Posted by: Matt Kelley | 11 March 2009

The Korean Diaspora (Intro)

20090311_viktortsoiA Russian postage stamp featuring the very popular (half-Korean) Soviet rock star, Viktor Robertovich Tsoi.

Early maps that show great detail in Japan and China depict a curiously blank Korean peninsula (which is sometimes drawn as an island). For centuries, the West called Korea the “Hermit Kingdom” for its zealous control of who could enter or exit its territory. But the Joseon Dynasty‘s deterioration in the late 19th century brought the Korea’s first major exodus, as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans left and called China, Japan and the Russian Far East home.

20090311_koreandiasporaThe Korean Diaspora (from Wikipedia).

The first Korean in the U.S. arrived in 1896. Seven years later, 102 Korean immigrants arrived in Hawai`i, and 86 were allowed to stay. During the Japanese Colonial Period (1910-1945), hundreds of thousands of Koreans were sent to labor in Japan and its imperial possessions. After Korean liberation, significant populations emigrated to Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, not to mention the over 150,000 Korean babies who were adopted abroad.

20090311_koryosaramIn 1937, Josef Stalin began a forced deportation of 180,000 ethnic Koreans from the USSR’s Far Eastern coastal provinces to the Central Asian steppe. Over 300,000 “Koryo-saram” still live in former Soviet republics, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Today, there are about 6 million ethnic Koreans outside the peninsula. Koreans use the term “gyopo” (교포) to describe them. The largest numbers reside in China (2 million) and the United States (1.5 million). China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture is home to some 850,000 ethnic Koreans, alone. But there are also an estimated 600,000 “Zainichi” living in Japan, 200,000 “Koryo-saram” in Uzbekistan, 50,000 “Coreano-brasileiro” in Brazil, and just 180 ethnic Koreans in Cote D’Ivoire (as of 2005).

20090311_coreanosIn 2007, the Chosun Ilbo ran an article about the descendants of Mexico’s Coreanos. The folks pictured above are actually Korean-Cubans by way of Mexico. Patricia Lim (far right) is fourth-generation Korean-Cuban, while the boys are all fifth generation (From the Chosun Ilbo).

Be it for a short-term business contract, as Christian missionaries, or as a fifth-generation national, Koreans abroad have created communities on all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica). While it’s curious to see how Korean culture has morphed to match its new environments, I think it’s equally interesting to see the incredible ability of Koreans abroad to maintain their ancient culture. In this sense, I think “discovering Korea” can also occur outside of Korea.

My long-winded introduction now concluded, tomorrow we’ll kick-off a new feature on the Korean diaspora.

Our first stop?
Berlin, Germany.

Learn more:
Koryo Saram – The Unreliable People (film)
→ China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (official site) 



  1. There are 7.8-8 Million Koreans living abroad. Majority of them Manchuria, USA, Japan, Russia.

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