Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are an estimated 100,385 (0.6 per cent) of Koreans in Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan National Census, 2009) and their main area of compact settlement remains Uzun Agach in the south of the country and in Almaty. They are a small but highly visible community which, because of their recent arrival in the region, have a relatively high level of knowledge of their ancestral language (about 25 percent), though this remains mainly the domain of older Koreans. They are also a highly Russified minority in language use and even their names.
The majority of Koreans in Kazakhstan are descendants of migrants from the Korean Peninsula who settled in the Russian Far East in the second half of the 19th century. Almost 100,000 of them were subsequently deported to Kazakhstan during the height of Soviet–Japanese tensions over Manchuria in 1937. The mass deportation was brutal, with many dying of hunger and illness en route. Upon arrival, those who had previously been rice farmers struggled to survive in the arid landscape. Nevertheless, during the Soviet era, significant numbers of Koreans, increasingly Russified, were visible in Soviet Kazakhstan as high officials in ministries and industrial enterprises, while others were engaged in agriculture, mainly in onion cultivation.
After independence, Koreans played a positive role in the new market economy, and they were clearly the minority which gained most out of the economic transition. Kazakhs, with no tradition as traders, were overshadowed by more commercially minded Koreans, who were quick to establish themselves in private business. Koreans have developed strong contacts with South Korea, whose corporations have taken an interest in the economic opportunities available in Kazakhstan. This has led, to some of these Korean corporations such as Samsung and Daewoo to employ local members of the Korean minority, while the South Korean government has provided assistance in renovating the building which houses the Korean Cultural Centre and Korean theatre.
As the vast majority of Koreans are Russian-speaking, their relatively strong presence in the previous institutions of Soviet Kazakhstan has been eroded as fluency in Kazakh has increasingly become a requirement for employment in the civil service.
A further issue is whether the culturally significant Koryo-mar dialect will survive. Spoken by the Koryo-saram, Koreans of the former Soviet Union, Koryo-mar is a blend of Russian and ancient Korean dialects. However, forced assimilation by the Soviet authorities as well as efforts after the Korean war to standardise the Korean language by both North and South Korea have taken their toll. Now spoken mainly by elderly Koreans in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia, it is at risk of dying out.
Updated June 2015
Minorities and indigenous peoples in