History of Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan: focusing on the deportation of koreans in 1937

Abstract. This article considers the history of the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan, in that they can be a valuable bridge between Korea and Kazakhstan. In order to know the Korean diaspora properly, this article starts by examining their history, from the periods of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union to the present and an independent Kazakhstan. Historically, ethnic Koreans have migrated into the present post-Soviet space for various economic and political reasons since the 1860s. This article focuses in particular on the deportation policy of Stalin in 1937, which is the main reason for their existence in Kazakh territory. Specifically, this article will examine the process of deportation and attempt to analyze the reasons behind this by examining the external and internal position of the Soviet Union.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became an independent country 26 years ago; and the relationship between Korea and Kazakhstan continues to develop. From my point of view, one of the reasons that means that Korea can make a closer relationship with Central Asian countries than other European countries is the existence of the Korean diaspora (Koryo- Saram). At the present time, about 100,000 Koreans live within Kazakhstan’s borders. Their existence is the result of deportation in 1937 during the time of Stalin. During this period, serious tension was building up between the Soviet Union and Japan. Because of the mounting tension, the government of Soviet Union made an excuse that Koreans might be spying for Japan; and they deported the Koreans who lived in the Maritime Province (Yonheaju), located in the Far East of Russia, to the Central Asian region. From that time, Koreans were scattered far and wide throughout the Central Asian region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when all the Soviet republics became independent countries, the Korean people confronted the newly emerged environment and they adjusted to the country they lived in.

Among the members of the Korean diaspora in the CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) countries, numbering about 500,000 people, Korean exiles in Kazakhstan feel that they have adapted well to their host country compared to other Koreans in the CIS region. [1] In the case of Uzbekistan, even though most Koreans were relocated to this country, there are fewer examples to support the idea that the Koreans entered into Uzbek society. This is because the Uzbek government had implemented a policy of ‘Uzbek nationalism first’ and emphasized the Uzbek language. In other words, they put up a barrier to minority groups such as the Koreans, who can only speak Russian, entering Uzbek society. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has emphasized several related concepts such as ‘multi-ethnic coexistence’, ‘tolerance’, and ‘multi-culturalism’ as part of the Kazakh nation’s identity. This is

because, since the nation’s independence in 1991, non-titular nationalities have outnumbered the titular nation, the Kazakhs: the country is in fact made up of about 130 different ethnic groups. Although the Kazakhstan government adopted Kazakh as a state language, they also officially adopted Russian as an inter-ethnic language. Through this policy, the Kazakhstan government allows minority ethnic groups in Kazakhstan to live as part of their society and opens up the possibility of them taking up major posts within the local community.

For Korea, the existence of the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan provides an opportunity to educate Kazakhstan in Korean. Likewise, for Kazakhstan, the Korean diaspora provides a starting point for Kazakhstan to know the country of Korea as well as ethnic Koreans. The image of the Korean diaspora is positive as far as other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are concerned; and the Koreans are renowned as a hardworking group since the era of the Russian empire and indeed Soviet times. On the strength of this positive image, it is true that most Koreans are seen in Kazakhstan as friendly. With this in mind, the Korean people in Kazakhstan can have an important role and a symbolic function in terms of being a bridge between Korea and Kazakhstan. In particular, they are actively working in diverse fields regardless of being a minority in their society. They are familiar with the local culture and the overall situation. In addition, they also have professional knowledge and experience in their various fields of work. It means that they can be a valuable human resource who can suggest the right way to bring about cooperation between two countries: Korea and Kazakhstan. For these reasons, I am going to research the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan. In this article, I will study ‘the history of Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan’ as a first step in my research.

The timespan of my research is divided into three parts: 1. 1980 - before the deportation in 1937; 2. the deportation period in 1937; 3. from 1937 to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, this study will also examine the process of and reasons for the deportation in 1937. My research is mainly based on literature researches using sources from Korea and Kazakhstan. I will also use the term Soviet Korean, meaning Koreans in the Soviet era.

The History of the Korean Diaspora in the Post-Soviet World

Early period of the ethnic Koreans in the Far East of Russia

There is no exact data or information regarding the initial migration period of the Korean diaspora in Russian territory. However, according to a document in a Russian archive, which was written by the person in charge of Novgorod’s border post, ‘several Koreans entered Russian territory and built 5-6 thatch-roofed houses in Korean style, and they requested permission for 20 Korean households to live there.’ [2] From this document, we can surmise that the first migration period was around the 1860s. The background to their migration consisted of economic difficulties caused by the corrupt Choseon feudal dynasty and harsh exploitation from the ruling class, in addition to other causes. At that period, an influx of people was necessary for Russia in order to solve the problem of a shortage of labor after they had taken the Maritime Province territory from China. [3] Korean migrants, therefore, who were mainly peasants, were considered suitable groups for cultivating the wilderness of the Far East, including the Maritime Province. According to Russian local-government statistics, 185 households and 999 people from Korea were living in the northern-Ussuriysk region in January 1967.

Table 1: The Population of Koreans in Russian territory in 1867


The Number of households

Population number




Tizinkhe( )* riverside






Sizini riverside






Temporary residents





Mongugai riverside










(Source: remake based on Park B., Bugai N. 140 years in Russia – History of Korean migration in Russia. - Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Russian Federation, Overseas Koreans Foundation, Association of Russian Koreans. – 2004.)


The population of Koreans














Table 2: The population of Koreans in Maritime Province from 1891 to 1902 (Source: Park B., Bugai N. 140 years in Russia – History of Korean migration in Russia. - Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Russian Federation, Overseas Koreans Foundation,
Association of Russian Koreans - 2004.)

In the autumn of 1869, due to the major flood and great famine in the Northern Province of Choseon, Hamkyung-do, more Koreans started to move to Russian territory. Following that, the population of Korean residents in Maritime

Province increased to 12,857 in 1891; and they continued to increase to 23,000 in 1989. In 1902, the population was 32,380, which meant that the population had increased by two and a half times in eleven years.

After that time, migration from Korea was re-ignited because of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905); the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905; and Japan’s forced occupation of Korea (Daehan Empire). In this period, anti-Japanese feeling spread widely among the Koreans. Due to the situation, not only Korean peasants but also Korean independence activists flowed into the Far East region of Russia and the population of Koreans was increased. After that, the Far East region became a center of the antiJapanese movement for Koreans. According to the records from that time, Posyet district was the area most heavily populated by Koreans in Russian territory. In 1917, for example, there were 30,000 Koreans living there and only 3,000 Russians. The style of the houses and the living environment were also overwhelmingly Korean; and therefore records mention that it was hard to distinguish whether it was a territory of Russia or Korea. [4] Koreans’ antiJapanese movement continued and meanwhile the revolutions of February and October 1917 took place and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established in 1922. Koreans in the Far East actively supported the revolution and the establishment of the Soviet regime because they wanted to see the end of the Tsarist government, which had imprisoned Korean anti-Japanese activists due to the relationship with Japanese government. To get support from the Koreans in the war against Japanese, the Bolsheviks made a promise regarding land distribution for the Koreans. However, even with the Koreans’ active participation in the civil war and loyalty to the Bolsheviks, the Bolsheviks were instead planning the resettlement of the Korean diaspora to other regions. During a speech at the first party congress, I.A. Kubyak, who was the General Secretary of the Far East region of the Communist Party Central Committee, denounced the Koreans as being the same as Japanese colonialists and said that therefore the Koreans should be expelled from the Far East. Because of this situation, the Soviet government deported about 700~800 Korean laborers to Japan. [2] As a result, the

Koreans endured an unjustified situation as a minority ethnic group without the promised compensation from the Bolsheviks and Soviet government. Consequentially, Koreans were denied the opportunity to be recognized as a mainstream group in Russian territory. After that, when the Soviet government enforced a collectivized agricultural policy in 1928, dozens of Korean households relocated from Maritime Province to the Kyzhylorda region of Kazakhstan and organized ‘Kazris (казрис)’ and ‘International (интернационал)’ to start rice farming.

The deportation of the Koreans in September 1937.

1. Process of the deportation

Before the deportation, there was a sign of what was to come; and it was not a good sign. The Soviet government arrested Korean leaders on suspicion of participating in an illegal organization; and they imprisoned and executed them just before the deportation was enforced. In this affair, about 2,500 Soviet Korean leaders were sacrificed. These Koreans were mainly chiefs of Communist party, military officers and intellectuals who had shown loyalty to the Soviet Government. Ironically, however, they were executed by the Soviet Union. From a common-sense point of view, this affair is incomprehensible. However it is possible that the Soviet government decided to eliminate the Korean leaders, as they had the potential to lead 200,000 Koreans and organize opposition movements against the deportation policy and the Soviet government. [5]

In August 1937, the decision of deportation of Koreans from Far East to Central Asia was adopted by the Council of People’s Commissars and the Communist Party Central Committee. In September of the same year, the first deportation started in Posyet district; and in October the Korean households were deported to Kazakhstan. The deportation was carried out on three separate occasions. The process was very urgently enforced. Koreans did not therefore have enough time to prepare for it; and theywere simply put on trains heading for Central Asia. Even they did not have exact information about their destinations, they just were notified of the day and time of departure. Only about 1,000 people, included in the elite group, could have seats on the train; and the others were in poor conditions for more than a month on the train. For example, most Koreans were taken on to trains intended for transporting freight and livestock. The estimated number of deaths of Koreans during the deportation amounts to 554 people. [4] We can check the result of the deportation through the report to I.Stalin and V.Molotov by N.Yezov, who was in charge of Korean’s deportation policy.

‘The migration of the Soviet Koreans has almost been completed by October 25, 1937. A total of 36,442 households and 171,781 Koreans have been moved by train. About 700 Koreans remain in the Far East region; and it is planned that will be moved on November first this year by train. The number of Koreans allocated to the Uzbek SSR (Socialist Soviet Republics) is 16,277 households (76,525 people); and to the Kazakh SSR is 20,170 households (95,256 people). [5]

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When it comes to the Soviet Union’s external situation at the time of the deportation, the Koreans were forced to move due to a political reason. The Soviet Union’s national security wаs threatened by Germany from the West and Japan from the East. Hitler’s government was increasing expenditure on armaments. In addition, the Soviet Union had been threatened by the East. They were defeated in the Russo- Japanese War; the Japanese kept infiltrating into the Far East region in 1918-1922; and the the Manchurian Incident occurred in 1931. The Soviet Union wanted to avoid a war with the Eastern front, with Japan, in order to concentrate

2. Reasons for the deportation.

It should be considered that the deportation of Koreans in the Soviet Union was caused by the combination of the Soviet Union’s internal and external situations. In this article, I will look at the various reasons for the deportation by separately condisering the internal and external factors affecting the Soviet Union at the time.

The Koreans arrived in Ushtobe, located in the southern part of the Kazakhstan territory, after travelling along the following route: Vladivostok-Khabarovsk-Chita-Irkutsk- Krasnoyarsk.

on the Western front, Germany, when war broke out. About that time, the Far East region including Maritime Province was an economic (financial) and human supply route for antiJapanese movement among Koreans. Looking at the situation, the Soviet government probably judged that if Japan tried to suppress the Koreans in the Soviet territory by force, serious problems could arise between the Soviet and Japanese governments. [6] Furthermore, the Japanese government had already interfered frequently in the Far East region because the Japanese had continued to insisting that the Koreans in the Soviet territory were part of the Japanese nation. [5] For these reasons, the Soviet government wanted to take some measures to reduce friction with Japan. They therefore made the decision to relocate Soviet Koreans from the Far East to Central Asia, far away from the Eastern area and Japan. In order to justify the relocation plan, the Soviet leaders purged the Soviet Korean leaders on suspicion of activities as Japanese spies; and then they executed the deportation policy. In the ‘Pravda’ newspaper, an article which is entitled ‘Foreign spies in the Far East region of Soviet Union’ reflects the distrust concerning Soviet Koreans all across the Soviet Union. This article described Japanese spies and Koreans who were hired by them; and it made the Soviet nation anxious on this subject. [6] In fact, the Soviet Koreans fought for the independence of Korea against Japan at that time. The situation was the opposite of the one depicted in the newspaper. In reality, the possibility for Koreans to become Japanese spies was not very feasible at all.

The internal factors leading to the deportation can be divided into three parts. The first claim is that the dire economic situation made Soviet leaders relocate Soviet Koreans to the Central Asia region. This is the view mainly of Russian researchers. According to their argument, the Soviet government needed to stabilize the agricultural industry first in order to be able to feed the Soviet nation and to improve agricultural productivity; and the expertise of the Soviet Koreans in rice farming was a way to achieve that. This is because Soviet Koreans combined high levels of agricultural expertise and diligence, something proven in their ability to farm well in the barren Far East region. However it is hard see this as the main reason for the deportation. If anything, if the government had tried to improve agricultural productivity in Far East region, where the Koreans had already made an environment for farming, they could have achieved their purpose more easily and faster without a waste of time, costs and labor. For these reasons, the economic situation cannot be considered as the logical reason for the deportation of 170,000 Koreans. The second reason is to prevent a poor demographic situation in Central Asia. Stalin’s government desired to achieve the real meaning of the socialist revolution by industrialization through extensive nationalization and collectivization. According to this desire, the policy of collective farming was implemented forcibly all over the Soviet Union in 1929-1933. As the result, the Kazakh ethnic group, who has lived as nomads traditionally, lost their territory and means of living. Also, a part of them left for China to revolt against Soviet policy and make a new life. In addition, the Kazakh ethnic group experienced two periods of great famine: in 1919 and in the 1930s. 38% of the Kazakh population was lost because of these events. From the Soviet point of view, the population gap (vacuum) was to be made up by other nations in order to stabilize the Soviet Union’s economy and society. However this reason also cannot be considered as a main reason for the deportation. If anything, it is possible that the population loss in Central Asia would be mentioned when the Soviet government discussed the place where Koreans could be relocated after they had already decided the deportation policy. Third, it was necessary for the Soviet leaders to have political and social scapegoats to lessen the nation’s opposition to Stalin’s nationalization and collectivization policy.

As I mention above, Stalin’s Soviet government had implemented an exclusive and forceful nationalization and collectivization policy; and they could anticipate strong opposition from the nation. In order to prevent it in advance, the government purged the potential opposition forces around the deportation date in 1936-1938; and they used the minority Soviet Koreans as a mutual enemy. Through sacrificing Soviet Koreans and issuing a strong punishment to them, the Soviet government intended to repress any dissatisfaction from the Soviet nation by demonstrating the disastrous consequence for any group aligning itself the Soviet government. [5] All things taken together, the Soviet government used nationalization and collectivization to construct one-state socialism. For this, they needed to solve several foreign and domestic problems. In this process, the government exploited Soviet minority groups, including the Soviet Koreans.

Soviet Koreans in Kazakhstan territory

After the Soviet Koreans arrived in Kazakhstan, they were relocated to other regions of Central Asia, such as Kostanai, Karaganda and Kyzhlorda in Kazakhstan; and Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Among the Soviet Koreans who arrived in Kazakhstan, the largest number of them settled in southern part of Kazakhstan (12,031); others moved to the northern part (41,425); and the western part (8,986). [2] The Soviet Koreans faced a difficult situation during the winter in Central Asia. They dug underground shelters and built temporary huts to survive by themselves without proper compensation and support from the Soviet government. In other words, they were abandoned in the vast steppe of Central Asia without a proper place to live. Friction between the Soviet government the and Kazakh SSR was continuous regarding the way in which the deportation was carried out. Nothing was done promptly to solve these problems; but over time an attempt was made to make various plans for the Koreans’ relocation. As a result, 28 of the Koreans’ own Kolkhozes were created. However, in some cases, about 500 households of Koreans who were located in Kazakhstan were ordered to move again to the Stalingrad region to work in the fisheries by order of the

Soviet government. [7] The Soviet government instructed the Kazakh SSR government to form a Kolkhoz in consideration of the Soviet Koreans’ abilities in the agricultural sector.

The chairman of Council of People’s Commissars in Kazakhstan asserted that the Soviet Koreans should be located in the place where rice farming took place because they were outstanding in the agriculture sector. According to his assertion, the Koreans mainly re-migrated intensively to the southern part of the Kazakhstan territory where rice farming and grain production is possible. Also, the local government dissolved existed Kolkhozes and reorganized it for the Soviet Koreans. [7] To survive in the new destination, the Soviet Koreans had tried to develop agricultural technologies appropriate for Kazakhstan’s climate and increased productivity. Through this process, the Soviet Koreans started to become increasingly settled in Kazakhstan.

Nonetheless, they were not granted Soviet citizenship because they were seen as a hostile ethnic group in the Soviet Union as a whole. The Soviet government therefore restricted their freedom for residential mobility, namely they could move only by plans and approval from Soviet government. In addition, when Germany invaded to Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Koreans could not participate in the war because they were not accepted as official citizens in Soviet society. If anything, the Soviet army expelled the Koreans. Instead of direct participation in the war, the Soviet government put the Koreans in charge of a labor army, working in the background. According to the records, in 1943, 7,765 Soviet Koreans were transferred to the Tula coalfield in Russia and to the Karaganda coalfield in Kazakhstan. [2, 7] It was not a massive migration movement like the deportation in 1937 but it shows that Soviet Koreans had been moved repeatedly not because of their will but because of the Soviet Government’s plans. The Soviet Koreans had the right to freely move only after 1957, thanks to Khrushchev’s government.

Table 3: Koreans population in Soviet Union in 1939, 1959 and 1989





Kazakhstan SSR

No data

74,019 (23.59%)

103,315 (23.55%)

Whole Soviet Union




(Source: Remake based on Korean Experience Chronology in Russia and Central Asia, National
Institute of Korean History, 2009)

According to a census of the Soviet Union, the population of Koreans was 314,000 in 1959. Among them, the number of Koreans in Kazakhstan was 74,000. The 1989 census

shows that the population of Koreans was 103,315; there had been a great increase during 30 years; and this figure is similar to the current Kazakhstani Korean population.

Table 4: Distribution of Soviet Koreans by the census for Soviet Union in 1959, 1970 and 1979 (according to the border at that time)





Almaty oblasty




Almaty city




Zhambyl oblasty




Kyzhlorda oblasty
















Karaganda oblasty












* incorporated into an Almaty city/ ** incorporated into different cities

(Source: Kim G. The Development of Korean Immigrants Culture and Society in Kazakhstan. -


The Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan is very important in developing a relationship between Korean and Kazakhstan. The existence of the Kazakhstani Koreans can bring the two countries closer together in that they can be a sturdy connecting link. In particular, Korean elite groups are well adapted to Kazakhstani society and at the same time they have high levels of professionalism in their fields too. They are therefore competent to play a key role in the two countries’ relationship. This article has studied the history of the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan and has looked at their roots by first examining how they first arrived in Kazakhstan.

The Korean diaspora first arrived in Russian territory in the 1860s. They had left their territory of Choseon; and migration had been increased for several reasons: economic difficulties first; and then the anti-Japanese movement advocating the independence of Korea from Japan. The existence of the Korean population in Kazakhstan, more than 100,000 people, is directly attributable to the deportation policy of Stalin’s government in 1937. This is a main reason of the existence of Koreans in Kazakhstan territory from the beginning of 20th century.

There are several reasons for the deportation of Koreans from the Far East of Russia to Central Asia. The first reason is a political one thanks to the external situation of Soviet Union. The Soviet government sent the Soviet Koreans to Central Asia in order to avoid conflict with Japanese government which was threatening the Soviet Union’s national security from the East side and the Soviet government blamed the Koreans in the Far East, saying that they were Japanese spies, and sent them far away from the East to Central Asia. In addition to this, there are other reasons for the deportation of Soviet Koreans such as the domestic economy, the demographic situation in Kazakhstan SSR and the Soviet Union’s domestic politics. To be precise, to further the Soviet Union’s economic revival to balance a demographic loss in Kazakhstan and for creating a ‘scapegoat’ for relieving social discontent among Soviet citizens. When these reasons are put together, the Soviet Koreans dreamed of a new life with hope under the umbrella protection of the Soviet Union – but they were abandoned and used by the Soviet government due to political reasons.

For these reasons, the Soviet Koreans were forcibly moved from the Far East region to Central Asia. Without proper support and direction, they were placed on a train and sent to Kazakhstan and then sent again to local cities and other parts of the Central Asia region. They were abandoned to freeze in a strange land and lost the freedom of residential mobility. Nevertheless, the Soviet Koreans kept trying to work in order to for survive and to be recognized as Soviet citizens. At present, 100,000 Korean diaspora live in Kazakhstan. They show high levels of participation in Kazakhstani society and work as professions in various fields. The difference after the collapse of Soviet Union is the country in which they live. They are still a minority group in Kazakhstani society but their role in society is not a minor one. They are the evidence of the Koreans’ painful history. At the same time, they are proud Koreans who have shown vitality and the power of the Korean nation. That is one reason we should not only keep researching their lives in history and the present time but also making connections with them.



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1 This article is a continuation of research started in author’s previous publications: Fominykh A. Projecting ‘Soft Power’: American and Russian Public Diplomacy in Post-Soviet Central Asia // Central Asia and the Caucasus. 2010. Vol. 11. № 3. pp. 6677; Fominykh A. Russia’s Public Diplomacy in Central Asia and the Caucasus: The Role of the Universities // The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Issue 12 (2017), pp. 56-85.

Year: 2017
City: Almaty