How European can be a Post-Soviet Korean?

By Svetlana Kim | 22 April 2017

To quote this document: Svetlana Kim, “How European can be a Post-Soviet Korean?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 22 April 2017,, displayed on 08 December 2022

(This article is part of the dossier 'Nationalism and National Indifference in Europe'.) 

Disinterest towards one’s own nationality may be regarded as indifference, but this indifference is nuanced. For example, most of the post-Soviet Koreans who increasingly settle in the EU today seem well-assimilated and unconcerned about their identities, but they still continue to live their deeply ingrained national traditions. National indifference can therefore be dynamically combined with the concept of a ‘dormant diaspora’.

A typical ‘Koryo-saram’ is born and raised in Central Asia or Russia, feels comfortable celebrating both Muslim and Christian holidays, hears a bit of Korean at home while mostly speaking Russian, learns Uzbek or Kazakh at school, and never questions how this multicultural society had become established in their home countries. Now, however, hundreds of this obscure half-a-million minority strive to settle in Prague or Vienna or other popular EU destinations for higher education or professional life. In these places, they face one question about which Valery Khan* – himself a Koryo-saram – once wrote: “Identity is irrelevant – until you are asked about it.”

When I came to Austria to pursue my higher education, a usual conversation started with “Where are you from?” and resulted in a puzzled “I did not know that Koreans in Uzbekistan speak Russian!” I had not been aware before that I had what seemed a ‘truly strange background’, for, as a contrast, the Koryo-saram are unquestionably ‘normal’ in the post-Soviet countries. Never had I had any discussions concerning my ethnic background when I lived in Uzbekistan and Russia. The fact of being a Koryo-saram was so self-explaining for everyone around me. But in the EU, most of us are constantly asked about the nationality and receive a startled reaction most of the times. It was through this that my awareness was gradually raised.

Deportation under Stalin

Identity itself is a complex concept, and in the case of the Koryo-saram, it becomes even more intricate. My grandmother Nyura or Anna Kim was born in the Russian Far East. When she reached the age of nine in 1937, she and her family’s whole neighborhood were part of the 180.000 Koreans to be deported to Central Asia. The political tensions in this Russian borderland of Japanese-led Korea, Manchukuo, and China made this ethnic minority suspicious. They were all commanded to enter trains without knowing why they had to abandon their homes. As Anna’s father had recently had a surgery, he was not able to supply the family of four children with food. Their wagon neighbors, luckily, were generous to share with them some nutrition.

The whole trip to unknowingness took more than one month. They landed in an unsettled field along the river regions of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and were now supposed to cultivate the virgin lands. The next decades saw a turmoil of all kinds of migration and Russification policies that deeply impacted all spheres of life – language, culture, food and religion. With time, the Russianized Koryo-saram generally fared well, pursued higher education and came to be largely well positioned in the (post-)Soviet society. However complex their identity developed in Central Asia of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods – they still retained significant parts of customs that shape their daily routines, and which originally stemmed from the Northern Korean lands from generations ago. These preserved old customs comprise food, festivities, the appellations of relatives, and other facets of everyday life.

Discovering the Charm of Diasporas

At university in Austria, the curricular program obliged me to enroll in a seminar about national minority’s literatures. Unexpectedly, each piece of work, including from Koryo-saram writers like Anatoli Kim and Vladimir Kim, captured me – the self-exploring motifs, the emotional depth attached to the national questioning, the quest for a Self that was to be located in a national group with which one is identified by unrelated others. Searching for oneself in what is either a monologue or dialogue – this is indistinguishable – with the national Thou which one supposedly carries within one’s own heart, blood and genes…

I then discovered the life of diasporic entrepreneurs and thought that therein lies the ultimate response to the everlasting “Where are you from?”-question. I read how diasporas recently became politically popular, how they were empowered by their host and home governments, optimistic appraisals about their economic and cultural importance, and how they helped to nurture a sense of belonging in our “new world of uncertain identities” (Paul Sharp). I wanted to gather the dozens of my Koryo-saram friends in Austria into a diasporic institution in order to share our knowledge and organize events and informational exhibitions. I saw much hope for this undertaking, for theories would tell us that in democratic societies such as the EU, diasporas emulate democratic behaviors, gain economic and social capital, and can organize themselves in much larger freedom.

A Failed Diasporization Amidst Living Traditions

However, I became confronted with what Tara Zahra conceptualized as “national indifference”, namely the limits of nationalism, a “failed groupness”.

I surprisingly found out that most of my Koryo-saram friends in the EU were indifferent to their ethnicity or belonging. Neither did they think of returning home nor were they interested in connections with other Koreans. None of them wanted to hear anything about alleged identity struggles. They had their daily tasks, lived busily within their host societies in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany or France, had their well-integrated family and children – there was no need to preoccupy oneself with those historical things irrelevant to one’s present well-being. I could not understand – I tried to convince and ‘activate’ them by stressing our common past, shared memories, the moving stories, and I knew that all of them had their grandparents forcibly deported like my dear Anna; but to no avail.

During a research, I conducted interviews with ten Koryo-saram living in the EU. We remained close friends since then – and the more time we spent together, the more I noticed how each of these allegedly indifferent Koryo-saram in Europe lived significant parts of their Korean culture even in their new homes. From Prague to Vienna, from Berlin to Paris, their food cooked at home is decidedly Korean, family festivities with all their ceremonies and clothes as well as the appellation of close friends and relatives were identical to the ones my grandmother passed on to me, which she herself had learned when she was still in the Far East near the Northern Korean border. Despite their unwillingness to unify themselves with other Koryo-saram in a formal diasporic organization, and despite being well integrated into their host societies, their daily routine remained strongly attached to their ethnic and cultural background.

They may label themselves to be so assertively detached from their ethnic belonging. But the actual practice of passing-on one’s traditions relativized their disinterest. There are nuances to national indifference. While some may label themselves as decidedly unconcerned, their family-internal practices may still reveal that they, in fact, still undeliberately cling to their identity-shaping traditions in a daily manner.

Not ‘Failed’, but ‘Dormant’

Moreover, diasporas are never static, but dynamic concepts; what is a “failed grouping” today, a set of scattered persons without any interconnections, may suddenly, one day, through any kind of external catalyst, be prompted to rapidly group themselves due to a shared basis. This is what is understood as a “dormant” diaspora (Sheffer 2003). Even non-diasporas or “imagined non-communities” (Zahra), ‘held together’ by national indifference, may once have to ‘diasporize’. Those who are nationally indifferent, therefore, bear within them the continuation of their shared identity – embodied in the traditions of daily life that is grounded in the shared past and common ancestry – which can be triggered in dynamic times to exert the potential of diasporization.

This is the essence of Valery Khan’s aphorism. “As long as you are not asked, identity remains insignificant” – we are constantly being asked, and we may perhaps see this as friendly chitchats that happen during nice encounters. But once we face the same-worded question suddenly sharper than usual, it can serve as a catalyst that awakens the dormant diaspora within us.


An increasing number of Koryo-saram, or ethnic Koreans from (mainly) Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia, have recently migrated to EU countries without forming any organized diaspora institutions. On the contrary, a majority of these well-acculturated Koryo-saram decide to be indifferent towards their own nationality. A closer exploration, however, shows that they ‘live’ their identity in daily matters by passing on unique national traditions including food, family festivities, and the appellations of relatives. It suggests that shared traditions, common memories and a certain togetherness still persists through seeming national indifference. These “imagined non-communities” can be equal to “dormant diasporas”, which suggests that a catalyst can anytime awaken them to void their indifference.

The photo was taken by Viktor An. All rights are reserved.


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