Report of a documentary film screening at SOAS on 2 May, by Michael Rank
Koryo Saram – The Unreliable People is a fascinating one-hour documentary about the 200,000 ethnic Koreans who were deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin in 1937. It includes archive footage never seen before outside the former Soviet Union as well as interviews with some of the deportees. Koreans first started setting in the Russian Far East in the 1860s, fleeing extreme poverty, and their numbers grew after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910.
Grotesquely, Stalin suspected them of being pro-Japanese and dubbed them “unreliable people” and deported them some 4,000 miles west to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and parts of the USSR, together with other minorities whom he distrusted including Germans, Chechens, Ukrainians, etc. Many died on the journey and their bodies were thrown out of the train and never received a proper burial, a great taboo in Korean culture. About 34,000 Koreans were forced to settle in Ushtobe, then a small village that is now the “capital” of Korean culture in Kazakhstan. Here they were forced to plant rice (the film doesn’t make clear how successful this was), while others were sent to live among Kazakh herders living in yurts.
Among the interviewees is Dekabrina Kim, whose father Mikhail was a delegate to a conference presided over by Stalin (she shows a picture of her father with Stalin), but like most of the rest of the delegates he was murdered in the purges. Like most of those interviewed Ms Kim speaks Russian and little if any Korean. Korean schools were banned a couple of years after the deportations and the Korean language lived on largely in a state-sponsored Korean theatre that put on mainly propaganda works. Apart from interviews with survivors there are also fascinating comments by German Kim, a leading academic expert on the Kazakh Koreans and a historical consultant on the film (he was unable to attend the screening unfortunately).
After the death of Stalin in 1953 many Koreans left the collective farms and settled in cities, while others took part in the Virgin Lands programme under Khrushchev that opened up vast tracts of hitherto barren land. During the Korean war about 300 Kazakh Koreans were sent to Pyongyang to support Kim Il-sung but they fell foul of North Korean-Soviet rivalry and most returned to Kazakhstan a few years later.
Many Kazakh Koreans are torn as to their identity although they now have contact with South Korea through visiting business people and some have travelled to Seoul to see South Korea for themselves (and a smaller number have visited North Korea). But nowadays they eat “Kazakh-flavoured kimchi” and the younger generation at least tend to see themselves as part of the giant melting pot that is modern Kazakhstan rather than as Korean, while one woman who visited Seoul told how she cried when she heard the Kazakh national anthem being played when she returned home.
This is a poignant film about identity and loss, and tells a little known story which deserves to be seen by anyone interested in Korean culture or in the history of the Soviet Union. Apparently there are some 500,000 Koreans in the former Soviet Union and it made me wonder about the experience of Koreans in other ex-Soviet republics.
Maybe I should add that Koryo Saram simply means “Korean people”.
After the film was shown director Y. David Kim, Associate Professor with the School of Art and Design and the Korean Studies Program at the University of Michigan, answered questions. He said relatively few Kazakh Koreans had gone to live in South Korea (and even fewer in the the North) as the Kazakh economy is fairly successful (although many Koreans had left Uzbekistan which is much poorer). There was also much discussion of the language spoken by the Koreans in Kazakhstan which is markedly different from standard Seoul Korean as most were originally from the north and they have had little contact with the south until recently. Concern was expressed about missionaries in Kazakhstan who could pose a threat to traditional Korean culture.
For more details about the film see www.koryosaram.net. There are plans to issue a DVD of the film in the autumn, for details contact