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The Koreans of Kazakhstan

© Michael Vince Kim

THE KOREANS OF KAZAKHSTAN tells the story of 180,000 Koreans who had settled in the Russian Far East to escape famine, poverty, and Japanese colonial oppression between the 1860s and the 1930s. In 1937, they were forcefully deported to Central Asia under Stalin’s ethnic cleansing. Despite their support for the Soviet cause, they were deemed to be “unreliable people” due to suspicions of Japanese espionage, an accusation for which proof has never been found. 40,000 of the deported Koreans died during the month-long journey in precarious and overcrowded cattle trains and the harsh Kazakh winters following the relocation. They were left with no means of survival nor the compensation they had been promised; starvation and illness became commonplace. They lived in earth dug-outs while being ordered to grow rice in the desertic Kazakh steppe.

The Koreans received medals of honour for their hard labour and success in collective farms as well as their participation in World War II, yet they were denied the right to learn their own language: a Soviet Korean dialect distinct from the language spoken in modern Korea. Korean books were destroyed and their ownership often lead to imprisonment. Along with cultural assimilation and intermarriage, the Soviet Korean dialect is almost extinct. Nevertheless, the Koreans of Kazakhstan have retained a sense of identity as ethnic Koreans as well as traditions and rituals still practiced in the Korean peninsula today.

This project provides an intimate account of the lives of the Koreans of Kazakhstan. Their story is largely untold and forgotten, even in the country that was once their homeland.

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