While there is no shortage of expressions that reflect this new era of globalization, the world as one global village, one word has become imperative when discussing the current state of the Korean people. Diaspora, a term derived from the Greek meaning “scattering” or “dispersion,” is most notably used in reference to the Jews who were forced to live outside their homeland for most of Jewish history, while retaining their ethnic identity and religious practices.
The nature and scope of the diaspora, however, is similar to what has happened to the Korean people since the late 19th century, many of whom left their homeland to survive the turbulent history of modern Korea: the forced occupation of the Korean peninsula by Imperial Japan and the subsequent Korean War that divided the nation into the South and the North. The Korean diaspora includes the ethnic Koreans who moved to China and the Soviet Union in search of a better life; to Japan, drafted into the military but unable to return; and later as exported labor to the United States.
The literatures of the two Koreas, developed and accumulated separately since division, as well as what has been written by ethnic Koreans in the U.S., Japan, China, and Central Asia, are commonly referred to as “diaspora literature of the Korean people.” They are grouped together not only based on literary concepts but also because they each share in the sense of being in-between two worlds, heavily dependent on their adoptive culture while also maintaining a separate identity through their connection to that from which they originated.
Mass migration from the Korean peninsula to China and the Soviet Union began in the late 19th century. Currently there are around two million Chaoxianzu, or ethnic Koreans of Chinese nationality, in China, and around 500,000 Koryo-saram, or ethnic Koreans of Russian nationality, living in the post-Soviet states, each having formed their own unique culture, which includes literature. Among them, many fiction writers in the Koryo-saram community, including Anatoli Kim, and the Chaoxianzu community, including Jin Xuezhe and Lin Yuanchun, base their work on their people’s history of diaspora. In other countries as well, numerous writers of Korean ethnicity continue to write in the Korean language.