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Survivors of xenophobia, hate crime captured in photos

An elderly 'Koryo-saram' with deep wrinkles on his face is seen in this 2001 photo taken by documentary photographer Kim Ji-youn. Kim recently released the photo essay book,
An elderly 'Koryo-saram' with deep wrinkles on his face is seen in this 2001 photo taken by documentary photographer Kim Ji-youn. Kim recently released the photo essay book, "Korean Diaspora," which delves into the harsh lives of ethnic Koreans overseas. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing

'Korean Diaspora' shows struggle of Koreans overseas to retain ethnic identity

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Documentary photographer Kim Ji-youn was puzzled when she learned about a group of Koreans in Japan called "Chosen-seki," or "Korean domicile," the descendants of Koreans who migrated to Japan before its surrender in 1945.

Unlike Zainichi Koreans or Korean-Japanese who are legal residents in Japan, Chosen-seki identify themselves as the people from Joseon, the Confucian dynasty that existed on the Korean Peninsula from 1392 until Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and chose to live as stateless aliens there, enduring the consequences of negative stereotyping.

Children are bullied due to their parents' vulnerable legal status. For adults, discrimination is part of life and some even fall victim to hate crimes, as they may be accused of being linked with North Korea.

The hostility of the Japanese right wing toward the descendants of Korean migrants reaches its peak whenever North Korea resorts to brinkmanship by test-firing missiles over the East Sea or by conducting nuclear tests. Some school girls have even experienced their school uniforms being slashed with knives wielded by furious Japanese right wing extremists.

They endure all these ordeals because of their choice to live as stateless Koreans.

Curious about their "self-chosen persecution," which has sometimes taken the form of death threats, Kim sat down with several Chosen-seki during her trip to Fukushima in 2011, months after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake ripped through the northeastern part of Japan.

School girls wearing black traditional dress as school uniforms walk out of a
School girls wearing black traditional dress as school uniforms walk out of a "Chosen gakko," or Joseon School, in Tohoku, northeastern Japan, in this May 2011 photo. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing

She said her findings are "educational" and convincing enough to share with other Koreans.

"One of my interviewees said his grandfather is from Gyeongsang Province, which is now part of South Korea, but he claimed the country of origin of his family is Joseon, not South Korea. His grandfather arrived in Japan before World War II and at that time, Korea was not divided as it is today. He has crossed his fingers for a unified Korea," she said.

She quoted another interviewee as saying that living as a Chosen-seki is a form of protest against "an abusive Japan." "He said he didn't consider South or North Korea as the enemy of his people and he has been in a lonely fight to end what he called mental enslavement by Japan," she said.

Documentary photographer Kim Ji-youn / Courtesy of Kim Ji-youn
Documentary photographer Kim Ji-youn / Courtesy of Kim Ji-youn
These stateless Koreans in Japan are part of the Korean diaspora that Kim has covered in her photo projects throughout the past two decades.

Kim has taken photos of Korean minorities, starting in the northeastern part of China in the 1990s, where she covered malnourished North Korean orphans who fled their homeland in search of food.

Some Koreans fell victim to the madness and violence of modern history.

Ethnic Koreans in Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, called "Koryo-saram" or "Koryo-in," who were captured in Kim's photos, testify to their harsh lives. Some of them are the descendants of the survivors of the 1937 tragic deportation initiated by Joseph Stalin.

Koreans living in the Russian Far East were forced to leave their homes on trains and dumped in different parts of Central Asia. Tens of thousands of Koreans died during this forced migration.

Many Koryo-saram, however, survived the deportation and became pioneers in agriculture. They started farming from scratch and introduced various innovative agricultural techniques to increase the yields of agricultural crops, turning the wilderness into fertile farmland. Some became highly successful and were lauded as heroes of the Soviet Union, as seen in the case of Kim Pen-hwa (1905-1974), who was born to Korean peasant parents and became the chairman of the collective farm, Polyarnava Zvezda, in the Uzbek SSR and twice won the Hero of Socialist Labor medal.

A woman works in a cotton field in Uzbekistan, in this 2002 photo taken by Kim Ji-youn. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing
A woman works in a cotton field in Uzbekistan, in this 2002 photo taken by Kim Ji-youn. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing

Koryo-saram were victimized by another forced migration after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Several countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which were part of the Soviet Union, gained independence. The newly independent countries were swept by nationalistic sentiments, which in turn pitted ethnic minorities like Koryo-saram against ethnic majorities in those countries. Facing life-threatening circumstances, they migrated back to Russia in the 2000s and Koreatowns were created in a few cities, such as Volgograd.

They are the survivors of turbulent modern history. In the 1930s, they were accused of espionage for Japan and victimized by Stalin's ethnic cleansing. In the 2000s, ethnic nationalism in the newly independent Central Asian nations cost them their livelihoods and many were forced to leave their homes again.

Despite such ordeals, Koreans have stood firm about their cultural identity.

"During my field trip to Uzbekistan, I saw some Koryo-in vendors selling cucumbers and tomatoes on the side of a highway. There were a few passers-by, but they were mostly there waiting endlessly for customers," she said. "The Koryo-in that I met there were strong people with enormous inner strength, who had survived the insanities of modern history."

Having already released six photography books in the past, Kim returned with a photo essay book, "Korean Diaspora," released in Korean by Noonbit Publishing.

Through images, the book tells the story of ethnic Koreans as victims of modern history.

She said that there are stories that she wanted to share with other Koreans.

"I wanted to revisit the descendants of Korean migrants overseas and show them together in a book with some of the details I gathered during my field trips," she said. "I shared some of the photos with my readers in my previous photo books. But I realized that photos are just photos and they don't tell those backstories."

A North Korean orphan, also known by the local vernacular word,
A North Korean orphan, also known by the local vernacular word, "kotjebi," poses behind a curtain in China's northeastern city of Yanji, in this 1999 photo. Photographer Kim Ji-youn took a field trip to the city to document the plight of North Korean children who had crossed the border in search of food. Courtesy of Noonbit Publishing

Kim said that "Korean Diaspora" is her account of Koreans who were forced to live outside their homeland for different reasons. She went on to say that her new book is also about people who have an unrequited love for their homeland.

"They all love Korea, miss their or their ancestors' homeland and keep trying to preserve Korean culture," she said. "Some of them came to Korea as guest workers. Many of them experience abusive practices and negative stereotyping within Korea. That's why I say that their love for Korea is unrequited."

While studying photography at the French school, the Ecole des Beaux-arts de Saint-Etienne, Kim was an aspiring photographer. Her career pursuit, however, didn't progress as she wanted. She took a hiatus from taking photos in order to ponder whether or not she had the talent necessary to become a professional photographer.

Upon returning to Korea, she happened to watch a documentary movie about Japan's wartime sex slavery and was determined to volunteer at the House of Sharing, a shelter for comfort women based in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, in 1998.

It was the late sex slavery victim Park Doo-ri who reignited Kim's passion for photography.

"After learning that I was a photography major, she encouraged me to take photos of her. She voluntarily posed for me in various poses. She smoked in slow motion, looked up at the ceiling of her room and posed naturally. I took photos of her for about 20 minutes," she said. "She was a pro and all too familiar with poses, partly because she had been covered by various media outlets and even appeared in a movie."

Park's "free tutoring" brought out what was deep down inside Kim's heart and motivated her to become a documentary photographer.

She said that through this experience, she realized how to interact with her "muse."
Since that eye-opening experience, Kim was able to narrow down the groups of people she wanted to capture_ ethnic minorities living as "permanent aliens" in their home countries.
She has travelled all across Asia for her photo projects and zoomed in on the victims of modern history.

To finance her photo projects, she has worked for several different PR companies. She took a leave of absence from that work for her photo projects.

"In school, we learn that history is made by great people. But what I have learned through my previous photo projects is that we wouldn't have been able to learn about modern history, albeit its tragic aspects, if it were not for the victims, because they serve as a bridge in critical chapters of modern history," she said.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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