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Old Korean dialect survives ordeal in Central Asia

This is the third and last in a series of articles to shed new light on the role of Korean emigrants that helped Korea get where it is today. — ED. 

By Kang Hyun-kyung

TASHKENT ― In the late 1990s, a visiting Korean scholar interviewed several ethnic Koreans in a remote rural area of Uzbekistan during a field trip there. 

Back then, Yang Min-jong, now director of the Korea Culture Center in Moscow, was doing research on stories that had been passed on orally in Central Asia.

Yang, 50, said he had a hard time making himself understood when communicating with the old generation of ethnic Koreans who spoke in a dialect of Korean, called “Koryo mar.” These people are called “Koryo-in” in South Korea, but they refer to themselves as “Koryo saram.” 

Yang, a former professor of Russian language and literature who earned his Ph.D. from Moscow State University in 1996, found they spoke a dialect, which doesn’t exist in South Korea. 

“I realized the dialect probably had been used nearly 150 years ago in Korea during the Joseon era. The old language remained intact there and had been passed on to the descendents of ethnic Koreans for more than a century,” he said.

“At that time, I felt the old Koryo-in lived in an enclave where residents communicate in an old Korean dialect that exists nowhere but Central Asia.”

In the 1850s, people living in the southern provinces of then Joseon suffered acute food shortages after devastating droughts hit the region. 

Driven by hunger and famine, some people migrated to the Hamgyeong region which is now in North Korea, and years later some of these migrants moved toward further north, which is now the Russian Far East. 

These migrant Koreans were engaged in the agricultural sector in the Russian territory as peasants. In the 1930s, approximately 200,000 or so ethnic Koreans resided in the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok.

In September 1937, these Koreans were forced to take a train heading for what was then Soviet Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Hundreds of people lost their lives during and shortly after the forced resettlement.

Some Western scholars called this Soviet ethnic cleansing. 

Ross King, head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, said the old Korean dialect in Central Asia is now “moribund, obsolescent” and on its way to “language death” with a tiny fraction of very old ethnic Koreans still speaking it.

Linguists said the significant differences between the standard Korean of today and the dialect used in Central Asia is due to several factors. 

King said Koryo mar has “its roots in different northeastern dialects that mixed and leveled out to form the two main varieties of Koryo mar.”

He said the influence of Russia on ethnic Koreans in Central Asia also played a role in shaping the unique Korean language there. 

Ethnic Koreans in Central Asia went to Russia and the U.S.S.R. at a time when there was still no such thing as a standard Korean language and until the 1990s had no significant contact with Koreans from either North or South Korea, according to King. 

“Compared to Koreans in North America, the Soviet Koreans’ record in language maintenance was in many ways significantly better, even after all Korean schools were closed in 1938.

“That is, whereas most Korean immigrants in North America today are already abandoning Korean in the second generation, it was not uncommon until the 1990s to meet third and fourth generation Koryo saram who still spoke the dialect although they were mostly illiterate.”

King said there are some Koryo saram now learning Korean. 

“But this is not a revival of the ‘mother tongue’: these are Russophones learning standard South Korean the hard way, as a foreign language and they find it very difficult.” 

Trade created jobs requiring candidates living in Central Asia to have strong standard Korean language skills.

Yang said some ethnic Koreans made a fortune after the 1990s when South Korean companies looked to Central Asia as an investment location. 

Koreans there bridged Korea and Central Asia as they served as translators or helped Korean businesses open there. 

Kim Byeong-hak, author of the tentatively titled book “Among Koryo-in in Kazakhstan,” said some of the Koreans migrated from Sakhalin in the 1960s and ‘70s. There are some others who were originally from North Korea who came to Central Asia to study and didn’t return home and stayed there. 

These people’s Korean is near perfect, he added. In Kazakhstan, these fluent Korean speakers played a key role in South Korean firms’ opening in Central Asia.


But the majority of Koreans in Central Asia are the descendents of Koreans who were forced to resettle in what was Soviet Central Asia in the late 1930s. 

The old ethnic Koreans Yang met in rural areas of Uzbekistan at that time were the first or second generation of those who were forced to leave the Russian Far East in 1937. Koreans were the first ethnic group to be deported. 

King said Koreans were forced to leave “mostly for paranoid state security reasons in the Russian Far East.”

“Joseph Stalin was nervous about the Japanese threat and saw Koreans as potential spies for Japan. Anti-Asian racism probably also played a role. 

“But Russian authorities in the Russian Far East had been discussing the idea of deporting Koreans away from the border areas for at least two decades before it actually happened.”

Approximately 180,000 Koreans were forced to leave the Soviet Union on trains heading for Central Asia. Some of them were missing or killed en route to Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. 

German Kim, head of Korean Studies Department of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Astana, said the number of fatalities during the journey from the Far East to Central Asia was probably in the hundreds. 

“The exact number of fatalities is difficult to calculate but it is indisputable that children and the elderly suffered the most,” he said. “Certainly, it can be assumed that several thousand Koreans died due to illness and poor living conditions during the early years of forced resettlement.” 

Koreans were not the only ethnic group forced to leave the former Soviet Union. 

King said, “Many other nationalities were subjected to similar or worse forms of ethnic cleansing very soon thereafter.

“Those nationalities that welcomed and collaborated with the Nazis were treated even worse and the Chinese were deported back to China.”

Pioneers in agriculture 

King said the Koreans were seen as nonetheless useful and a potentially positive element because of their work ethic and agricultural prowess. 
Koreans pioneered rice farming in the Russian Far East and then in Central Asia.

Kim Pen Hva, an ethnic Korean and chairman of the Korean collective farm (or kolkhoz), is credited with the introduction of rice farming to Central Asia. 

Kim was awarded the title of “Hero of Socialist Labor” by the Soviet government for his outstanding work in the agricultural sector. The title was the highest degree of distinction awarded to those who achieved exceptional achievements in the Soviet economy and culture. 

At present, an estimated 100,000 ethnic Koreans are residing in Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan, the population is nearly 200,000. 

King said Koreans’ achievements in the agricultural sector and educational attainment are the two main legacies. 

“The Koryo saram have traditionally been extremely (and justifiably) proud of their achievements in agriculture…. and also of their educational achievements,” he said.

“They have always been quick to point out that they had the highest percentage of ‘kandidats,’ the Soviet equivalent of a Ph.D. of any Soviet nationality, even the Jews.”

Ethnic Koreans resettling in Central Asia had to deal with enormous hardships. In the first year after deportation, Koreans in Kazakhstan spent the winter in an underground makeshift facility. 

Kim Byeong-hak said the early settlers put their children’s education first. 

“After the long first winter, spring finally came. They built a school to educate their children and then worked on their housing after the school project was finished,” he said. 

Kim said the first generation’s education-first mentality influenced their children to achieve high academic accomplishments in Central Asia.

He said ethnic Koreans’ educational fervor weakened their ethnic identity because the drive for success motivated them to step up efforts to better assimilate into the Central Asian country. 

“In the late 1980s, there were signs for weakening ethnic identity. A Korean language newspaper circulated in Kazakhstan was in trouble as its management couldn’t find reporters who could write stories in Korean,” said Kim.

사멸 위기에 놓인 중앙아시아 한국어

사멸 위기에 놓인 중앙아시아 한국어 

중앙아시아에 거주하는 고려인들이 사용하는 한국말은 구한말 조선시대에 사용하던 말인 것으로 나타났다. 언어학자들에 따르면 현재 이 언어를 사용하는 고려인들의 수는 매우 적으며 언어 자체가 사멸직전에 있다고 한다. 

고려인들 스스로 고려 말이라고 부르는 이 언어는 한국인들이 의사소통을 하는데 어려움이 많을 정도로 표준 한국어와 괴리가 있는 것으로 알려졌다. 캐나다 브리티시 컬럼비아 대학의 로스 킹 교수에 따르면 150년경에 사용되었던 이 언어가 현대 한국어와 매우 다른 것은 여러가지 요인이 복합적으로 작용한 결과라고 설명한다. 

우선 고려말이 함경도 지역의 북한어가 다른 지역 언어와 혼합되었고, 러시아의 영향도 매우 크게 작용했다고 분석한다. 1990년대 이전까지 중앙아시아 고려인들이 남한이나 북한과 교류는 거의 없었던 반면 러시아와는 잦은 교류가 있었고 이 같은 요인들이 복합적으로 작용한 결과라는 것이다. 

한국과 중앙아시아간 교류가 늘면서 이지역에 거주하는 젊은 고려인들 사이에 한국어를 배우는 인구가 증가하고 있는데, 이들이 표준 한국어를 배우면서 매우 어려움을 겪고 있는 것으로 알려졌다. 

대원군 시절 영남지방의 심한 가뭄으로 함경도 지역으로 이주한 사람들 중 일부가 러시아 극동지역으로 이주를 했고, 이어 1937년 스탈린 시절 고려인들는 우즈베키스탄, 카자흐스탄 등의 중앙아시아로 강제이주를 당하면서 어려움을 겪는다. 이 고려인들의 후손이 중앙아시아에 거주하는 고려인 3, 4, 5세들이다.


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