Koreans living in the former Soviet Union traditionally identified themselves as Koryo Saram or Chosun Saram (people of the Koryo of Chosun dynasties. Russians and other non-Koreans called them “Sovetskii Koreets” (Soviet Koreans). Unlike Koreans in China or other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, Koreans in the Soviet Union were never given an autonomous regional political unit.

In the 1990s, when the Central Asian republics became nations, there were around 500,000 ethnic Koreans in the former Soviet Union, including 230,000 in Uzbekistan, 103,000 in Kazakhstan and 90,000 in Russia and some in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Ukraine and the Caucasus. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Scholars estimated that as of 2002, roughly 470,000 Koryo-saram were living in the Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet Union), including 198,000 in Uzbekistan, 125,000 in Russia, 105,000 in Kazakhstan, 19,000 in Kyrgyzstan, 13,000 in Ukraine, 6,000 in Tajikistan, 3,000 in Turkmenistan, and 5,000 in other constituent republics. The censuses of Kazakhstan recorded 96,500 Koryo-saram in 1939, 74,000 in 1959, 81,600 in 1970, 92,000 in 1979, 100,700 in 1989, and 99,700 in 1999. In Kyrgyzstan, the population has remained roughly stable over the past three censuses: 18,355 (1989), 19,784 (1999), and 17,299 (2009). The 2002 census gave a population of 148,556 Koreans in Russia, of which 75,835 were male and 72,721 female. About one-fourth reside in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Most Koreans in Kazakhstan speak Russian or Kazakh and have lost their own language. This is because their populations are scattered; they live among Russians and Kazakhs; and didn’t study their language in school. Many stayed in Kazakhstan after independence in 1991. Some took over managerial and professional jobs formerly held by Russians that left Kazakhstan..

Among many Russians, Koreans are regarded as “good Asians.” By contrast, Russians tend to distrust Chinese and believe they ultimately want to take Siberia for themselves and still have lingering animosity towards the Japanese over World War II.

Koreans Arrive in Russia in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The first Korean immigrants to Russia began arrived 1863 as the czars were opening up Siberia and the Far East to settlement and people were needed to provide cheap labor to develop the virtually uninhabited land. In the Russian Far East region at that time it was estimated there were only 15,000 people in 910,000 square kilometers of territory. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Far East was remote from Moscow but just north of Korea. Thousands of Koreans desperate for money migrated northward to the Russian Far East and worked as farm laborers, raised different kinds of crops, fished, worked in mines and bred silkworms. Those without any means of support were sent by local Russian administrators to various parts of the region. The first mass migration of 4,500 Koreans took place in 1869 after a poor harvest and famine in northwest Korea. They mostly settled along the Tizinkhe River in the South Ussuri region, not so far from what is now North Korea, and were able to produce bountiful harvests of rice there.

In the 1880s, Russia and Korea made an agreement giving Koreans who had been in Russian for five years citizenship. Many of them became merchants and contractors. In the 1890s, Koreans were invited to the Far East and given land there to held settle uninhabited areas in the region. After the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 and an unsuccessful uprising in 1917, Koreans began fleeing to Russia for political reasons. The last major wave of immigration was between 1917 and 1923. The majority of the immigrants settled in the Maritime Province around Vladivostok. A 1923 census counted 34,559 Korean citizens and 77,258 Korean non-citizen residents.

Some Koreans that ended up in the Soviet Union were forced laborers brought to Japanese occupied areas in eastern Russia and Manchuria. When the Soviet took over the area at the close of World War II, these Koreans were stranded in the Soviet Union and not allowed to return to South Korea or North Korea. See Korean on Sakhalin Island, Minorities, Russia.

Koreans in Russia and the Soviet Union

The Russians offered citizenship and land to Koreans under the condition they convert to Orthodox Christianity. The efforts to assimilate Koreans was not successful. The Koreans that came to Russia tended to cluster in the same villages. They were followed by relatives and friends. Korean villages formed, where Korean culture and customs were kept alive. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Koreans without land welcomed the Bolshevik (Communist) Revolution in 1917. Korean workers had joined strikes in the Amur region in 1900 and were involved in the Revolution of 1905-1907. In 1917, Koreans formed Red Army detachments and fought alongside Russian units. In the late 1920s, some Koreans in the Vladivostok area were rewarded for their efforts with land, and most Koreans who were not Russian citizens were granted Soviet citizenship.

In the Soviet era, Koreans maintained their culture and largely married among themselves. They ate Korean food, had a Korean newspapers and retained Korean customs. They typically farmed vegetables and dominated the produce stalls at markets in places they lived. They were also involved in many small businesses. There were Korean theaters, Korean-language radio broadcasts and Korean-language books. Victor Choy, a famous rock singer, was Korean Russian.

Koreans suffered in the 1930s. Stalin closed Korean schools, newspapers and theaters; burned Korean books and banned the Korean language. Some were arrested, imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.”

Korean Mass Deportation

Many of the Koreans in Central Asia are descendants of 182,000 Koreans that were forcibly deported by Stalin from Vladivostok to Central Asia in 1937 because Stalin feared they would spy against the Russians for the Japanese, who had just invaded Manchuria. Ironically many of the Koreans that were deported had escaped from Japanese labor camps and hated the Japanese. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Koreans taken to Central Asia are known as "Coreisk." In keeping with Stalin’s orders many of the Koreans were rounded up on a single night, September 9, 1937 and loaded in freight cars for a 5,000 mile, two-week journey to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The whole relocation process was completed by December. According to the report of Nikolai Yezhov, 36,442 Korean families totalling 171,781 persons were deported by October 1937.

An estimated 15,000 Koreans died during the migration. Many of those who died during the journey were children and elderly people who perished from hunger, severe cold and diseases. Other nationalities that suffered a similar fate included the Greeks, Tatars, Chechens and Volga Germans.

See Mass Deportations, Russia, Minorities

Koreans in Central Asia

Koreans that survived the deportation were transplanted to semi-desert, steppe regions in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that were totally alien them and were forced to begin from scratch, cultivated undeveloped virgin territory. Monetary assistance promised by the government never materialized. Most of the deported were rice farmers and fishermen. The land the Koreans were deported to was not very fertile and the Koreans struggled to stave off starvation and eke out a living from the barren land. By some estimates 40,000 deported Koreans died in 1937 and 1938.

Overcoming great obstacles, the Koreans made the land productive. They cooperated to build irrigation works and start rice farms. Within three years, they had recovered their original standard of living. They launched and successfully ran a number of very productive collective and state farms. They grew cotton, maize, sugar beets, vegetables and fiber crop on land that formally only supported scrub growth and bushes. In Uzbekistan, more than 100 ethnic Korean farmers were honored as heros of Socialist labor. Koreans also did their share in World War II. Many died fighting the Nazis. The events of this period led to the formation of a cohesive identity among the Korean deportees.

Most of the deported Koreans lived in enclosed areas for nearly two decades. Major collectives were established in the Tashkent area, in the Kyzl-Orda region, in the Tselinograd region, in the Kungradsk region of Uzbekistan, Only after Khrushchev came to power were Koreans given freedom of movement and allowed to leave the areas of forced settlement. After they were allowed to leave some Koreans settled on collectives and state farms with other ethnic groups but most moved to the cities. By 1950 about 30 percent of the Koreans in Soviet Central Asia lived in urban areas. In 1970s, 70 percent did.

In schools for Soviet Korean children, the government switched Korean language from being the medium of instruction to being taught merely as a second language in 1939, and from 1945 stopped it from being taught entirely; furthermore, the only publication in the Korean language was the Lenin Kichi. As a result, subsequent generations lost the use of the Korean language, which J. Otto Pohl described as "emasculat[ing] the expression of Korean culture in the Soviet Union. Up until the era of glasnost, it was not permitted to speak openly of the deportations. [Source: Wikipedia]

Koreans in the Former Soviet Union Today

The largest Korean communities in the former Soviet Union are in Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Kharkov in Ukraine, Nalchigo in Georgia, and Chimkent and Almaty in Kazakhstan. A handful of these are Orthodox Christians. Many, at least in the Soviet era anyway, regarded themselves as atheists. Korean shamanism, mixed with Buddhism and Confucianism, have endured in some rural areas.

In the 1989 census, 49.5 percent of the Koreans in the Soviet Union listed Korean as their first language. More than half spoke Russian as their first or second language. Many others spoke the language of the people they lived among such as Kazakh or Uzbek.

Many Koreans in the former Soviet Union are doctors, professors, lawyers, agronomists and other professionals. Faced with a labor shortage, South Korea has been encouraging overseas Koreans, particularly those in the former Soviet Union, to come to South Korea to work.

Most Koreans in Kazakhstan speak Russian or Kazakh and have lost their own language. This is because their populations are scattered; they live among Russians and Kazakhs; and didn’t study their language in school. Many of those that survived the deportation took over managerial and professional jobs. Many stayed in Kazakhstan after independence in 1991.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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