[Viewpoint]Koreans who are not KoreanI came to Uzbekistan by way of Mongolia to report on the Korea International Cooperation Agency’s efforts to extend grant-type aid for developing countries.
While in Uzbekistan, I visited the Kim Byeong-hwa Museum near the capital, Tashkent. Kim Byeong-hwa successfully headed a kolkhoz, a collective farm, demonstrating outstanding leadership during the Soviet era. He is highly respected by the locals. Until he passed away in 1974, he managed a 30-hectare farm near Tashkent for 34 years, twice earning the designation Hero of Socialist Labor from the Soviet Union for his innovations in the production of cotton, wheat and rice. The Soviet government changed the name of the kolkhoz to the Kim Byeong-hwa Kolkhoz to honor his service.
Kim Byeong-hwa was among the 170,000 Kareiskis, or ethnic Koreans in the Soviet states, forced to move from the Far East on orders of Stalin in September 1937. The group arrived in the marshland outside Tashkent. They devoted everything to surviving and turned the wasteland into fertile soil. The kolkhoz headed by Kim Byeong-hwa was the most prosperous in all of the Soviet Union. His farm offered not only outstanding living standards, but also excellent cultural and educational benefits. Most kids received a college education. The black and white photographs displayed at the museum are testimonies to the glorious old days.
However, 17 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the legend of the Kim Byeong-hwa Kolkhoz has faded. The Uzbek government dismantled the collective farms and chose to give long-term leases of land to locals, so the kolkhoz is no longer named after Kim Byeong-hwa. There used to be more than 3,000 ethnic Koreans at the farm, but now only about 800 remain. And they are mostly old people. The downfall of the Kim Byeong-hwa Kolkhoz seems to reflect the fate of the Kareiskis, who are always relocated.
Among 120 minority ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, the ethnic Koreans performed the best. Among 1,200 awarded the Socialist Labor designation, more than 750 were Koreans, and the Kareiskis were the second-best educated group after the Jews in terms of college graduates and doctoral degrees. A considerable number moved high up in government. Many Koreans excelled in Uzbekistan, where nearly half of the Kareiski population was concentrated. However, the independence of Uzbekistan in 1991 changed the situation again.
In order to reinforce its ethnic identity, the Uzbek government chose the Uzbek language as the official language over Russian. Public agencies also began using Uzbek. If you don’t speak the language, you cannot become a public servant. While Russian is widely used in daily lives, a proficiency in Uzbek has become a sort of social standard.
As citizens of the Soviet Union, ethnic Koreans had no need or reason to learn and use Uzbek because Russian was the language.
However, the world changed. They became citizens of Uzbekistan overnight. If they could not command the language, they would not be given the chance to pursue a public career. Now that the fence of the Soviet Union has disappeared, they have to be concerned about possible discrimination by Uzbek nationalists.
Many ethnic Koreans are going through an identity crisis. They find it hard to identify themselves with Uzbeks because they do not speak the language. With the expansion of the visitor employment system here, they can go to Korea if they want. But they cannot assume themselves to be Koreans. The Uzbek economy is struggling because the country has chosen a gradual conversion to a market economy. So many young Kareiskis are leaving Uzbekistan for Kazakhstan, Russia or Korea. And old folks stay behind, reminiscing about the good old days.
The Kareiski population in Uzbekistan once reached 240,000, but now it has shrunk to 170,000. And the population is only going to decrease more. The Kareiskis were forced to relocate 70 years ago. Now, they are facing the crisis of diaspora as many voluntarily choose to migrate.
To the second, third and fourth generation Koreans born and raised in Uzbekistan, the country is their home and the place for them to take root and live in. Instead of lamenting the situation and searching for a new home, they should learn the Uzbek language and find a way to succeed as citizens of Uzbekistan. After all, they are the ones who turned the barren land fertile.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok