July 21, 2024
“Forced migration” by Koryo-saram painter Fyodor Kim. On orders from Stalin in 1937, around 180,000 ethnic Koreans living in the far east were forcibly displaced to Central Asia, a process in which many died. (courtesy of the Chae Jeong-hak Memorial Hall in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan)

“Forced migration” by Koryo-saram painter Fyodor Kim. On orders from Stalin in 1937, around 180,000 ethnic Koreans living in the far east were forcibly displaced to Central Asia, a process in which many died. (courtesy of the Chae Jeong-hak Memorial Hall in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan)


By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo

Korea is one of several dozen countries around the world in which immigration and nationality procedures for foreigners depend upon their bloodline. That’s not really all that surprising. Korea is the East Asian country that has the largest diaspora population relative to its home population. There’s one Korean living abroad for every 10 living on the Korean Peninsula, which is a much higher share than for Japan, China or Vietnam.

Countries that base nationality on bloodline — such as Germany, Israel, Türkiye and Armenia — tend to be those with a large overseas diaspora. In that sense, the “special treatment” that overseas Koreans receive when they come to Korea is broadly consistent with the “global standard.”

But when we look more closely, the treatment that ethnic Koreans from China and former Soviet states receive in Korea is quite different from other countries that rely on blood ties for determining nationality.

Not only in Israel, which is famous for strongly encouraging the return of overseas Jews, but also in Türkiye, Armenia and Ireland, citizenship is granted immediately upon application to members of the diaspora who return home. While Germany and Finland require people returning from the former Soviet Union to take a language test, their general approach is to grant citizenship to returnees.

But what ethnic Koreans born in China or former Soviet states receive in Korea is not citizenship, but the overseas Korean visa (F-4) or the work and visit visa (H-2). The latter visa has a maximum period of four years and ten months; a visa holder must leave Korea before the visa expires and then reapply before reentering the country.

In short, what Korea offers ethnic Koreans from countries that are not part of the developed world is not citizenship, or membership in the civic community, but employment in poorly paid and highly intense areas and the uncertain status of a “work and visit” visa. At best, they can expect to sojourn (but not settle) as an “overseas Korean.”

Giving citizenship to diaspora members based on the principle of bloodline is generally understood to be a way of achieving historical justice. Since Germans, Finns and Jews (to take a few examples) suffered forced relocations and other severe forms of discrimination under the Soviet Union, their “historical homelands” of Germany, Finland and Israel (which have now become high-income economies) have provided citizenship to these victimized diaspora members as a way of settling a “historical debt.”

A Koryo-saram sells Koryo food at a market in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2007. (courtesy of Farg’ona telecommunications)

A Koryo-saram sells Koryo food at a market in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2007. (courtesy of Farg’ona telecommunications)

When it comes to hardship, Koryo-saram (ethnic Koreans, also known as Koryoin or Kairesky) suffered just as badly under the Soviet Union as did Germans, Jews and Finns. In 1937, 180,000 Koryo-saram were forcibly relocated to Central Asia, while 2,500 were purged, arrested and executed.

But their “historical homeland” of Korea, which has also become a high-income economy, does not provide them with historical justice, regarding them not as members of the civic community but rather as sojourners, and as workers who can provide intense labor for low wages. Ultimately, Koryo-saram are caught in a vicious cycle, with the hardship they suffered under the Soviet Union and the shock of the Soviet Union’s dissolution followed by discrimination after they come to Korea.

And then their non-Korean family members face another layer of discrimination. There are a surprising large number of family members in that position. Marriage between different ethnic groups was common in both the Soviet Union and the countries formed after its collapse. That was especially true in urban areas, and by the 1980s, most Koryo-saram were urban residents.

Anatoli Kim, a Koryo-saram writer whose work appears in Russian textbooks, had a Russian spouse, and Viktor Tsoi, a Soviet poet and rock singer who was also popular in Korea, had a Russian mother and wife. If those family members were to immigrate to Korea, they would likely receive the F-1 visiting family visa.

Even in Israel, the country that’s strictest about basing citizenship on bloodlines, the non-Jewish spouses of Jews who return to Israel are given Israeli citizenship within five to seven years. But in Korea, the spouses of Anatoli Kim and Viktor Tsoi, both members of the Korean diaspora, would have been granted not citizenship or residency rights, but only the status of visitors.

The biggest problem with the visiting family visa given to non-Korean spouses of Koryo-saram is that it’s impossible for visa holders to gain legal employment.

Hardly any ethnic Korean families from China or the former Soviet states on the overseas Korean visa or the visit and work visa are so well off that they can afford for any adult in the family not to work. Such families are typically hard up and need both spouses working to keep food on the table.

Preventing one of the spouses from working is bound to jeopardize the family’s livelihood. That’s particularly true for families with minor children.

Readers need not imagine the depth of the frustration and rage that must be felt by visiting family visa holders who are stuck in that predicament.

To be sure, they’re not completely without chances to work. They’re legally allowed to do seasonal work, and they can also do manual labor in certain designated areas of Korea where the population is in decline.

But most of the designated areas are rural, while the vast majority of the thousands of non-Korean family members of Koryo-saram in Korea are from urban areas. Manual labor on the farm wouldn’t be easy for them, even if they wanted to do it. Besides, nearly all their Koryo-saram spouses work in the city. After they’ve finally returned to their “historical homeland,” are they expected to live apart from their loved ones?

This policy of regarding ethnic Koreans from China or the former Soviet states not as “citizens” but as “sojourners” and of not even giving their spouses the right to work is based on the Korean bureaucracy’s exclusionary attitude towards “others” that it thinks would be difficult to control.

Importantly, keeping spouses from other ethnic groups from working is not only overt racial discrimination that violates international human rights standards, but also wrongheaded in an era when Korea’s population is shrinking, which will force Korea to rely more and more on immigrants. Accepting both returning diaspora members and their families as Koreans and integrating them into Korean society could be the first step toward building a “multiethnic society” in the true sense of the phrase.

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