Seoul seeks to capitalise on Stalin's Korean deportations

Claire LEE
1 / 5
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's tour of Central Asia included a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

South Korean president Moon Jae-in meets ethnic Koreans in Central Asia this week as he looks to capitalise on the enduring legacy of Joseph Stalin's mass deportations more than 80 years ago.

In 1937, suspecting divided loyalties, the Soviet dictator had the entire ethnic Korean population of the Russian Far East -– around 172,000 people –- transported to Central Asia on cattle trains.

Testimonies say the carriages were "like an empty can" and according to some South Korean reports as many as 11,000 died during the 5,000-kilometre (3,000-mile) journey.

Stalin saw the Koreans as a threat, as the peninsula's colonial ruler Japan was hostile to the Soviet Union –- although some of the deportees were exiles fighting for independence from Tokyo.

Decades later some 300,000 of their descendants still live in the region, the majority in Uzbekistan and most of the rest in Kazakhstan.

Some of them view the forced relocation as a tragedy.

"While I was I was living in Uzbekistan, I knew I would never be truly accepted there. People would always ask: 'Why are you here?'" said Shin Zoya, an ethnic Korean who moved to the South in 2001.

For many descendants of the deportees, Korea "has always been their only home," the 62-year-old told AFP.

Others are proud of what they have achieved despite everything they have been through, according to historians.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s Uzbekistan's ruler Islam Karimov -– who died in 2016, still in office -- was wary of becoming overly dependent on nearby giants Russia and China.

He seized on the opportunity provided by his country's cohort of Korean-speakers and encouraged investment from the South, epitomised by the giant Uz-Kor Gas Chemical Complex joint venture near the disappearing Aral Sea.

To this day the South is one of Uzbekistan's top five sources of imports.

Ticketing websites show four times as many direct flights a week from Tashkent to Seoul than to Beijing, while Korean-speaking local guides lead tourists around the sights of the country's ancient Silk Road cities, such as the Registan in Samarkand.

And Kazakh figure skater Denis Ten, an Olympic bronze medallist in 2014 who died after being stabbed in Almaty last year, was a great-great-grandson of a well-known Korean independence fighter and general, Min Keung-ho.

"I am ethnically Korean and I am virtually skating in my home country," Ten said during the 2015 Four Continents Championships in Seoul, which he won.

The two countries are both on Moon's eight-day itinerary in the region, which also takes in gas-rich Turkmenistan.

- New partners -

Moon is looking to diversify South Korea's trade-dependent economy, the world's 11th-largest, away from reliance on traditional partners China and the US and seek new engines of growth, currently stuttering at 2.7 percent.

He will also bring the remains of two independence fighters back from Kazakhstan, partly in commemoration of this year's 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement, a series of protests against Japan across the peninsula.

Moon, who has brokered nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang, has stressed the independence struggle is at the heart of national identity in both Koreas, and the centre of Seoul is currently festooned with giant posters of anti-Japanese heroes and heroines.

Analysts say Moon is looking to use Korea's colonial history to mobilise the diaspora in Central Asia to benefit the South's economy.

Unlike Korean Americans or ethnic Koreans in Japan, said professor Kim So-young at Korea National University of Arts, "those in central Asia have long been overlooked by the South Korean government".