Koryo-saram, Nostalgia, and the Love for Hangeul

Ever since the final years of Joseon, when ethnic Koreans moved north to the Russian territory of Primorsky Krai, the Korean diaspora has continued to disperse throughout the 20th century. The poet and novelist Poseok Jo Myeong-hui voluntarily joined the exiled community in 1928 in order to teach literature written in their mother tongue to those fighting for the independence of their homeland while struggling to survive in a new, unfamiliar home. To this day, Poseok is considered a pioneer amongst the literary community that writes in Korean outside the Korean peninsula. His poem “Koryo, Trampled Over,” which exposed the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan across the Korean peninsula at the time, was one of the reasons ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states started calling themselves “Koryo-saram,” meaning the people of Goryeo.

A group of Koryo-saram, who studied under Poseok for nearly a decade and published their works in Korean on the arts and literature pages of Seonbong (The Vanguard), began the small but flourishing culture of writing in Hangeul in the landlocked region of Central Asia, where many ethnic Koreans were forced to migrate in 1937 by Stalin. Leaving its first location in the Kazakh town of Ushtobe, the Korean newpaper Renin gichi (Lenin’s Banner), which was now renamed Koryo Ilbo (Koryo Daily), relocated to the city of Almaty and became a mecca for diaspora literature by ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states. Through the Korean newspapers and books published and distributed by the Communist Party, Koryo-saram were able to maintain their unique identity and develop a strong sense of unity.

The Communist Party published literary works by individual writers: selected works by Poseok, who has sacrificed himself in Primorsky Krai; poetry collections by Kim Jun, Kim Gwang-hyeon, and Ri Jin; a novel by Kim Jun; a collection of short stories by Kim Gi-cheol; a collection of various works of fiction by Yeon Seong-ryong; and a collection of plays by Han Jin. Numerous collections of various works were also published by the Communist Party, including Joseon Poetry in 1958, October Sunlight in 1971, Melody of Syrdariya in 1975, Sunflower in 1982, Homeland of Happiness in 1988, The Land Where Flowers Bloom in 1988, and The Light of Today in 1990. The steady publication of such works by ethnic Koreans using Hangeul was the product of the collective effort to preserve the culture and identity of a people struggling to survive away from their homeland.

Even in a harsh environment of enforced ideology and state censorship, these Koryo-saram writers strived to express their love for Hangeul as a way to appease their souls, distraught with nostalgia, by continuing to write in the Korean language. In his poem “I Am a Person of Joseon,” Kim Jun, who was forced to migrate from the Russian Far East, wrote: “In Russia, the Far East, / near the Iman River, I am a person of Joseon. / That is why the Joseon word for ‘mother’ / has deeper roots in my soul than any other.” And in the poem “Mother Tongue,” the poet and North Korean defector Maeng Dong-uk speaks: “My mother tongue is my companion. / So I am never lonely. / Never sad. / Happiness lifts me high.”

     Meanwhile, there is also a list of poems that sing their deep longing to return home, to escape from lives as wanderers in an unfamiliar land. One of the most controversial was by Gang Taesu, a poet who was incarcerated for two decades for composing “To the Maiden Who Was Plowing the Fields.” Gang was accused of expressing nostalgia for his homeland in public just when the forced relocations had begun. In “Arirang,” Gang asks: “Arirang, arirang, / that hill, that ridge / I cry out with yearning, / is it in the South? / Is it in the North?” And then, in “Blood Ties,” the Sakhalin-born Jeong Jang-gil sings: “Does one’s homeland begin at the door of one’s childhood home? / . . . What one longs for in times of pain / is to see one’s mother. / Is that why one’s homeland is also called one’s motherland?” Another poet and North Korean defector Yang Won-sik expresses...