Ethnic Koreans in Kazakhstan, Part 2: Falling victim to Soviet nuclear testing

by Takashi Hiraoka, honorary president of the Hiroshima Semipalatinsk Project and former mayor of Hiroshima

Evgenia Kim, 95, who was exposed to the radiation released by Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, has spent her retirement years in Semey. Ms. Kim’s eyesight is failing and she is hard of hearing. Her son, Victor Ten, 58, speaks loudly into her ear.

Ms. Kim was born in Dalnivostok, Siberia. Her grandfather came from Suwon, Gyeonggi-do in South Korea and is believed to have built the first Korean village in Dalnivostok. The deportation of ethnic Koreans began when Ms. Kim was studying medicine in Khabarovsk. She lost contact with her parents and when she learned their location, she discovered that they had already died.

After graduating from Almaty Medical School, Ms. Kim went to Sakhalin with her husband and began working as a physician. They moved to Semey in 1957, when Mr. Ten was in first grade. He still remembers the earth shaking violently when nuclear tests were conducted. Today, Mr. Ten is a pediatrician. “I’m now healthy, but I worry about the aftereffects of radiation on the next generation,” he said, his face clouded with concern at the bleak prospect.

Ms. Kim spoke about the hardship she experienced when she was younger. “I still have a fondness for Korean porridge, though,” she added with a smile.

Leonid Kim, the Semey branch director of the Korean Association, has also received official recognition as a victim of nuclear testing. In 1937, his parents were sent to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (now called the Republic of Uzbekistan) from Vladivostok and were forced to work at a state-run farm near Tashkent. This is where Mr. Kim was raised.

After graduating from Tashkent University, Mr. Kim went to Semey in 1970. He is now the president of a telephone equipment company. “I learned about Hiroshima in school,” he said, adding emphatically, “I am opposed to nuclear weapons.”

“Don’t talk to anyone about the difficulties you’ve experienced,” Mr. Kim’s mother told him when they were deported, believing silence was the best way to survive in the former Soviet Union. “I can never forgive Stalin,” Mr. Kim said indignantly. At the same time, he also reminisced about times past and the feeling that he never really worried about the future, in terms of daily needs, during the Stalin era.

The “Koryo Saram” in Kazakhstan use Russian in their daily lives and speak little Korean. Their names sound Russian and, in assimilating into life in Kazakhstan, their ties to Korea are disappearing. Visible traces of their roots have become faint, with only Korean pickles sold at the market and the Hangul newspaper issued in Almaty, “The Koryo Ilbo,” circulating just 3000 copies once a week.

At the end of August, the plain of Kazakhstan is the color of dead leaves. Sensing a whisper of fall in the wind, I think about the harsh and hapless destiny of the ethnic Koreans who came and endured on this wild land.

Caught in a confrontation between nations, they were forced to leave their homeland, deported to central Asia from their settlement in Primorsky Krai and exposed to the radiation released by Soviet nuclear testing. The roots of these people stretch very far away from their homes in Kazakhstan.

The history of the ethnic Koreans raises an important question about the meaning of one’s “nation.” And through this question, the issue of nuclear weapons, too, becomes a subject for reflection.

(Originally published on September 18, 2008)

Related articles
Ethnic Koreans in Kazakhstan, Part 1: Deported by the former Soviet Union (Oct. 5, 2008)
Youth from Hiroshima to visit Semipalatinsk, former nuclear testing site (Aug. 5, 2008)
HICARE, providing support for victims of radiation exposure for 17 years (March 20, 2008)