[Viewpoint] The new Korean nomads

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[Viewpoint] The new Korean nomads

The Jews have their “Wailing Wall,” the remnants of an ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem and is now a pilgrimage destination symbolizing the holy sanctuary and a reminder of Jewish biblical heritage and ancestry. The Korean race has a “wailing territory” in Central Asia that we no longer can claim and rarely travel to. Last week, members of the Gwanhun Club, an association of senior Korean journalists, visited Uzbekistan, one of the destinations of the Korean diaspora seven decades ago.

In September 1937, Soviet authorities ordered all of the 180,000 ethnic Koreans residing in the far east of Russia’s territory to immediately leave and relocate to Central Asia.

These people of ancient Goryeo ancestry were pushed onto trans-Siberian freight trains and sent more than 5,000 kilometers from their homes. A month later, they arrived at a vast mass of coarse, arid land with few plants other than reeds. The land is now known as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

But the Korean race is persevering and wise. The Kim Byeong-hwa memorial center keeps the records of the Korean diaspora, who call themselves Koryo-saram - descendants of the ancient Goryeo dynasty and immigrants to the Russian Far East who were deported to Central Asia in 1937. In contrast to the nomadic natives, the ethnic Koreans adapted to their new habitat in innovative ways, building cottages out of reeds and heating their floor in the Korean traditional ondol style to keep warm against the cold.

They rooted out reeds, set up irrigation works and sowed rice. They were the first to farm rice in the Central Asian region. They also grew cotton and wheat, generating far greater farm produce than required by Soviet authorities. They built schools and hospitals. The Soviet government twice awarded Kim Byeong-hwa, head of the Koryo-saram collective farm, the Hero of Socialist Labor award.

Due to the traditional Korean devotion to education, the second and third generations of the Korean descendants graduated from reputable colleges and lead various professional careers. There are many ethnic Koreans active in the fields of science and academia. An estimated 300,000 ethnic Koreans reside in Central Asia and 600,000 in all of the post-Soviet states.

The modern Korean influence is also unquestionable. The Uzbek capital of Tashkent is peppered with Samsung, Hyundai and LG signboards, and apartment balconies harbor external compressors of LG and Samsung air-conditioners. Streets are filled with Daewoo cars, and people are glued to TV screens playing a Korean historical drama at the train station there.

This landlocked country, double the size of the Korean Peninsula with a population about half that of South Korea, boasts rich land and plentiful resources. Just before our visit, President Lee Myung-bak had visited the country and witnessed the signing of a $4.1 billion agreement to develop a massive gas field and build a chemical plant. The gas and chemicals will be sold in the country as well as in neighboring Arab and European markets. Korea also signed contracts to build a $4 billion power station in Kazakhstan.

Despite our historical roots and heritage in the continent, South Korea has been cut off and is more or less an island as the result of the cold war. It can connect with the outside world by crossing the sea. We have become a trade powerhouse via the sea even as former maritime powerhouses Europe and the United States are faltering. China replaced the U.S. as our top trade destination.

We lack natural resources, but we are natives of a vast continent with infinite developable resources. North Korea is currently in the way, but one day we could have direct assess to Manchuria, the Russian Far East, Siberia, Mongolia and Central Asia. Our young generations won’t have to waste their youths fretting over a tight job market in an overcrowded country.

Our ancestors were nomads of a sort. Our young generations can be the next nomads, riding freely across the larger world. Education and living costs in Central Asia are cheap. Companies can offer training and groom college graduates to become local specialists. They already have ample support and patrons from the established ethnic Korean community.

Central Asian states distrust China and Japan. They feel historically closer to Korean people and their culture. The people there are naturally generous, having been hospitable to the traders on the Silk Road. Uzbeks accepted Korean immigrants as their own. We should return their hospitality.

We must revive our northern-bound dream. We forsook the dream because of North Korea. We must keep our alliance with the U.S. stable and capitalize wisely on our relations with China and Russia. If China blocks our advance to the continent, we must attempt to go through Russia.

The gas pipeline project Russia envisaged to connect through North Korea could be risky but could also provide opportunities. There is the risk of North Korea abusing its pipeline transit role to threaten South Korea. But once it is established, we can connect our railway system to the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Eurasian continent could be our new frontier. The wailing territory could one day become our gold mine.

*The writer is senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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