Three Diaspora: of Departure, of Division, of Change

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byKim Young-ha

My grandfather went to Manchuria during the Japanese occupation where there were many Koreans that had left the peninsula. He started a business, but when it didn’t go well, he set sail for Japan. When Korea was liberated, he moved his family back to Gyeongsang-do Province where he had been born.

My father-in-law was also born in Japan. My father and father-in-law discovered at the sanggyeonnye, or formal meeting between two families before a wedding, that they were the same age and given the period they were born into, had childhood histories that followed similar trajectories. They were both born in Japan into families that had gone there to find work, and returned to Korea and settled down after liberation.

In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands left the Korean peninsula and went to Manchuria or Japan. My father and father-in-law returned to Korea, but far more people remained. If the grandfathers of me or my wife had not returned, we’d be referred to as joseonjok (descendants of Koreans in China) or jaeil gyopo (descendants of Koreans in Japan) today.

My novel, Black Flower, is based on true events that took place in 1905. One thousand and thirty-three Koreans left for Mexico after they were hired to work as laborers on henequen plantations. Some of them were swept up in the Mexican Revolution and others were involved in the Guatemalan Civil War, but most of them buried their bones there. Black Flower portrays a facet of the stereotypical diaspora experienced by the lower class when Korea was caught in a political whirlwind in the early 20th century.

The Korean diaspora took place within Korea as well. In the years before and following the Korean War, a significant number of people migrated from the North to the South. Busan, where I live now, is at the southern end of the peninsula, but still contains traces of their influence. The war refugees found unclaimed hills to settle in with houses made of panels. Milmyeon, a Busan delicacy today, was invented by those who migrated down from Hamgyeong-do Province in the North. In the absence of buckwheat to make naengmyeon, a northern cold noodle dish, they used their flour rations from the US Army to make something similar with wheat noodles instead.

The most bizarre of the Korean diasporas is the one that happened after the Korean War. My father was barefoot when he was young. After liberation, he wore rubber shoes, and then lived in his combat boots when he became a soldier. When he retired from the army he worked at a bank, which meant he was able to afford good leather shoes. These days, he wears Nike sneakers as well. There are few countries in the world that have achieved economic development in such a short period of time. In a country that changes so quickly, people can experience diaspora without moving at all. It is not easy to adjust to a new culture, technology, or rules. One day in the mid-1990s, I remember trying to teach my father how to use a computer mouse. He struggled for a long time with the mouse in his hand, and finally admitted defeat. He simply could not double-click. In the end, Father put his foot down before Windows 95 and “settled” there. He was never able to move into the “territories” of technology that came later, like texting or using a smart phone.

I have also experienced this diaspora that requires no traveling. My novel, Your Republic Is Calling You, is about a North Korean spy who came down to the South and was forgotten. It seems like a story about the second kind of diaspora, the one created by division, but is actually about the third kind. In a society that changes so rapidly, we all live like forgotten spies. We constantly observe those around us, struggle to keep up, and in the end forget who we were to begin with. 


by Kim Young-ha

Author's Profile

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy MyselfYour Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.