Sunday, January 9

Kimchi in Siob Market

Down the street from Bibi Khanym mosque in Samarkand is a bustling bazaar that sells snuff, apricot, horseflesh, butter, silk, skullcaps and anything else you might need. Siob Market has been in business at this location for 3000 years.

These days, one aisle is taken up by kimchi. Koreyscha sabzili salat -- Korean vegetable salads -- typically cabbage, cucumber, eggplant, radish or carrot fermented with seasoning, have become the national salads of Uzbekistan. The agents of these welcome additions (for at a pinch a vegetarian can live off nan and kimchi) were the more-than-170,000 ethnic Koreans deported from the Vladivostok area to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan between 1930 and 1937, on the orders of Stalin and Molotov. This was the first mass-transfer/internment of an entire ethnic group by the USSR (soon to be imitated by the USA in sending 110,000 Japanese-Americans to concentration camps.)

As Japan industrialized during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th Century, a debate -- the Seikanron -- rose within Japan on conquering Korea and prising it off the sphere of influence of Qing China. After several decades of gunboat diplomacy and unequal treaties, the victory of the Japanese Navy over Russia in 1905 led to Russia being forced to recognize Japan's right to annex Korea. See here for more. Once Korea came directly under imperial rule in 1910, the 19th-century steady trickle of pauperized Koreans, migrating across the northern borders to Manchuria and Russia in search of new lives, became a flood; by 1920, 170,000 ethnic Koreans represented 25% of the rural population of the Vladivostok oblast. From a paper by German Kim, descendant of Koreans deported to Kazakhstan, on the Korean diaspora:

"By the 1930s, the Koreans of the Soviet Far East had established their own identity, culture and traditions. In the Far East, there were dozens of Korean agricultural and fishing kolkhozes, and Koreans were actively involved in the government and social organizations. Korean traditional culture flourished, the Korean intelligentsia prospered, and Korean radio, theater, educational, and cultural institutions were established. Hundreds of young Koreans were educated in the universities of Moscow, Leningrad, and other big cities of Russia. Koreans were Sovietized and integrated in the new political and socioeconomic system."

Official Soviet policy mandated autonomy for concentrated ethnic groups, but a variety of reasons caused the Koreans in Vladivostok to become a big headache for Moscow. The Russian population of Vladivostok feared competition; Moscow feared shelter of a large Korean expatriate population would give Japan another casus belli; and Stalin the Georgian felt he could trust only ethnic Russians in a sensitive part of Siberia. Soviet-Koreans were thought, like the Japanese-Americans, to be "Unreliable People." Eventually, secret orders were issued to move ethnic Koreans from the Far-Eastern Krai into more central (but underpopulated) areas of the USSR. That meant Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The deportations were well-planned. First there were accusations of secession heaped upon the Russo-Korean border areas; followed by articles in the Pravda about Japanese agents; then show trials of influential community leaders; then purges; finally, rolling trains of 50 cattle trucks each, 30 Koreans per truck, trundling for 40 days over tundra, steppe and desert, to misery and humiliation in an alien environment. When they arrived, they were sent to work in the mines of Karaganda or disbursed throughout the countryside to establish collective farms. In the first years, many Koreans were relocated to uninhabited lands without any housing or civic amenities. At a small village named Ushtobe, 34,000 Koreans were dumped overnight, and thousands lived out in the open steppe, digging holes in the ground for shelter. Others were sent far away to live among nomadic Kazakh in yurts. Despite tremendous hardship, the Koreans survived the Stalin era. From German Kim again:

"The turning point in the life of the Koreans, as with all other Soviet peoples, was in 1953, with the death of Stalin, and the beginning of the liberalization of the political regime. With this, the Koreans began to reestablish their ethnic identity, culture, language and civil rights. In 1957 and 1958, Koreans began to petition the party and government for their national rehabilitation. The government could not ignore such an organized campaign, and began to “strengthen cultural-educational work among the Korean population,” in order to give the appearance of addressing the people’s concerns. Because of their education, hard work, and organizational skill, Koreans joined the ranks of the leaders of industry, government, and educational institutions. By the 1970s, the number of graduates of universities was about twice that of the general population. Koreans were elected to the parliaments of the Soviet Union and the Central Asian republics, were given ministerial posts in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and some also became generals of the Soviet army. ...

Lately, Koreans have been often called the “Asian Jews” to emphasize their surprising social mobility, and their ability to adapt and mimic. Researchers have distinguished their intensive acculturation through the social function that Koreans perform in a polytechnic society. Like the Jews, they play the role of ethnic mediators for other mutually distant ethnic groups, and profit from this role. A pilot survey of students in Almaty revealed that the two main ethnic groups of the republic, the Russians and the Kazakhs, expressed a higher evaluation of Koreans than to each other."

The Koryo Saram (people of Koryo), number about half-a million in Uzbekistan, i.e. about 1% of the population. When we asked Uzbeks about Koreans, the common responses were (i) Uzbek-Koreans keep to themselves, and (ii) Korean-Koreans are great, they have opened a Daewoo plant and their TV serials are just fantastic. From

"Over the past five years, about 20 South Korean television dramas have been aired in Uzbekistan. Most of them took over 50 percent of their time slot’s viewership. Two, “Winter Sonata” and “All In,” accounted for 70 to 80 percent of viewership. The wave is not confined to dramas: the South Korean animated show “Track City” was recently contracted for broadcasting here.

Forty-six-year-old Park Rita, who is the single ethnic Korean staff member at Uzbekistan’s Channel 1, said that “letters come to my company to broadcast the programs again. Uzbeks prefer Korean dramas more than Koreans themselves.”"

From the perspective of the Uzbek-Koreans themselves, though, they are getting absorbed, like Sogdian or Scythian, Mongol or Turk; 20% of the Central Asian Koreans' marriages are now international, and their birth rate is declining. They now feel Koryo Saram is diverging from Hanguk Saram:

While staying in Korea, I hardly recognized any of the familiar national dishes and some of them even seemed utterly unknown to me.

If you are left wondering what, then, the Uzbek-Korean food is like, we did not have time to go looking in Samarkand; but here is a hint, drawn from Cafe Mother in Law in Brooklyn, New York.

Lately, there has been more-and-more material available on the Koryo Saram (search for Коре Сарам), including an eponymous 2007 documentary (trailer here.)

(For video footage of Siob Market, scroll down to the post on Ulugh Beg; the market is at 11:00, and kimchi can be seen at 12:30 into the clip.)

Here is a Soviet propaganda film on a Uzbek-Korean kolkhoz, the Polar Star, c. 1949.


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