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Forced Migration: Biographies of the Soviet Koreans Who Helped to Establish the North Korean State

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(The following is a post by Suhyoung Son, Korean Foundation Junior Librarian, Asian Division.)

This is the first image of the collection of Soviet Korean biographies compiled and edited by Hak-pong Chang. The collection’s title in Korean is “Pʻi wa nunmul rossŏ ssiyŏjin [i.e. ssŭyŏjin] uridŭl ŭi yŏksa” 피와 눈물로써 씨여진 우리들의 력사 (History Written by Our Blood and Tears). View the collection online. Korean collection, Asian Division.
In the late 1940s, the Soviet Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin forcibly sent more than 170,000 ethnic Koreans living in Soviet republics in Central Asia to the newly established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). These Soviet Koreans, known as Koryŏ saram, were tasked with helping launch and administer the country’s nascent government and institutions. At the crossroads of Asian geography and history during the Cold War, their stories are heavy with loss and hardship.

The Asian Division holds a rare—and fully open access—collection of 80 handwritten biographies with some portraits and pictures of Soviet Koreans who were part of the USSR’s assistance to the North Korean state. “Biographies of Soviet Korean Leaders,” evocatively titled “History Written by Our Blood and Tears” in Korean, is an invaluable resource for the history of Soviet Koreans, the study of oppressed elites, and the formative period of relations between the USSR and North Korea. The biographies were compiled by Hak-pong Chang, who became the principal of the DPRK Political Service Military Academy. The idea for this project came about in 1994 when Chin-I Sŏ, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Uzbekistan, encouraged Hak-pong Chang to collect a written record of the miseries experienced by Soviet Koreans.

This photograph is from the biography of Hak-pong Chang, the editor of the Soviet Korean biographies. View the biography online. Korean collection, Asian Division.

These Soviet Koreans were mostly descended from independence activists and intellectuals who migrated to the Primorsky region of Soviet Russia, known in Korean as Yŏnhaeju, to escape the social turmoil, colonial oppression, and economic poverty resulting from Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. In the lead-up to World War II and tensions between Japan and the USSR, Stalin saw the Koreans in the Yŏnhaeju region as possible spies who could conduct undercover activities on behalf of the Japanese. He thus ordered their relocation to Central Asia on August 21, 1937. Much suffering ensued. Koreans, for example, who had previously run a Korean language school in Yŏnhaeju were forced not only to give up their language and culture but also fight hunger and disease in their new settlements in the USSR’s Kazakh and Uzbek republics. Hak-cho’l Ho describes his experience in his biographic record:

“After all of the Korean intellectuals were wiped out and their mother tongue was taken away, no one could oppose the order to educate people only in Russian. We just obeyed and worked to obtain food and save our children… During the first years of forced migration, many children and the elderly died. In particular, many people died from the spring to summer of 1938” (translated from the original Korean text of Hak-cho’l Ho’s biography).

Even in the face of immense loss, Soviet Koreans became active in social circles, district parties, and educational and military institutions. They pursued their passions to learn, as they did in Yŏnhaeju; however, another upheaval was soon to impact their lives.

This page is from the biography of Wallentchina Cho, who was a high school and middle school teacher of Russian language and literature dispatched to the North Korean capital P’yŏngyang. She was one of a few women leaders sent to North Korea by the USSR. View the biography online. Korean collection, Asian Division.

At the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided into two regions at the 38th parallel, with the south occupied by the United States and the north occupied by the Soviet Union. To bolster the new North Korean government led by Kim Il-sŏng, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin saw the Soviet Koreans in the Kazakh and Uzbek republics as a political resource. Many were highly educated and were considered politically and morally reliable by Soviet authorities. They were teachers and other professionals. They were Communist Party members of middle and lower ranks in the USSR. In North Korea, they occupied leading positions in the state’s creation, especially during the period from 1945 to 1960. “Biographies of Soviet Korean Leaders” includes the experiences of individuals who became, for example, a councilor in North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Kung-nok Chong), governor of the North Korean Central Bank (Ch’an Kim), chief justice of the Supreme Military Court (Tong-cho’l Kim), dean of People’s Economy College (Ik Ho), president of Kim Il-sŏng University (Song-hun Yu), and deputy director of North Korea’s Labor Party (Ka-I Ho).

However, in the mid-1950s, the founder and premier of North Korea, Kim Il-sŏng, started to distance himself from the USSR. North Korea had also begun to implement a policy of rooting out communists from the Soviet Union, China, and South Korea. Although Soviet Koreans occupied many prominent and important roles in North Korean society, the topmost leaders of the North Korean state did not always get along with the Soviet Koreans. In particular, North Koreans thought that Soviet Koreans should try harder to assimilate into the larger North Korean society. Soviet Koreans, instead, mostly mingled amongst themselves.

The North Korean Communist Party gradually demoted the Soviet Korean communists in the country. The stories of many of these individuals during this period of persecution are truly harrowing. The biography of Sang-jin Chong, a former vice minister of the North Korean Ministry of Cultural Promotion, documents how he was first transferred to a lower group in the Communist Party and then demoted to the head of the Central Library after he commented positively about his preference for Soviet culture. According to his biography the position of library head was usually conferred before being sentenced to prison or exile. Ik Ho, the dean of the People’s Economy College, was sent to the coal mines for the perception that he was too close to the Soviet Union. Ik Ho’s wife, the author of the biography, writes that the perception stemmed from the fact that their children studied in the Soviet Union and had Soviet nationality.

This page is from the biography of Sang-jin Chong, a former vice minister of North Korea’s Ministry of Cultural Promotion. View the biography online. Korean collection, Asian Division.
This envelope is part of the biography of Ik Ho, the former dean of the People’s Economy College in P’yŏngyang, North Korea. Ho’s wife wrote her husband’s biography. View the biography online. Korean collection, Asian Division.

Soviet Koreans became the target of state-sponsored purges and faced the hard choice of either escaping North Korea or staying in the country and risking death in prison or execution. Some were kidnapped or disappeared under unknown circumstances. Others were killed in jail or perished in North Korean iron mines and other places of forced labor.

This family portrait is from the biography of the former chief justice of the Supreme Military Court of North Korea, Tong-ch’ol Kim, with his wife and son. Kim’s son writes that his father did not return after being escorted away by North Korean military officers. View the biography online. Korean collection, Asian Division.

In April 2005, Hak-pong Chang donated these 80 biographies to the Asian Division’s Korean collection after collecting them from the families of Soviet Korean leaders between 1995 and 2001. The biographies were written on various types of paper, such as part of a newspaper called “Lenin kich’i,” notebooks, loose-leaf notepaper, and scrap paper. These humble pages are not only primary sources of great scholarly interest, but they also enshrine the names, memories, and tragedies of Soviet Koreans and their forced migrations across Asia.

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