The Koreans of Kazakhstan first arrived in 1937. Before then, they had quietly lived in Vladivostok and Moscow for years and had integrated into Soviet society, far from the famine, poverty, and Japanese oppression they had left back home. But Stalin considered them “unreliable people,” and with little to no notice they were sent to Central Asia and told to grow crops on icy terrain. Seventy-seven years later, it was their language that brought Michael Vince Kim, a young linguistics student, to their homes. Koryo-mar, a mixture of Russian and an old Korean dialect that predates the peninsula’s partition, is rapidly dying out. As part of his studies, Kim documented those who can still speak it, as well as their children and grandchildren. He joined us from his home in London.
Roads & Kingdoms: You discovered this story through language. Can you tell us about that?
Michael Vince Kim: I was studying linguistics at Edinburgh University and I was starting to look for topics that I could research for my dissertation. Language is something I’ve always been curious about because I was born in the US, my parents are from South Korea but I grew up in Argentina. The issue of language and identity was always central in my life, so I wanted to do something about that. If possible, something I could identify with. So I started researching different varieties of Korean and I came across this dialect called Koryo-mar. I thought it was really particular because it was a dialect spoken by Koreans living in Central Asia and I didn’t even know there were Koreans there in the first place.
Eleks Kang in his old Taekwondo uniform. He is one of the few Koreans in Kazakhstan who have not forgotten Koryo-mar, the dialect of the Koreans in the former Soviet Union. Ushtobe, Kazakhstan. Photo: Michael Vince Kim/INSTITUTE
R&K: How did they get there?
Kim: It turns out that they had migrated from the northern part of the Korean peninsula to the Russian Far East, especially around the city of Vladivostock. They lived there from the 1860s until 1937, when they were deported to Central Asia by Stalin because of ongoing conflicts with Japan. They didn’t trust Korean people, they feared that they could be spies. At the time, standard Korean didn’t exist. It was created in the 1950s when the country was divided. So this community just spoke a dialect from the very northern part of what is now North Korea. It survived through this community that moved to Russia and it got mixed with Russian. Now when you talk to people who speak Koryo-mar, you can hear traces of a dialect that does not exist in Korea anymore or barely exists because standard languages absorb all dialects. Historically, it’s very interesting. At the same time you also see how the evolution of language works when it mixes with another language. So I started researching this subject and I thought I had to go there because this language was dying very quickly.
Maya Kim, 85, survived a train crash while being deported to Kazakhstan 1937. Many Koreans died in accidents while traveling in precarious cattle trains. Photo: Michael Vince Kim/INSTITUTE
R&K: Where exactly did you go?
Kim: Initially I went to Almaty, which is the ex-capital and the biggest city in Kazakhstan. I was trying to look for contacts because I went there without knowing anyone, and I found that there were lots of Korean organizations but most of the Korean people there didn’t speak Koryo-mar. They had fully adopted Russian as they first language. I did find the Korean theater of Almaty, which is composed of ethnic Koreans who perform plays about Korean themes. But soon after that I went to Ushtobe, which is a small town where I knew I would find older people who spoke Koryo-mar, and I did. I knew someone who was from that town and she found me this dodgy hostel that didn’t even have a front door, so I got out of there pretty quickly. She told me about a church founded by a South Korean woman from the US so I went there and I noticed there were missionaries staying in the church, so I asked if I could stay for a couple of weeks while doing my research and luckily they accepted. That was my gateway.
R&K: What was the church’s relation with the Korean-Kazakh community?
Kim: The woman who founded it was from South Korea but everyone else was from the Kazakh Korean community. There are South Koreans in Central Asia but my project wasn’t about them. They’re migrants who came much more recently, in the 90s and 2000s, for completely different reasons. The Korean-Kazakhs have a very different culture after over 100 years of being apart from Korea. I can relate to that because I grew up in Argentina and I went to South Korea a couple of times and I feel like a foreigner there, even though I can speak the language. People can tell, you know, so it’s always a bit strange.