The Deportation of Koreans in the Soviet Union (Russian: Депортация корейцев в СССР, Korean: 고려인의 강제 이주) was the forced transfer of nearly 172,000 Soviet Koreans from the Russian Far East to unpopulated areas of the Kazakh SSR and the Uzbek SSR in 1937 by the NKVD on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union Vyacheslav Molotov. 124 trains were used to resettle them to the 4,000 miles (6,400 km) distant Central Asia. The reason stated for the deportation was to stem "the infiltration of Japanese espionage into the Far Eastern Krai", as Koreans were at the time subjects of the Empire of Japan, which was the Soviet Union's rival, though historians regard it as part of Stalin's policy of "frontier cleansing". Estimates based on population statistics suggest that between 16,500 and 50,000 deported Koreans died from starvation, exposure and difficulties adapting to their new environment in exile.
After Nikita Khrushchev became the new Soviet Premier in 1953 and undertook a process of de-Stalinization, he condemned Stalin's ethnic deportations, but did not mention Soviet Koreans among these exiled nationalities. The exiled Koreans remained living in Central Asia, integrating into the Kazakh and Uzbek society, but the new generations gradually lost their culture and language.
This marked the precedent of the first Soviet ethnic deportation of an entire nationality, which was later repeated during the population transfer in the Soviet Union during and after World War II when millions of people belonging to other ethnic groups were resettled. Modern historians and scholars view this deportation as an example of a racist policy in the USSR and ethnic cleansing, as well as a crime against humanity.
Immigrants fleeing from the tyrannical administration of Korea to the neighboring Russian Far East was recorded in the early 1860s. By the 1880s, 5,300 Koreans, distributed in 761 families, were living in 28 Cossack villages. Under the terms of a Russo-Korean treaty signed on 25 June 1884, all Koreans living in the Far East up until that date were granted citizenship and land in the Russian Empire, but all others who will arrive after 1884 were not allowed to stay longer than two years. After 1917, many Koreans were fleeing the Japanese occupation of Korea. They mostly settled along the Posyet, Suchan and Suyfun districts. Korean migrants who had moved to Russia referred to themselves as the Koryo Saram. By the 1920s, over a 100,000 Koreans lived in the Primorsky Krai, and the Russian peasants encouraged these immigrations, since leasing lands to the Koreans was profitable. Around that time, 45,000 Koreans (30%) were granted citizenship, but in 1922, 83.4% of all Soviet Korean households was landless. In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin emerged as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ben Kiernan, an American academic and historian, described Stalin's era as "by far the bloodiest of Soviet or even Russian history".
On 22 November 1922, The Soviet Union annexed the Far Eastern Republic, claiming all the populace there as their citizens, including Koreans residing there. With the newly established Soviet rule, circumstances began to change. In order to discourage further immigration, 700 to 800 Koreans were deported from Okhotsk to the Empire of Japan in 1925. That same year, a proposed Korean ASSR, which would give Koreans autonomy, was rejected by Soviet officials. The 1926 Soviet Census enumerated 169,000 Koreans, 77,000 Chinese and 1,000 Japanese in the Far East Region. During the collectivization and the Dekulakization campaigns in the 1930s, certain Koreans were deported from the Soviet Far East.
After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 and the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Soviet officials increased its suspicion and mania towards the Soviet Koreans, fearing they might be used by Japan as "spies" or for "counter-revolutionary propaganda". They also feared that more Korean immigrants could be used by Japan as an excuse to expand the boundaries of Korea.
Between 1928 and 1932, anti-Korean and anti-Chinese violence increased in the Soviet Far East, causing 50,000 Korean migrants to flee back to Korea. On 13 April 1928, a Soviet decree was passed stipulating that Koreans should be removed away from the vulnerable Soviet-Korean border, from Vladivostok to the Khabarovsk Oblast, and to settle Slavs in their place, mostly demobilized Red Army soldiers. An official plan intended to resettle 88,000 Koreans without citizenship north of Khabarovsk, except those who "proved their complete loyalty and devotion to Soviet power".
Resolution No. 1428-326cc: Planning the forced relocation
On 17 July 1937, the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union issued a resolution declaring all frontiers "special defense zones", and several ethnic minorities in those border areas were considered threats to Soviet security, including Germans, Poles and Koreans. Soviet newspaper Pravda accused Koreans of being agents of Japan, while the Soviet government closed the borders and initiated a "frontier zone cleansing".
On 21 August 1937, the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union adopted the decree No. 1428-326сс which ordered the deportation of the Soviet Koreans from the Far East, and determined that the process should be completed by 1 January 1938. The decree was signed by the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union Vyacheslav Molotov and Secretary of the Central Committee Joseph Stalin. The decree stated:
The Council of People’s Commissars and CC of the VCP (b) hereby order: To prevent the penetration of Japanese espionage to the Far East region undertake the following acts:
- deport all Korean population from the border regions of the far east . . . and relocate it to the south—Kazakhstan region, areas near Aral Sea, Uzbek SSR
- deportation will begin immediately and will finish by January 1, 1938
- allow Koreans subject to relocation to take movable property, livestock
- compensate the cost of abandoned movable and real property and crops
- increase the frontier troops by three thousand soldiers to secure the border in the Korean relocation region
The official justification for resolution 1428-326cc was that it had been planned with the aim to "prevent the infiltration of Japanese spies into the Far East", without trying to determine how to distinguish those who were spies from those who were loyal to the state, as Stalin considered many Soviet minorities a possible fifth column. As of 29 August 1937, all Korean border guards were recalled. On 5 September 1937, 12 million rubles were urgently sent to the Far East Executive Committee to assist them in implementing this operation.
Train wagons used for the Soviet deportations
Even though the decree was issued in August, the Soviet officials delayed its implementation for 20 days in order to wait for the Koreans to complete the harvest. On 1 September 1937, the first group consisting out of 11,807 Koreans were deported. Koreans had to leave their movable property behind and received "exchange receipts", but these were rushed and filled out in a way that they were not considered a binding legal document. The Soviet authorities charged the deported Koreans with 5 rubles for each day of their journey. Those Koreans who did not resist the resettlement were awarded with 370 rubles. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, would go from house to house, knock on the doors, and inform the people inside that they must gather all their belongings, personal documents, and all food they can find at home in less than half an hour and follow them. They were not given prior notice where they were being deported to.
By the end of September, 74,500 Koreans were evicted from Spassk, Posyet, Grodekovo, Birobidzhan and other places. In the second phase of the deportation, starting from 27 September 1937, the Soviet authorities expanded their search to encompass Koreans from Vladivostok, the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the Chita Oblast and Khabarovsk Kray. The deportees were transported by railway in 124 trains. During this operation, 7,000 Chinese were also deported together with Soviet Koreans. In case of mixed marriages, if the husband was Korean, the entire family was subject to deportation. Only if the husband was non-Korean and the wife Korean, was the family exempt from this order. NKVD officers were allowed to stay in the abandoned houses of the Koreans. Five to six families (25 to 30 people) were sent to each compartment of a cargo train. Their journey lasted between 30 and 40 days. The sanitation inside these trains was of poor quality. Deported Koreans had to eat, cook, sleep and excrete inside these wagons.
A correspondence sent by the NKVD official Nikolay Yezhov, dated 25 October 1937, indicated that the deportation was complete, having removed 36,442 Korean families. The only remaining Koreans, 700 settlers in Kamchatka and Okhotsk, were supposed to be deported by 1 November 1937. The correspondence also reveals that 2,500 Koreans were arrested during this operation.
In total, 171,781 persons were deported. They were sent on a 4,000 miles (6,400 km) journey in trains to the special settlements in the Kazakh and Uzbek SSR. At least 500 Koreans died as a direct result of this transfer. The corpses of the deportees who died from starvation were left behind at one of the many train stations. Instead of the planned seven, the Koreans were dispersed between 44 regions. 37,321 people were sent to the Tashkent region; 9,147 to the Samarkand region; 8,214 to the Fergana region; 5,799 to the Khwarazm region; 972 to the Namangan region, etc. Overall, 18,300 Korean households were deported to the Uzbek SSR, and 20,141 households to the Kazakh SSR. Some were resettled for a second time, as was the case of 570 Korean families who were evicted from the Kazakh SSR to the Astrakhan District to be given jobs in the fishing industry. Ultimately, approximately 100,000 Koreans were sent to the Kazakh SSR and more than 70,000 to Uzbek SSR.
On 1940, a further number of Koreans were resettled, this time from the Murmansk region to the Altai Krai. A decree signed by the chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria ordered that 675 families containing 1,743 people, including Germans, Poles, Chinese and Koreans, should be removed from the border regions. On 10 January 1943, a State Defense Committee resolution stipulated that 8,000 Koreans should be demobilized from the Red Army and sent to labour battalions with other Koreans in Central Asia.
Entire districts in the Far Eastern Region were left empty. Red Army officials obtained the best buildings left behind. Even though the Soviet government planned to settle 17,100 families in their place, only 3,700 families moved there by 1939.
Experience in exile
Arrival and distribution in kolkhozes
Deported Koreans from the Soviet Far East at a collective farm in Uzbek SSR (1937)
We arrived at the railroad station on October 31. There was no shed, and we have stayed with small children for 5-6 days in the cold open air. We speak about anti-human attitude towards settlers. They still do not have a permanent home. The local authorities have no intention of dealing with Korean settlers.
A Korean man recalling his deportation experiences.
The deportees were allowed to take livestock with them and received some compensation (on average 6,000 rubles per family) for property left behind. Upon arriving at their destination, some deportees were sent to barracks under a 24/7 supervision of armed guards. The Soviet government was often negligent towards this process of resettlement. In one instance, 4,000 Koreans arrived by train to Kostanay on 31 December 1937. Due to the winter temperatures, they spent almost a week inside the passenger car "before there was any sign of activity from local authorities".
By October 1938, 18,649 Korean households formed their own 59 kolkhozes while 3,945 joined the 205 already established kolkhozes in these areas. Some sent letters to the chairman of the kolkhozes, warning about starvation or a lack of fresh water. They also faced shortage of medicine and even employment. Many survived thanks to the kindness of Kazakh or Uzbek locals who shared food with them or gave them shelter, even though they themselves had limited amounts.
The settlers in collective farms were assigned with production of rice, vegetables, fishing and cotton. The Soviet government failed to prepare the terrain for the income of so many resettled people, with some areas lacking building materials for contruction of new houses or schools. In the Tashkent area, of the 4,151 planned two-flat houses for the deportees, only 1,800 were completed by the end of 1938, forcing many to find improvised accommodation in barracks, earthhouses and other places. Additional problems were high taxes imposed on Koreans and the looting of the material intended for the construction of their houses. Some deportees lived in houses made out of straw and mud.
Many died of hunger, sickness and exposure during the first years in Central Asia. Typhus and malaria were also the causes of fatalities. Estimates based on population statistics suggest that the total number of deported Koreans who died in exile is between 16,500 to 28,200 at a minimum, and up to 40,000 and 50,000, a mortality rate ranging from 10% for the lower estimates, and up to 16.3% to 25% for the high estimates.
The NKVD and Council of People's Commissars could not agree upon the status of the deported Koreans. In formal sense, they were not regarded as special settlers, nor were they considered exiled since the reason for their resettlement was not repression. Finally, on 3 March 1947, MVD minister S. N. Kruglov signed a directive that allowed the banished Koreans to obtain passports, though they could only be used within Central Asia, and not for the border areas. In Kazakhstan the Korean theatre, the Korean newspaper Senbong, a Korean pedagogical institute and college, and deposits of Korean language books were also relocated, making the country the center of Korean intellectual life in the Soviet Union.
Due to their hard work, the exiled Koreans obtained high ranks in the local industry, government, and educational institutions. Dozens of Koreans In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were designated Heroes of Socialist Labor, including Kim Pen-Hwa, chairman of a collective farm; Hwan Man-Kim, member of the Uzbek Communist Party; and Lyubov Li, who harvested corn. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, many Koreans were drafted into the Red Army and sent to the front. One of them, Captain Aleksandr Pavlovich Min, was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the country's highest honor. Koreans were elected to the Parliaments of the Soviet Union and Central Asian Republics and by the 1970s the number of Koreans with a college degree was double that of the general population.
Aftermath and legacy
While I was I was living in Uzbekistan, I knew I would never be truly accepted there. People would always ask: 'Why are you here?'.
An Uzbek Korean who moved to South Korea, 2001.
This forced transfer marked the precedent of Stalin's first ethnic deportation of an entire nationality, which would become a pattern during and after World War II, when dozens of other nationalities were uprooted from their homes, amounting to 3,332,589 persons who were deported in the Soviet Union. Even though the earlier de-kulakization deportations were justified as a fight against the rich peasants who were declared "class enemies", the deportation of the Koreans contradicted this Soviet policy, since they were from every class, and most of them were poor peasants from the rural areas.
After Stalin's death in 1953, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev started a process of de-Stalinization, reversing many of Stalin's previous policies. In his secret speech in 1956, Khrushchev condemned the ethnic deportations. He did not mention the Koreans among these deported people. In 1957 and 1958 the Koreans started a petition towards the Soviet authorities, demanding full rehabilitation. It was not until Yuri Andropov's speech in October 1982 during his ascent to the Party General Secretary that Soviet Koreans were mentioned as one of nationalities living with equal rights.
Between 1959 and 1979, the number of Koreans increased by 24% in Kazakhstan; 18% in Uzbekistan; 299% in Kyrgyzstan and 373% in Tajikistan. Among the consequences of the deportation included breaking all contact with the Korean settlements; loss of their native language and cultural traditions. According to the 1970 Soviet Census, between 64% and 74% of Soviet Koreans spoke Korean as their first language, but by early 2000s, this was down to only 10%.
On 14 November 1989 the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union declared all of Stalin's deportations "illegal and criminal". On 26 April 1991 the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, under its chairman Boris Yeltsin, followed suit and passed the law On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples with Article 2 denouncing all mass deportations as "Stalin's policy of defamation and genocide".
In the 2000s, post-Soviet Koreans began to lose their cultural cohesion, since the new generations did not speak Korean anymore, while 40% of marriages were mixed. Around that same time, young Koreans travelled to the Russian Far East, exploring if it would be possible to migrate back to that region and get an autonomous Korean area, but did not get any support from Russian authorities or locals. Ultimately, they abandoned the idea.
According to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2013 176,411 Koreans lived in the Russian Federation, 173,832 in Uzbekistan, and 105,483 in Kazakhstan.
Russian historian Pavel Polian considered all the deportations of entire ethnic groups during Stalin's era a crime against humanity. He concluded that the real reason for the deportation was Stalin's policy of "frontier cleansing" of both the western and eastern parts of the USSR.
Kazakhstani Korean scholar German Kim assumes that one of the reasons for this deportation may have been Stalin's intent to oppress ethnic minorities that could have posed a threat to his socialist system or as a political bargaining chip to consolidate the border regions with China and Japan. Additionally, Kim points out that 1.7 million people perished in the Kazakh famine of 1931–33, while a further million fled the Republic, causing a labour shortage in that area, which Stalin sought to compensate by deporting other ethnicities there. Scholar Vera Tolz from the University of Manchester considered this deportation of Korean civilians an example of a racist policy in the USSR. Terry Martin, a professor of Russian studies, categorized this event as an example of ethnic cleansing. Alexander Kim, Associate Professor at Primorye State Agricultural Academy, agrees in his assessment of Soviet Koreans as the first victims of ethnic repression and persecution in the Soviet Union, in contrast with the state pledge of equality of all people. Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, assumes that the Soviet policy has always been the Russification of border regions, especially the Asian peripheries.
Relationship with South Korea today
Learning Korean at the Korean Center in Kazakhstan in 2010
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, several Koreans in Central Asia travelled to South Korea to visit their distant relatives, but most of them declined to permanently move to said country, citing cultural differences, and there was never a major movement for a repatriation of Soviet Koreans.
Missionaries from South Korea have travelled to Central Asia and Russia to teach the Korean language for free at schools and universities there. K-pop music inspired a new generation of Central Asian Koreans to learn Korean. Korean movies and dramas were popular in the 2000s in Uzbekistan, including among the local Korean population. Following hostilities towards non-Muslims in independent Uzbekistan, some local Koreans eventually moved to South Korea. Bilateral turnover between Kazakhstan and Korea amounted to $505,6 million in 2009. In 2014, Seoul City established the Seoul Park in Tashkent to forge cultural ties between South Korea and Uzbekistan. In July 2017, on the 80th anniversary of the deportation, Tashkent officials unveiled a monument to the Korean victims. The ceremony was attended by Seoul's Mayor Park Won-soon.
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