‘Koryo Saram – The Unreliable People’ is a one hour documentary film co-directed by Y. David Chung and Matt Dibble. Through recently uncovered archival footage and new interviews, the film ‘Koryo Saram (the Soviet Korean phrase for Korean person)’ follows the deportees’ history of integrating into the Soviet system while working under punishing conditions in Kazakhstan, a country which became a concentration camp of exiled people from throughout the Soviet Union.
In 1937, approximately 172,000 ethnic Koreans – the entire population of Posyet Korean national district and neighboring territories in the Far Eastern region – were forcefully relocated to Central Asia on cargo trains by the Soviet government. Eighty years later, their descendants still live in independent Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Some of them view the deportation as a tragedy whereas others see it quite differently.
The film opens with a scene in the spectacular steppe country of Kazakhstan, where musician Jacov Khan is recording an old Korean folk song sung by an elderly Korean deportee. Jacov Khan is collecting Korean folk music to preserve the heritage of the survivors. This scene introduces the viewer to the land and the people, but raises many questions about why and how the Koreans were living in this land so far from their homeland. The film answers these questions through historical photographs and interviews with elderly Koreans who remember the days in Far East Russia before the deportation, as well as commentary from Professor German Kim, one of the foremost scholars on the history of Kazakhstani Koreans.
Beginning in the 1860’s, Koreans began to move into what is now Russian territory due to harsh economic conditions and famine in Korea. By the 1900’s 60,000 Koreans were settled in Russia near Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought a new wave of refugees and by the 1930’s almost 200,000 Koreans were in Far East Russia. Koreans were well established in Russia with collective farms and fishing villages A Korean language newspaper, theater and schools were developed They worked on the construction of railroads and the seaport at Vladivostok. Koreans were appointed at the highest levels of the regional communist party and government. Several thousand Koreans participated in the armed struggle against Japanese encroachment into Russian territory. Many Koreans fought alongside the communists thinking that this would lead to the liberation of Korea from Japan. At the height of the Great Terror, Stalin implemented a plan to move every single Korean living in Russia to new territories in Central Asia.