World’s widest diaspora born over 100 years ago

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World’s widest diaspora born over 100 years ago


This year is the 110th anniversary of the first batch of Koreans immigrating to the United States and 150 years since the first batch of Korean emigrants, a group of 13 farming families, crossed over the Russian border and settled there in 1863.

According to the Overseas Korean Foundation, as of 2011 there were over 7.26 million Koreans settled in 175 countries, making people of Korean descent the most widespread diaspora in the world.

On Dec. 22, 1902, a group of 121 Koreans departed from Jemulpo port, currently Incheon Harbor, to migrate to the U.S. Some failed health inspections in Japan.

But the rest of the group arrived in the port of Honolulu on Jan. 13, 1903, and 86 become the first official immigrants to the U.S. from Korea.

Some consider this group, the first migrants to be supported by the Korean government, as the beginning of the Korean diaspora, not counting movements in and out of China.

But 39 years before that, in the fall of 1863, a group of 13 farming households living in the northernmost border of Korea around Kyonghung County in North Hamgyong Province crossed into Russian territory and remained there, not returning when the seasons changed as other Koreans did.

“It is appropriate to set the beginning of overseas immigration as the first large-scale voluntary migration in our history,” said Professor Kim Jin-kyu, professor of Russian studies at Korea University.

“If we set that as the standard, this year marks the 150th anniversary of Korean overseas migration. But whether we set the first migration at 110 years ago or 150 years ago, Koreans have become the group of people spread most widely across the world.”

Kim Bong-seop, a senior researcher at the Overseas Koreans Foundation, has done the numbers to prove it. “We have spread even beyond the rapidly expanding people of Chinese descent,” he said, “and even taking into consideration some 7.3 million Jews in 100 countries, Koreans are the most widespread people, residing in 175 countries in every corner of the world.”

According to the foundation, the Chinese diaspora is much larger - 45.43 million - but they are only in around 130 countries. Over the past four decades, Korea saw a 10-fold increase in the number of Koreans overseas, from 728,000 people in 1972 to 7.269 million in 2011. The largest number of people of Korean descent live in China and the U.S., at 2.705 million and 2.177 million, respectively, as of 2011, according to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The JoongAng Ilbo met with ethnic Koreans across the world, including 64-year-old Mikhail Park, a Korean-Russian writer. He is fifth-generation and his family has been in Russia for nearly 150 years. There are near 219,000 ethnic Koreans in Russia, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In 1863, Park’s great-great-grandfather moved to Vladivostok in eastern Russia, where he settled as a fisherman. In 1937, Park’s grandfather had to move to Uzbekistan after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deported almost everyone of Korean descent, some 200,000 people. The government said it was to avoid the penetration of Japanese spies, as Koreans were at that time colonized by Japan. Those Koreans were forced to resettle in neighboring countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Park was born in Uzbekistan in 1949 and became a poet published in Kazakhstan before settling in Moscow in 1998. Following Korea’s economic boom, he first visited in 1993 and eventually married a Korean woman. Now, he has returned to his ethnic roots and lives in Paju, Gyeonggi. Edward Kim, 48, another ethnic Korean from Kazakhstan, is chairman and owner of Technodome Plus, a leading electronics distributor there. The company, established in 2001 with only 20 employees, now has 50 branches in 22 countries and 4,500 employees. It deals with a lot of Korean companies.

Like Park’s family, Kim’s grandfather first migrated to Russia in 1900 but was deported, and Kim’s father was born in Uzbekistan in 1905. Kim, born in Uzbekistan, has also lived in Tajikistan. “I’ve lived as a nomad,” he said. Kim admitted to a reporter that he does not speak Korean beyond greetings.

Regarding his strategy for getting along doing business with Koreans, he said, “Personal ability is 20 percent and 80 percent is the diligence I inherited from my Korean parents.”


He added, “As Samsung, LG and other Korean enterprises entered the Kazakh market, I became acquainted with them as an ethnic Korean, and we were able to grow together.”

In April 1905, 1,033 Koreans tried to migrate to Mexico. They had the misfortune of being hijacked on a British ship and ended up slave laborers on plantations growing fibers for ropes in the Yukatan Peninsula.

Most stayed on after their contracts ended. Korea had been stripped of its sovereignty and made a Japanese protectorate in November 1905 and was annexed in 1910. In 1921, 288 Koreans headed to Cuba. The next wave of migrations happened in the late 1920s to early 1930s, when between 80,000 and 150,000 Koreans headed to Japan. In 1935, over 620,000 Koreans went to Japan. Starting from 1938, the Japanese government conscripted tens of thousands of Koreans.

These were the first generation of Korean-Japanese. Currently, there are over 904,800 ethnic Koreans in Japan, divided between the “old-comers,” this first group of Koreans to settle in Japan, and the newcomers, those who came in the 1980s and after, including students and businessmen.

In 1963, over 7,900 Koreans headed to Germany to work as miners and nurses, many of whom chose to stay on after their three-year contracts ended. Some moved on to countries like the U.S., Canada, and U.K.

“Only starvation was awaiting them if they returned home,” said Ko Chang-won, president of the World Federation of Korean Guest-Workers in Germany. “In a situation with no escape, these people had no choice but to buck up and move forward.”

The first Museum of Korea Emigration History opened in Incheon in 2008, where the 150 years of the Korean diaspora can be traced.

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