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In 1937, 180,000 Koreans who had settled in the Russian Far East to escape famine, poverty, and Japanese colonial oppression were then forcefully deported to Central Asia under Stalin’s regime of ethnic cleansing. 40,000 people died: first during the month-­long journey made in precarious and overcrowded cattle trains, later during the harsh Kazakh winters following the relocation. These people were ripped from their homes and then left with no means of survival nor the compensation they had been promised.

In the first months of “settling” in Kazakhstan, starvation and illness were rampant. These forced migrants lived in earth dug­outs while being ordered to grow rice in the desertic Kazakh steppe, an effort which did little to alleviate the group’s problems.

Still, over time, the Korean community managed to stabilize itself. Many Koreans received medals of honor for their hard labour and success as collective farmers and later for their participation in war. Nevertheless, they were denied the right to retain their own language, a Soviet Korean dialect distinct from the language spoken in modern Korea. Instead, many took on Russian as an imposed mother tongue. Today, thanks to cultural assimilation and intermarriage, the Soviet Korean dialect is almost extinct, with less than 3 percent of the population speaking it actively.

Despite these obstacles, the Koreans of Kazakhstan have retained a sense of identity as ethnic Koreans. They continue to practice traditions and rituals that are shared—despite the distance in space and time—with the people living on the Korean peninsula today.

—Michael Vince Kim


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