understand these newspapers. The Soviets also set up a Korean theater in Ushtobe, and although it helped connect the isolated Korean kolkhozes, the theater was controlled by the state and featured mostly Russian and Soviet plays.
During World War II, the Koryo Saram were not permitted to serve in the Red Army as they were accused of being Japanese spies and instead were forced to work in labor armies. They labored in mines and factories under despicable conditions, and as a result many Koreans worked or starved to death. The Soviets largely manipulated their treatment of Koreans to make it appear that they had liberated them from the imperial hand of Japan.
Koreans had little rights and freedom during their first few years in Central Asia, and although they starred in propaganda films to demonstrate the success of collective farming they were not trusted by the USSR. They were not permitted to travel outside their respective farming towns and villages and could still not practice their native tongue. Some Soviet Koreans were sent to North Korea to act as agricultural advisers, but they forced back as Kim Il-Sung did not trust them. It was not until Stalin’s death in 1953 that many Koreans began to push for more rights and opportunities within the Soviet Union.
Life in Central Asia
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev decided to give the Soviet Koreans freedom and for the first time they were given the right to decide where to live and what to do. Many Koreans moved to the cities to start professions in medicine and education. Others, however, stayed and worked on their highly productive farms. When Khrushchev introduced his Virgin Lands Campaign, Korean farms were consolidated into larger collective farms as part of the prefect.
Due to their organizational skill and work ethic, many Koreans were soon leaders of industry, government, and educational institutions within the Soviet Union. Koreans were elected to the Parliaments of the Soviet Union and Central Asian Republics and by the 1970s the number of Koreans with a college degree was twice that of the general population. Today hundreds of Koreans in Central Asia and Russia have received Ph.D’s and work as professors and researchers in universities, institutes and scientific centers. In addition, Koreans are the most urbanized ethnic group in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as more than 80% of the Korean population live in cities. According to the 1989 census, the number of Koreans living in the Soviet Union was 439,000, the bulk of which lived in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, with more than 80% of that in Kazakhstan, and based on an analysis of Kazakh ‘areas of compact living’, the majority of Kazakh-Koreans today live in urban areas in the central and southern regions of Kazakhstan, most notably Kzyl Orda, Karaghandy, Dzhambul, and Almaty, and most live in urban areas.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation adopted a decree on the restoration of ethnic Korean rights. Under the new decree, the State permitted ‘individual and voluntary return to the former place of residence’ for deportees, and Russian citizenship could be obtained by any migrants from outside Russia. The decree also provided Korean returnees with ‘residential houses and lands for farming and other activities,’ if they desired.
Korean culture in Kazakhstan
As time has passed the Koryo Saram raised in Central Asia and Russia have lost much of their ethnic identity and have blended and assimilated into Russia and Central Asia. Kazakhstan has over 140 different ethnic groups, many of which share the experience of the Korean diaspora. As a result, the Koryo Saram are not discriminated against and are a largely accepted group within Central Asia. Many Koreans living in Kazakhstan and the former Soviet Union have married Russians and Kazakhs. As a result, most current Koreans in Central Asia are of mixed background and heritage.
Younger Koryo Saram embrace their Korean past but still consider Kazakhstan to be their homeland. The older generations are concerned about the preservation of their culture and identity within Central Asia as Koreans become increasingly Russified. As a result, there has been increased interaction between South Koreans and the Soviet Koreans. The Koryo Saram conduct trips to South Korea and are pushing for a revival of Korean language and culture within Kazakhstan. Some ancient Korean traditions have managed to survive the passage of time and are still practiced today, such as debating the quality of a drink before a wedding and having a toddler choose from a set of objects to determine their future. The few remaining Koryo Saram who do speak Korean are extensively studied by linguists, as they have retained and maintained an archaic Korean dialect long thought extinct.
Relationship with Korea today
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Central Asian republics established diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea. Extreme economic crises in North Korea have, however, prevented it from competing with the South in developing its ties to Central Asia and the Koreans now living there.
Travel between Kazakhstan and South Korea has grown significantly since the establishment of their diplomatic ties in 1992, and Korean Companies such as LG, Samsung, and Daewoo have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the economies of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
Teachers from South Korea have traveled to Central Asia and Russia to teach at schools and universities there, and the Republic of Korea has established educational centers in Almaty, Tashkent, and Bishkek, providing Korean language courses. Diplomatic relations were established between the Republic of Korea and Kazakhstan on January 28, 1992. Bilateral trade between the nations amounted to $698 million in 2008, the main items of which are automobiles, TV and electronics goods, machinery, engineering products, uranium, ferroalloys, rolled non-alloy steel and iron, gold, and copper. Roughly 100,000 Koreans currently live in Kazakhstan.
Notable Soviet Koreans
Kim Man Sam- Korean rice farmer in the Kzyl Orda Region. Kim earned his reputation in 1943 when on a field of two hectares he harvested 15,600 kilograms of rice. This was a world record and made the Kzyl Orda Region world-famous.
Georgiy Fedorovich Kim- A leading authority in contemporary Korean history and headed the Department of Korea, Mongolia, and Vietnam of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences, where he was director until 1985.
Kim Fedor Zinov’evich- Graduated from Central Asian State University. Taught at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies and was a scholar at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Sciences
Nellie Kim- Soviet gymnast who received five golds and one silver medal at the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics. Nellie Kim was the first woman in Olympic history to earn a perfect 10 on the vault and floor exercise.
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- The White Book about Deportations of Korean Population in Russia in 30-40s (Белая книга о депортации корейского населения России в 30-40-х годах) Moscow, 1992 (vol. 1), 1997 (vol. 2), compiled by Li Woo He (Vladimir Fedorovich Lee, Ли Владимир Фёдорович, Ли У Хэ) and Kim Young Woong (Ким Ен Ун, 김영웅, the name is often transliterated as "Kim Yen Un" from the Russian variant "Ким Ен Ун").