Friday, September 26, 2008

A/P/A: Koryo Saram

It was a massive displacement of innocent civilians motivated by a baseless suspicion they might sympathize with the Japanese during World War II. Few have heard of it, because the offending government was the Soviet Union. Known as Koryo Saram, they were Soviet Koreans, forcibly exiled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on Stalin’s orders. Their story is told in Y. David Chung and Matt Dibble’s documentary, Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People (extended trailer here), which screened last night as part of the film series sponsored by NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute.

Largely, but not exclusively from the Northern provinces of Korea, many of these Soviet Koreans were refugees from the occupying Japanese. However, they were not deemed sufficiently loyal by Stalin, who dubbed them “Unreliable People.” Victims of the Great Terror, an estimated 180,000 Koryo Saram were rounded up and deported in cramped boxcars to the Central Asian Steppe. Kazakhstan in particular became Stalin’s dumping ground for various undesirable ethnicities, where the combination of harsh winters and little or no shelter led to a high mortality rate among deportees.

Inevitably, comparisons were made in the Q&A to FDR’s Japanese interment policies, but the brutality of the Soviet was in a league of its own. Thousands died in-transit in what became known as “Ghost Trains,” with their bodies callously tossed out at each stop, in violation of Korean tradition requiring proper burial for the peace of the spirit. However, credit is given to the formerly nomadic Kazakhs for showing a compassion which saved scores of deportees officially designated “enemies of the state” by the Communists.

Koryo is as much about Kazakhstan’s contemporary Koryo Saram community as it is with their tragic history. They usually have Russian names and speak Russian, as well as Korean dialect dating back to the early twentieth century. Reasonably well integrated, they maintain their own traditions as best they can in a rapidly changing Kazakhstan. As a twice diasporized people, their experience is deeply entwined with issues of cultural and ethnic identity.

Chung, Dibble and co-writer Meredith Jung-En Woo provide a succinct history of a largely ignored episode of Soviet terror, incorporating some rare archival footage and revealing oral histories. An informative installment in A/P/A’s film series, Koryo is screening on several campuses and the Library of Congress on October 9th. It is worth checking out if you have the opportunity.