Following in the footsteps of Korean people in Uzbekistan and beyond
Koryo Saram in Central Asia
It all started with a story of a train journey – the story my Korean grandfather told me while I was growing up in a mixed Russian-Korean family in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent in the early 1980s. Wondering at all times why we had a Korean person in our very own household, Korean relatives in a nearby kolkhoz (state collective farm) and Korean people on the streets of my home city – as well as Korean food on every stall of every market across my home country and the rest of Central Asia – I once naively asked my grandfather: 'Grandpa, how come there are Koreans in Uzbekistan?' His answer was unexpectedly simple: 'We came here on a train'.
My grandfather was always hesitant to elaborate further. The only few details I managed to get out of him to complete this story were his memories about many people of the same ethnicity all stuck together in precarious conditions in the over-crowded train during a very long journey amidst the frigid winter and the sole fact that they arrived in the middle of nowhere as a result.
Only much later during my life and career as a Korean Studies researcher and multimedia storyteller, I found out that he was talking about the 1937 deportation of ethnic Koreans – the first massive movement of an entire nationality in the former Soviet Union – from the volatile borders of the Far East (namely, the Korean district of Posyet in Primorskiy Kray) to the remote steppe and swamps of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Approximately 172,000 people were uprooted by this tragic train journey. The story behind this migration haunted me and eventually turned into the main reason for the multimedia project I completed in 2014-2015 – Lost and Found in Uzbekistan: The Korean Story – the first English-language documentary narrative exploring the details of how Koreans came first to Russia in the middle of the 19th century and were later deported to Uzbekistan in 1937.
Ever since, my work in journalism and academia has focused on highlighting the issues of Koryo Saram or The Korean People – this is how our post-Soviet Koreans identify themselves – the Korean diaspora that left their original motherland Korea and moved to Russia over 155 years ago, only to be deported to Central Asia 75 years later.
Together with The Diplomat – one of the major news outlets dedicated to Asian affairs that published my multimedia project Lost and Found in Uzbekistan in 2016 – we also brought to light the story of General Nam Il who signed the 1953 Korean armistice on behalf of Chairman Kim Il Sung. Not so many people actually know that General Nam Il or Yakov Petrovich Nam – a prominent yet ambiguous figure in the DPRK’s modern military history – originally came to the North from Uzbekistan where his whole family got deported in 1937.
My most recent photo-projects – A Window into North Korea and Photo-memories: DPRK-Russia by train – followed the original journey of Koryo Saram from the north of the Korean peninsula to Russia, the route that Koreans took in the mid-19th century, having crossed the Tumen river in one direction never to return back again. They mostly came from the Hamgyong province (now South and North Hamgyong) and this is how the Hamgyong cuisine and dialect became the cornerstones of Koryo Saram’s own culinary dishes and language in Central Asia and Russia.
To reach North Hamgyong, we boarded a regular passenger train in Pyongyang. The images captured during this unforgettable trip recreating the original journey of Koryo Saram – from Hamgyong to Tumangang and all the way into the Russian Far East – became a unique window into the historical motherland of all Central Asian and Russian Koreans.
2017 marked the 80th anniversary of the 1937 deportation of ethnic Koreans from Russia to Central Asia. Last year, I was very fortunate to participate in numerous conferences in South Korea and all over the former Soviet Union to commemorate the anniversary. I also gave several lectures and talks on this topic in the US – at the George Washington and Johns Hopkins Universities in Washington DC and the University of Missouri – as well as at the Royal Asiatic Society in China and South Korea, at their Beijing and Seoul branches.
The dramatic history of Koryo Saram is also the universal story of a model diaspora whose members were able to overcome all political, economic and social difficulties of their time and as a result became very successful and respected contributors to their new societies, be it Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Russia.
Everywhere in Central Asia, Koreans have a reputation of being hard workers, prosperous entrepreneurs and outstanding academicians and intellectuals. This is the hero spirit of Koryo Saram and the history they created in such a short period of time – the history of the Korean people.
Victoria Kim holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS in Korean Studies and MA from the University of Bolton in International Multimedia Journalism. Originally from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, she is currently based in Washington, DC as a Korean Studies researcher and documentary storyteller. Victoria can be reached at [email protected]