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The Koreans of Kazakhstan

Posted by on June 30, 2016 | Photographer Interviews

In 1937, almost 172,000 Koreans who had settled in the Russian Far East were forcibly deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan during the rule of Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, under the guise of preventing Japanese espionage in the region. Around 40,000 people died during the perilous journey and the harsh Kazakh winters that followed the forced relocation, and those who survived were forbidden to speak their own language.

While researching sociolinguistic variations in the Korean language, U.S.-born Korean photographer Michael Vince Kim came across the direct result of this mass deportation: Koryo-mar, a now near-extinct language spoken by ethnic Koreans in the former Soviet Union. Kim was immediately fascinated by this Soviet-Korean dialect, which comprises archaisms that don’t exist in modern Korean, and began
researching its history.

“[I was] shocked to find that this tragic episode of Korean history is largely untold and unknown,” Kim says. “[I] felt compelled to meet this community and tell their story, and to see how their culture and their language had diverged from the roots that we shared.”

“The Koreans of Kazakhstan,” Kim’s resulting long-term project, won Magnum Photos’ “30 Under 30” award for young photographers. Currently extending the series to Uzbekistan and other neighboring countries, as well as South Korea, Kim says: “The issue of migration, displacement and identity within the Korean diaspora is something I’ve been interested in for most of my life, and photography has been a medium that allows me to explore it visually.”

– Amy Touchette

Photos © Michael Vince Kim/INSTITUTE

Mikhail Danelevich Ten, 90, was deported from Vladivostok, Russia at the age of 12. Koreans were transported in precarious cattle trains during the month-long journey. The wagons were overcrowded, and  families were often separated and sent in different trains without being told their destination. Ushtobe, Kazakhstan. September 2014.


Founded in Vladivostok in 1932, the Korean Theatre of Almaty was deported to Kazakhstan along the rest of the population. Korean-language schools were banned, but the Soviet government did not enforce the closure of the theatre. However, its productions were strictly controlled by the government, allowing only 10 percent of the plays to refer to Korean culture. The rest was to be dedicated to Russian and Soviet plays. Almaty, Kazakhstan. September 2014.


Kazakh soldiers in Ushtobe train station during a military parade welcoming soldiers returning from training in China. When Koreans were deported, the Soviet government ordered Kazakhs not to make contact with Koreans. Nevertheless, Kazakhs helped Koreans dig holes in the ground for shelter, gave them food, and some hosted them to survive the first two harsh winters following their relocation. Ushtobe, Kazakhstan. September 2014.