Sasha, a 17 year-old ethnic Korean student in Bishkek, only knows one word in Korean: hello. She has lived all her life in the former Soviet Union, speaks Russian, and physically resembles a Kyrgyz so much that few can guess her true ethnicity. She does not even know when, exactly, her relatives migrated to the Soviet Union. But none of this stops her from emphatically declaring, "Of course I am proud to be Korean."
Sasha is a member of an increasingly influential and active community of nearly 20,000 ethnic Koreans residing in Kyrgyzstan. Some of their ancestors fled Japanese invaders in the 1930s, moving into the Soviet Far East. Later, during the Second World War, these Koreans were suspected of being spies and exiled to Siberia and Central Asia, where they eventually settled into post-war Soviet life.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many members of minority groups in Kyrgyzstan developed a sudden interest in their ancestry because, in some cases, it enabled them to leave the country for more affluent ethnic homelands. For example, the country's German, Polish and Russian populations have declined significantly since independence.
But most Koreans have remained. This is in part because the government of South Korea, unlike that of Germany and Poland, never established a program to repatriate ethnic Koreans from Kyrgyzstan. "We have a different approach," explained Kim Byung-ho, South Korea's ambassador in Bishkek. "Let them live as ethnic Koreans, settle down, and live in the mainstream. That is our priority."
Kim cited the enormous Korean diaspora throughout Asia, as well as the difficulties that many ethnic Germans from Kyrgyzstan faced while adjusting to life in Germany, as reasons for not encouraging the return of Koreans. But, he added, "if they need to, and can contribute to Korean society, we open up a chance." Seoul funds between 30 and 40 annual scholarships for ethnic Koreans residing in Kyrgyzstan, and allows special visa preferences for guest workers.
Vital to the effort to spread Korean culture within Kyrgyzstan is the Korean Center of Education, which opened in Bishkek in 2001. The center, explained one employee who asked to remain anonymous, "is an official structure of the government of South Korea, occupied with teaching the Korean language and spreading Korean culture in Kyrgyzstan." Only about 40 percent of regular participants in free language classes, taught mostly by South Koreans, are ethnically Korean. The rest are "interested locals. Korea is very active right now, and people recognize that it is a relevant language," said the employee.
Local Koreans have also begun to learn about their roots through unofficial channels, especially Christian Korean missionaries who arrived in Kyrgyzstan after independence. "Local Koreans felt close to them, and began to meet with them because they wanted to learn about their roots," explained a Kyrgyz-born ethnic Korean pastor of a Bishkek evangelical church founded by a South Korean missionary. The pastor, along with most Koreans interviewed by EurasiaNet, preferred to speak on condition of anonymity.
Korean evangelism was successful, according to the pastor, because it filled the "spiritual void" left by years of official Soviet atheism. Today, many in Kyrgyzstan's Korean community attend Christian services regularly. "I am a Christian," confirms Sasha, "most Koreans are Buddhists; but in Kyrgyzstan, most are Christians."
Recent legal action in the Kyrgyz Republic may threaten the already tenuous status of churches founded and supported by missionaries. In January, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a law to "protect citizens from so-called aggressive proselytism," the 24.kg news agency quoted the director of the State Agency on Religious Affairs Kanibek Osmonaliev as saying in April. The law stipulates that a religious organization must have at least 200 members in order to be officially registered. That's a hurdle that is hard to clear for small Protestant churches or mission organizations.
Ambassador Kim emphasized that there is trepidation among local Koreans about the new law, which he described as "vague," and which risks "backsliding to the old habits of the Soviet Union." Reflecting this anxiety, religious leaders refused to discuss issues relating to government policy.
But even while churches are feeling vulnerable, South Korean business and cultural organizations are gaining influence. Bishkek is home to several Korean restaurants, grocery stores, and Korean-language newspapers. In October of 2008, South Korea opened a full diplomatic mission in Bishkek, a sign of Korea's recognition of its citizens' growing role in the Central Asian country's social and economic life. The embassy estimates the number of South Korean citizens residing in the Kyrgyz Republic is around 600, many of whom come to invest in Kyrgyzstan's developing economy.
Although the embassy would not share statistics, Ambassador Kim says that the amount of Korean investment in Kyrgyzstan is "modest, but not so small as to be negligent." He cited several high-profile examples of Korean investment, including a shoe-making factory in Osh, a potato processing plant due to open in the Issyk-Kul Region, and a mobile phone assembly facility in Bishkek. Additionally, the Korean contractor Human Tech is constructing an 18-floor apartment building in the south of Bishkek that the ambassador claimed will create "a new norm" for construction in the Kyrgyz capital.
As they strengthen connections to their ancestral traditions, a cultural gap is evident between younger Kyrgyzstan-born Koreans and their elders. Many young ethnic Koreans, such as Sasha, are determined to operate in the mainstream of Kyrgyz society, while their parents are much more content to maintain cultural distinctions. "My mom and dad want our nation, our people, to continue," explained Sasha. With a smile, she added, "if they found out I have a Kyrgyz boyfriend, they would be furious."
Evan Sparling is an independent researcher in Kyrgyzstan.