Koreans (Koryo-saram)

Koryo-saram is the name which ethnic Koreans in the Post-Soviet states use to refer to themselves. Approximately 500,000 ethnic Koreans reside in the former USSR, primarily in the now independent states of Central Asia. There are also large Korean communities in southern Russia (around Volgograd), the Caucasus, and southern Ukraine. These communities can be traced back to the Koreans who were living in the Russian Far East during the late 19th century.

There is also a separate ethnic Korean community on the island of Sakhalin, typically referred to as Sakhalin Koreans. Some may identify as Koryo-saram, but many do not. Unlike the communities on the Russian mainland, which consist mostly of immigrants from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the ancestors of the Sakhalin Koreans came as immigrants from Kyongsang and Jeolla provinces in the late 1930s and early 1940s, forced into service by the Japanese government to work in coal mines in Sakhalin (then known as Karafuto Prefecture) in order to fill labour shortages caused by World War II.


The name "Koryo-saram" appears to originate from the word "Korea" rather than from that of the Goryeo dynasty. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the name Soviet Korean was also used. Russians may also lump Koryo-saram under the general label Koreitsy; however, this usage makes no distinctions between ethnic Koreans of the local nationality and the Korean nationals (citizens of South and North Koreas).
In Standard Korean, the term "Koryo-saram" is typically used to refer to historical figures from the Goryeo dynasty; to avoid ambiguity, Korean speakers use a word Goryeoin (meaning the same as "Koryo-saram") to refer to ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states. However, the Sino-Korean morpheme "-in" is not productive in Koryo-mar, the dialect spoken by Koryo-saram, and as a result, only a few (mainly those who have studied Standard Korean) refer to themselves as Goryeoin; instead, Koryo-saram has come to be the preferred term.


Immigration to the Russian Far East and Siberia

The 1800s saw the decline of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. A small population of wealthy elite owned the farmlands in the country, and poor peasants found it difficult to survive. Koreans leaving the country in this period were obliged to move toward Russia, as the border with China was sealed by the Qing Dynasty. Many peasants considered Siberia to be a land where they could lead better lives and they subsequently migrated there. As early as 1863, migration had already begun, with 13 households recorded near Novukorut Bay. These numbers rose dramatically, and by 1869 Korean composed 20% of the population of the Maritime Province. Prior to the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Koreans outnumbered Russians in the Russian Far East, and the local governors encouraged them to naturalize. The 1897 Russian Empire Census found 26,005 Korean speakers (16,225 men and 9,780 women) in the whole of Russia, while a 1902 survey showed 312,541 Koreans living in the Russian Far East alone. Korean neighborhoods could be found in various cities and Korean farms were all over the countryside.

In the early 1900s, both Russia and Korea came into conflict with Japan. Following the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1907, Russia enacted an anti-Korean law at the behest of Japan, under which the land of Korean farmers was confiscated and Korean laborers were laid off. At the same time, Russia continued to serve as sanctuary for the Korean independence movement. Korean nationalists and communists escaped to Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Manchuria. With the October Revolution and the rise of communism in East Asia, Siberia was home to Soviet Koreans that organised in armies like the Righteous Army to oppose Japanese forces. In 1919, the March First Movement for Korean independence was supported by Korean leaders who gathered in Vladivostok’s Sinhanchon (literally, "New Korean Village") neighborhood. This neighborhood became a center for nationalist activities, including arms supply; the Japanese attacked it on April 4, 1920, leaving hundreds dead.

Deportation to Central Asia

Between 1937 and 1939, Stalin deported over 172,000 Koreans to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, on the official premise that the Koreans might act as spies for Japan. Many community leaders were purged and executed, and it would be over a decade and a half before Koryo-saram would be again permitted to travel outside of Central Asia. Up until the era of glasnost, it was not permitted to speak openly of the deportations. The deportees cooperated to build irrigation works and start rice farms; within three years, they had recovered their original standard of living. The events of this period led to the formation of a cohesive identity among the Korean deportees. However, as the Korean language was prohibited for decades, subsequent generations lost the use of the Korean language.


After their arrival in Central Asia, the Koryo-saram quickly established a way of life different from that of neighboring peoples. They set up irrigation works and became known throughout the region as rice farmers. They interacted little with the nomadic peoples around them, and focused on education. Although they soon ceased to wear traditional Korean clothing, they adapted Western-style dress rather than the clothing worn by the Central Asian peoples.

Koryo-saram have preserved the Korean cuisine particularly well. The cuisine of the Koryo-saram is closest to that of the Hamgyong provinces in North Korea, and is dominated by meat soups and salty side dishes. The Koryo-saram are particularly known among neighboring peoples for their bosintang (dog-meat soup), which is served to honored guests and at restaurants.

The ritual life of the Koryo-saram community has changed in various respects. Marriages have taken on the Russian style.  At traditional Korean funerals, the name of the dead is written in hanja, or Chinese characters; however, as hardly anyone is left among the Koryo-saram who can write in hanja, the name is generally written in hangul only. On the other hand, the rituals for the first birthday and sixtieth anniversary have been preserved in their traditional form.


Due to deportation and the continuing urbanization of the population after 1952, the command of Korean among the Koryo-saram has continued to fall. This contrasts with other more rural minority groups such as the Dungan, who have maintained a higher level of proficiency in their ethnic language. In 1989, the most recent year for which data are available, the number of Russian mother tongue speakers among the Koryo-saram population overtook that of Korean mother tongue speakers.

The dialect spoken by Koryo-saram is closer to the Hamgyŏng dialect than to the Seoul dialect, though somewhat mutated over the generations. Many of those who retain some command of Korean report difficulties communicating with South Koreans.