Koryo-saram: The long and tragic story of Koreans in Russia

Portraits of Russian president Vladimir Putin and North Korean president Kim Jong Il side by side during Putin's recent visit to Pyongyang. Screenshot of YouTube video of the NewsEnd Channel. Fair use.

Relations between Russia and North Korea have grown closer since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, writes the BBC. Last week, Vladimir Putin made his first official visit to the country since 2000. State media footage showed tens of thousands of people lining the cleared streets of the capital as the leaders’ motorcade passed through. According to the state news agency, the two leaders discussed enhancing the ties between their nations following Putin's overnight arrival. The visit and mutual promises of the two dictators to support each other’s defense and military provoked concerned statements among the leading world leaders.

While the two dictators are growing closer, it is important to remember about the tragic history of Koreans in Tsarist and then Soviet Russia, and what place ethnic Koreans have in the current Russia of Vladimir Putin.  Koryo-saram (Korean: 고려사람; Russian: Корё сарам), as Wikipedia explains, are ethnic Koreans of the former USSR, who descend from Koreans that were living in the Russian far east.

Migration of Koreans to the Russian Empire

Koreans began migrating to the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century due to economic hardship and natural disasters in Korea.

Korean women in Primorie.  Second half of 19th century. Image by Vladimir Lanin via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Early migrants settled in the Primorsky region and formed the first Korean village called Tizen Hee. By 1917, approximately 90,000 Koreans had settled in the Primorsky region, significantly increasing from 9,000 at the end of the 19th century.

A Korean home in Nakhodka, Russia (1893). Image by Экипаж крейсера via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Deportation and adaptation

In 1937, around 172,000 Koreans were deported from the Russian Far East to Central Asia due to political distrust and suspicions of espionage during tensions with Japan.

Koreans were the first in the USSR to be deported by Stalin on ethnic grounds. Around 172,000 Koreans were deported to the Kazakh SSR and the Uzbek SSR. The deportation took place by freight trains; 11,000 people died en route.

Soviet propaganda photo of Three Deported Soviet Koreans in Uzbekistan, Sept.-Oct. 1937. Koreans were told to smile while standing in the middle of a swamp. Image by unknown photographer via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Before the deportation of 1937, in Primorye (the far east region of Russia) there were two national Korean districts and 77 national Korean village councils, about 400 Korean schools, a Korean pedagogical college, a Korean pedagogical institute in Vladivostok, and a Korean theater, and six magazines and seven newspapers were published in Korean.

On April 1, 1993, by a resolution of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation, the acts adopted since 1937 against Soviet Koreans were declared illegal, and the Koreans were rehabilitated as victims of political repression

According to the 1959 census, 44.1 percent of all Soviet Koreans lived in Uzbekistan, and 23.6 percent lived in Kazakhstan. As of 2013, there were 184,699 Koreans living in Uzbekistan.

After the collapse of the USSR, Koreans from the Central Asian republics predominantly migrated to Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea (under simplified visas for Koreans).

Cultural preservation

While the Korean language was mostly lost by the third or fourth generation, educational achievements remained significant, with a high percentage of Koreans attaining higher education.

Koreans preserved their cultural identity through rituals and holidays such as doljanchi, the first anniversary of a child, and the Festival of Cold Food. The first anniversary of a child involves a fortune-telling ceremony where objects are laid out to predict the child's future.

A doljanchi ceremony. Image by Jamsong via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Korean cuisine, adapted to local conditions, played a crucial role in maintaining cultural identity. Dishes like Korean carrots, and various marinated vegetables became popular. Korean carrots, an adaptation of traditional kimchi using locally available vegetables, became a staple and an example of cultural adaptation.

Prominent individuals like Viktor Tsoi (legendary rock musician), Yuliy Kim (writer and bard), and Kostya Tszyu (athlete) have made significant contributions to Russian culture and sports.

Read more: Viktor Tsoi: The undying icon of Soviet dissident rock

Koreans participated in WWII within the Soviet Army, and, one of them, Alexander Min, was awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Today, the Korean diaspora in Russia remains significant, with large communities in cities like Volgograd, Moscow, and the far east region. Koreans have continued to integrate into Russian society while maintaining their cultural heritage.

Tatyana Kim is the richest businesswoman in Russia: she co-owns online retailer Wildberries, although she has lately become controversial, as she was sanctioned by Ukraine for selling Russian military uniforms through Wildberries.  She is also discussed in the media as a figure who allegedly helps Vladimir Putin to build a banking system alternative to SWIFT (which Russia was largely excluded from).  At the same time, Wildberries offices were searched by the Russian police in connection to a recent fire in one of their warehouses: in contemporary Russia, no one can be sure what would happen with them or their businesses next week.  Perhaps the two dictatorships are indeed getting closer, also in their treatment of people,  whether or not they are of Korean descent.

Read more: Larisa Pak is the last Korean standing at Tajikistan's hardscrabble border with Afghanistan

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