Korean diaspora in Ukraine

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Korean diaspora in Ukraine

Park Jeong-ho
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Polina Hwang was born in 1952 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. But her family has long been separated. Her parents born in Primorsky Krai, or the Russian Far East, were buried in different places. Her father had been pushed out to the Central Asia in 1937 during the forced migration under Stalin’s rule. After the residential restriction was lifted, he returned to his hometown in Primorsky Krai in 1962 and died there.

After their father died, the family moved to Crimea in Ukraine. Her siblings, who started farming in Ukraine in 1979, invited their mother in the following year after they were settled. They started a new life in the fertile land. Their mother died in 2004. Her siblings stayed on in Crimea. Hwang who had studied agricultural studies in Uzbekistan settled in an ethic Korean village in Tashkent.

Hwang often hums to the folk song “Arirang” her parents used to sing. “Arirang Arirang Arariyo/Arirang gogaero neomeoganda.” Upon visiting Korea in 1995, she said, “Arirang was her homeplace and so was Korea,” according to an account in “Arirang Research on ethnic Koreans in Central Asia (2015)” published by Jin Yong-sun, head of the Jseongseon Arirang Research Institute.

Hwang’s family makes a typical case among Korean descendants of former Soviet Union. Racial dysphoria is their common condition as they cannot fit into a certain racial identity. Korean descendants in Ukraine live in greater distress. Stuck between Russia and Ukraine, families have grown apart.

Constantine Borisovich was born in Kazakhstan in 1942 and studied electric engineering at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in 1962. He managed to settle down well in Ukraine. He married and raised family in Kyiv. His daughters are married and live in Germany and Poland. Like his children, many Korean descendants in Ukraine have moved to Britain, the Czech Republic and Germany as they found they could not find hope in Ukraine. The exodus picked up after Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Borisovich has grown apart from his brother in Russia. His brother supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he fretted about Ukraine’s loss of freedom. It is a micro version of the East-West conflict, according to a study by Ko Ki-young on the Ukraine conflict’s impact on the Korean descendants.

How did Korean descendants in Central Asia end up in this area? They migrated to make a living. Since ethnic Koreans of ancestors who had fled from Japanese invasion became free to relocate in 1956, they spread across the post-Soviet continent in search of new homes. Seasonal farming had been in fashion. They raised onions, watermelons and melons along the Caspian Sea, a salt lake, from March each year. They return home when farming season ends in October.

Seasonal field work ran on family or community units of 40 to 100. Ethnic Koreans did well. Their business picked up with the perestroika reforms under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Their business came down along with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. When post-Soviet republics across Central Asia became independent, a wall was set up between Korean descendants in Ukraine and those in mainland Russia.

There are no accurate statistics on Ukrainians of Korean ancestry. But the number is estimated to be around 30,000. They have been forced to leave their home once again due to the Russian invasion. The “Arirang” refugee history spans nearly 160 years since the first 13 households from the Joseon Dynasty (1391-1910) left to farm in Sakhalin in 1863. The Ukraine war is therefore not a conflict just restricted to the West and Russia.

Jin of the Jseongseon Arirang Research Institute is bereaved after communications with acquaintances he had formed with Korean descendants in Ukraine have been cut off. “Koryo people (the Korean descendants of Sakhalin) stand on the barrier of a bigger world cutting through the East and West. They are not a burden of the history, but a bridge for a new future,” he said. Civilians of Ukraine are being victimized by a war waged by Vladimir Putin. Korea must play a greater role to stop the bloody war.
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