Koryo Saram

The Koreans of Kazakhstan and the Survival of a Culture

A film by Y. David Chung

in collaboration with Matt Dibble (principle cameraman and editor)

Executive Producer Meredith Woo-Cumings, Director of the Korean Studies Program, University of Michigan

Historical Consultant - German Kim, Director of Korean Studies, Kazakh National University named after Al-Farabi

Hill at Ushtobe, Kazakhstan, a small railway stop where many thousands of Koreans were deported

In 1937, the Soviet Regime under Stalin deported 180,000 Koreans from the Russian Far East (near Vladisvostock in the Primorsk and Khabarask provinces) to Kazakhstan.  Today 100,000 Koreans remain and live among the many different groups of people that make up the modern Kazakh population.  Largely isolated from the outside, these Koreans (or Koryo Saram as they are called) maintained their language and culture in a fascinating blend of Korean, Russian and Kazakh traditions.  Their story of the brutal forced deportation, survival in the open steppe country and development of successful collective farms during the Soviet era is a story unknown outside Kazakhstan.  It is a fascinating and at times tragic account of the legacy of Stalin's policy of mass movements of people and the degradation of ethnic culture.  Today,  as Kazakhstan strives to build a national identity from it's multi-ethnic society, the history of the Korean Kazakhs stands out as a example of cultural survival that mirrors the struggles of many ethnic groups as they face rapid changes in the West.

Left – a Korean family living in Far East Russia.  Right A rare photograph showing Mikhail Kim, a leader of the Korean community in Far East Russia at the First People’s Congress in Moscow.  Kim is seated next to Molotov and in front of Joseph Stalin.  Kim was later imprisoned and purged.  His family was deported to Kazakhstan.

This film is structured around the interviews of several key Korean Kazakhs and related documents, photographs, archival film and new video.


Mikhail Kim's daughter, Dekabrina Kim, who is eighty years old and lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  She has an excellent memory of life in Vladisvostock, the deportation and the early days in Kazakhstan.  Dekabrina Kim went on to a successful career as a medical doctor.  She became the chief medical officer in her province.  Above are two early photos of Ms. Kim and scene from our film where Ms. Kim is in her kitchen.

The train station at Ushtobe, a town in South East Kazakhstan, where many Koreans were deported.  Ushtobe is known as the Korean capital. 34,000 Koreans were deported here and later established collective farms. Below: Matt Dibble and David Chung filming the train platform where thousands of Koreans were dropped off.  They also filmed along a portion of the route of the trains during the 1937 deportation.





Map showing the Russian Far East provinces in relation to Kazakhstan and the probable route of the trains during deportation.

Yun Sergei Yunis one of the best known Korean Kazakhs.  He was deported to Ushtobe in the open steppe country in1937.  Yun was one of many Koreans who had to dig holes in the ground to survive the first several wintersat Ushtobe. During the Great Patriotic War (WW II), Yun served 3 years in the slave- labor army at Karaganda Yun returned to Ushtobe after the war and became one the leaders of a Korean kolhoz (collective farm).  Later he earned the Order of Lenin and other medals for outstanding production during the Virgin Lands Program. 


From Left: A young couple of Korean heritage on their wedding day.  Although, many Koreans have intermarried with Kazakhs, Russians and other groups, they still maintain strong identity with Korean culture.  The wedding was filled with many traditional Korean elements.  Center: An eighty year old Kurdish woman whose family was deported to Kazakhstan.  She was assigned to work in a Korean collective farm for more than 30 years.  She speaks fluent Korean.  Right: Olga Tsoi, an artist and art teacher living in Almaty, one of the more than fifty Korean Kazakhs we interviewed for the film.

Through the use of interviews, historical and personal photographs, archival footage and new video of the current scene in Kazakhstan, this film will show how a culture survived the tragic Stalinist doctrine which Robert Conquest calls, "nation killing" .  It testament to the strength of ethnic culture in an era when the mass movements of people force the development of new hybrid identities.

from Left: Meredith Woo-Cumings, Zarina Akisheva & Matt Dibble, German Kim & Y. David Chung

Project Personnel

David Chung is a filmmaker and media artist who has exhibited widely throughout the country and internationally.  Chung began his career collaborating as an artist on documentary films.  His film graphics credits include Surveillance, No Place to Hid (HBO), American Journey (PBS), Gardens of Paradise (PBS), The Forgotten People (PBS), Soldiers in Hiding (HBO) and Peace on Borrowed Time (ABC).  In 1996, he won the Best of Show Award with Matt Dibble for directing  Turtle Boat Head at the Rosebud Film and Video Awards.  He received a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship in 1995.  Chung is Associate Professor at the University of Michigan with the School of Art and Design and the Korean Studies Program.

Matt Dibble has worked in the field of documentary production since 1984. He first studied film at the Rhode Island School of Design, and histraining as a visual artist greatly influences his approach to his work. He founded Dockyard to create original programming for television, as well as media installations for exhibitions. He has collaborated with dozens of producers on award winning programs as an editor and cameraman, and has tackled a wide range of documentary topics. He co-wrote and edited "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon," a one-hour show about the astronomically-aligned architecture of the ancient Pueblo Indians that aired nationally on PBS. "Rising Waters" explored the impact of global warming on the islands and communities of the South Pacific. Currently, Matt Dibble is working with producer Andrea Torrice on "New Metropolis," a Ford Foundation-funded 2-part program for PBS on the history and politics of suburban sprawl.

Meredith Woo-Cumings is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Korean Studies Program at the University of Michigan. Her teaching and research interests include International Political Economy, East Asian Politics, and U.S.-East Asian relations. Before joining the University of Michigan, she taught at Northwestern University, Columbia University and Colgate University. In 1996 she was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the Presidential Commission on U.S.-Pacific Trade and Investment Policy.

German Kim is one of the world’s leading experts on ethnic nationalities in Central Asia. He has written and edited a large number of books and published more than 150 papers, originally in his native Russian, but translated into Kazakh, English, Korean, German and Japanese. Of those there are two books that are particularly noteworthy, on the history of the Korean Diaspora. These are monumental works, and when the third volume is completed, they will be recognized as standard texts on the subject. Kim is Professor at the Kazakh National university named after Al-Farabi and he is the Head of the Department of Korean Studies.

Zarina Akisheva is a graduate of the Foreign Languages Institute in Moscow, and is a brilliant translator and interpreter of Russian and English.

• For further information about this project please contact Kristy Demas at the University of Michigan Korean Studies Program, kdemas@umich.edu or (734) 764-1825

or Y. David Chung davchung@umich.edu