25 December 2003

Koreans of Central Asia

Approximately 450,000 ethnic Koreans reside in the former USSR, primarily in the newly independent states of Central Asia. With the exception of those living on Sakhalin Island and North Korean émigrés, these Koreans refer to themselves as koryo saram--a designation long obsolete on the Korean peninsula, where today Northerners refer to themselves as chosun saram and Southerners as hanguk saram.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the forebears of today's koryo saram emigrated from the peninsula to the Russian Far East, some of them in order to wage guerilla warfare against Japanese colonial forces in Korea. Ironically then, in 1937, Stalin deported all of these settlers--approximately 200,000--to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, on the official premise that the Koreans might act as spies for Japan.
Thus states the introduction to the Koryo Saram website posted by Steven Sunwoo Lee, U.S. Fulbright Fellow to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (2001-2002), based on information provided by Professor Dr. German Nikolaevich Kim, chair of the Korean Studies Department at Kazakhstan State University named for Al-Farabi, and board member of the Association of Koreans of Kazakhstan (AKK). The site contains links to many downloadable articles in MS Word format, most in Russian, but with a handful translated into English.

Korea's northern exiles had such a fractious history that it's hard to find any account that doesn't have some partisan agenda to push. (Kim Il-sông got his start as a guerrilla leader among the northern exiles.) As the introduction above hints, you can't even translate the word 'Korea' into modern-day Korean--or Japanese or Chinese, for that matter--without taking sides. The name Chosôn comes from that of the last Korean kingdom (1392-1910) and is often translated 'Morning Calm'. ('Morning Fresh' would perhaps be more accurate if it didn't sound so much like a deodorizer or laundry detergent: "Does your dynasty let you down after only a few generations? [Display scenes of childish leaders, starving peasants, etc.] Introducing ... Morning Fresh, the dynasty that lasts for centuries!")

South Koreans have elevated their ethnonym Han (not to be confused with the Han meaning Chinese) and named their peninsular country Hanguk 'Han country'. They refer to the northern part as Pukhan 'north Han'. In Japan, the term Chosenjin 'Chosôn person' (or worse, Senjin) has long been so derogatory that the polite equivalent is now Kankokujin 'Han country person', and South Korea is Kankoku (the Japanese equivalent of Hanguk)--but North Korea remains Kita Chosen 'North Chosôn'. Of course, there is no official Minami Chosen 'South Chosôn', nor any official Hokkan (the Japanese equivalent of Pukhan), although I suspect the latter term is widely used among Japanese who interact with South Koreans or who read South Korean sources. Some people are trying to revive Koryô, the name of an earlier kingdom (918-1392) that doesn't carry as much 20th-century political baggage. In fact, the admirably neutral English word Korea comes from Koryô.

The Argus responds.

UPDATE: In the comments, The Marmot notes that the name Koryo does indeed carry political baggage, generally in a northern direction. The Koryo capital, Kaesong, intersects the 38th parallel from the north. It was the site of the first truce talks during the Korean War, before they were moved to Panmunjom, just on the south side of the parallel. Some have optimistically proposed Kaesong as a neutral capital if Pyongyang and Seoul were ever to agree to a peaceful merger.

No comments: