It has been exactly 100 years since the first Koreans migrated to Mexico, and 141 years since they moved to Russia. This Chuseok holiday, after living in other countries for so long, the descendants of brave immigrants say they have never forgotten their homeland. And their homeland has not forgotten them. As part of extended celebrations that began with the 60th anniversary of the August 15, 1945 liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule, 110 young Koreans ― mostly college students ― recently visited Koreans living in obscure and far away places. The life of Koreans in the United States and Japan is well known to the general public here, but the lives of Koreans in Uzbekistan, Mexico, Cuba and Sakhalin are a virtual mystery. The JoongAng Ilbo sent three reporters to four countries to meet with these immigrants and learn about their lives.
Uzbekistan: Stalin’s victims, now seduced by Samsung
Currently, over 230,000 Koreans live in Uzbekistan. Their ancestors were forcibly moved there from the Russian far east in 1937 on orders from Stalin. Despite the hardships, Koreans settled and survived thanks to their diligence and passion for education.
“People tend to think that Korean immigrants in our country are simply poor farmers,” said Rita Park, 44, a television producer. “However, 70 percent of Korean immigrants live in the city and a lot of them have professional jobs,” she notes.
The community maintains a connection with its roots through the “Goryeo Culture Association,” which was established in 1988.
“Our organization systematically gathers old people, artists, scientists and young people, having more than 20 chapters in different regions,” said Vladimir Shin, 50, chairman of the organization. “We hold regional events for New Year's Day and Korean national holidays such as Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving Day.”
However, the society of Korean immigrants there faced serious challenges following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mr. Shin said that afterwards, the economy in Uzbekistan worsened dramatically. Moreover, the Uzbekistan government designated Uzbek as the official language. Most Koreans spoke Russian and faced a lot of disadvantages. The number of civil servants of Korean ethnicity declined dramatically.
Fortunately, in the midst of hardships, Korean companies started arriving in Uzbekistan, giving Korean immigrants new opportunities. A decade later the “Korean Wave” swept Asia, boosting their pride.
In the “Korean Education Center” in Tashkent, a poster of “Winter Sonata,” the Korean television drama, greets visitors. When Winter Sonata aired there in 2003 the channel recorded a 60 percent viewer rating, causing the drama to be aired four more times.
The number of Uzbeks interested in learning the Korean language has increased dramatically. Lee Jin-woo at the education center said, “We now have about 1,300 to 1,500 students learning the Korean language. Half of them are Korean immigrants and the rest are Uzbeks.”
In downtown Tashkent, advertisements for Samsung and LG easily catch one’s eye. The street is crowded with Korean compact cars like Matiz, Cielo, and Tico. Five universities in the country have opened Korean language programs, and Korean has become the second most popular foreign language after English.
The attraction is rooted partially in the trappings of a materially richer society. “Young people in Uzbekistan dream of driveing a Daewoo car, and watch Korean television shows on an LG TV set hooked up to a Samsung DVD player,” said Moon Ha-yong, Korea’s ambassador to Uzbekistan.
“To us immigrants, Korea is the country of dreams,” said Burt Kim, 54, chief editor of Goryeo Shinmun, a local newspaper for Koreans. “Most Korean immigrants around me have one or two children studying or working in Korea.” The approximately 15,000 Uzbeks working in Korea send a total of $100 million back to their families every year.
by Kim Hyeon-kyeong
Mexico & Cuba: Farmers recall a lost ancestry
In 1905, 1,033 Koreans emigrated to Mexico to work on henequen farms in Yucatan, driven by a new hope. However, sponsored by the Japanese Immigration Society, what they got was slave labor and hunger, curbed only by corn tortillas. After their 4-year contracts were terminated, they could not even return home due to the Japanese annexation of Korea.
Farming henequen, a fibrous plant similar in appearance to aloe, was difficult work under the hot sun. Twenty one years later, 270 of the Koreans moved to Cuba in search of a better working environment on sugar cane plantations. However, as soon as they arrived in Cuba, the price of sugar dropped, forcing them to migrate to Matanzas, Cardenas, and Havana to work on henequen farms again.
Another 84 years have passed since then. Thousands of second to fifth generation Koreans are scattered around the region. About 35,000 Koreans are in Mexico while about 600 are in Cuba.
Nestor, 20, with rather dark skin and exotic eyes, is a fourth generation Korean immigrant. A Few years ago, he met an evangelist from Korea, and learned how to write his Korean name, “Kim Jun-ho.” But that is all he knows about the Korean language, since his grandmother was the last person in his family who spoke Korean.
Biologically, Nestor is only 25 percent Korean but the “Korean blood that flows in my heart is more than 70 percent Korean,” he says.
The fourth and fifth generation Koreans are mostly mixed with Mayan blood. The family names have changed as well. Lee became Li, Kim became Kin or King. Kang is now Kan or Can. Their given names simply went local, switching to names like Carlos or Andreas.
“After Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Korean immigrants were localized. Especially after the socialist revolution by Fidel Castro, they lost contact with Korea,” said Patricia, 34, the granddaughter of a Korean immigrant
However, with the economic development of South Korea and the spread of Korean conglomerates overseas, Korean immigrants in Cuba have become interested in their roots. In June, a Korean language school was officially established at Cuba’s Jose Marti Cultural Center.
In Mexico, the JoongAng Ilbo met with Alphonso Mikim, a fourth generation Korean immigrant living in Merida, Yucatan.
“How do I eat Dwenjang?” Mr. Mikim asked Korean college students who visited the Korean community in Mexico.
“I don't speak Korean, I don't know Taekwondo, but I want to give my children opportunities to learn about Korea,” he said. As the visiting students gave a martial arts demonstration, Mr. Mikim said that even though he had never been to Korea, he was proud of his roots. “It’s an overwhelming feeling,” he said.
by Lee Eun-joo
Sakhalin: Japanese, Soviet subjects free at last
During Japanese colonial rule (1910~1945), many Koreans were forced by the Japanese government to mine coal and do other hard labor in Sakhalin, an island north of Japan that is currently administered by Russia. However, even after Japanese rule ended in 1945, 43,000 Koreans on the island were prevented from returning home by the Soviet Union until 1988. They have been able to return permanently only since 1992. Since then, 1,600 Koreans have moved back to Korea, while 30,000 remain in Sakhalin.
Those who have stayed behind represent about 5.5 percent of the population of Sakhalin. This compares to the first generation of about 8,000 Koreans.
Over the long years of isolation, Koreans in Sakhalin have struggled to maintain their use of the Korean language. In 1949, Saegoryeo Shinmun, a Korean-language newspaper was established. The paper consists of eight pages and 1,500 copies are distributed every Friday. In 1956, “Sakhalin Urimal Bangsongguk,” a radio station to teach Korean was established and on August 15 Korean Liberation Day last year, the radio station added a television channel broadcasting in Korean.
However, many Koreans in Sakhalin still have Japanese names. Jeon Che-yeon, 73, a first generation Korean in Sakhalin, still had a Russian ID card with the name Nishio Daiko.
“Even though I asked the Russian government to put my Korean name on the card, they have refused my request, saying that it would create confusion in administrating people,” said Ms. Jeon.
First generation Koreans living in Sakhalin are concerned about their children's indifference towards Korea. Dima, or Na Gwan-cheol, 24, a third generation Korean and a college student, said, “I would rather learn Japanese. I don't see a need to learn Korean.”
“There are so many Japanese companies while Korean companies are rare in Sakhalin,” explains U Jeong-gu, a member of the Sakhalin Korean Association. “In order get a job, Korean children here are learning Japanese rather than Korean.”
However, one’s roots can return in funny ways. “There are cases of young immigrant couples giving Korean names to children, after watching Korean television series,” said Kim Chun-ja, head of the Korean language radio station.
by Baek Il-hyun