Koryo Saram in South Korea: 'Korean' but Struggling to Fit in (2023)

Sumin (pseudonym) teaches languages and cultures to children of ‘multicultural families’ at a local elementary school in Ansan, a city with the highest concentration of foreign residents in South Korea.

She comes from a town near Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Growing up, her parents’ income wasn’t enough to feed all three daughters sufficiently. Her father, formerly a taxi driver, is disabled, and her mother was an elementary school teacher until retirement.

So when Sumin’s oldest sister saw in 2003 an advertisement from a matchmaking agency specializing in arranging marriage to South Korean men, the 19-year-old took a chance. She was then chosen by and married to a South Korean husband who thought her suitable because his grandparents wanted a Korean-looking foreign bride. The money he gave her upfront was enough to renovate the family house, and he sent Sumin’s family about $200 a month, the equivalent of their monthly household income.

A few years later, Sumin came to South Korea as a short-term visitor to explore the country at her sister’s invitation.

(Video) Koryo Saram: Between the Former USSR and Korea

Sumin is a Koryo Saram (also known as Goryeoin or Koryoin), one of the descendants of Koreans who emigrated by and large from the northern part of the Korean Peninsula to eastern Russia between the late 19th and the early 20th century. In 1937, such ethnic Koreans were forcibly relocated by the Stalin regime en masse to present-day Central Asia.

In the past 10 years, tens of thousands of Koryo Saram from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), particularly Uzbekistan, have migrated to South Korea, driven by economic hardships coupled with discrimination against ethnic minorities, as well as the Korean government’s policy of offering visa privileges to ‘coethnics’ — foreign nationals with Korean ancestry, especially to fill shortages in unskilled labor.

Koryo Saram in South Korea: 'Korean' but Struggling to Fit in (1)

After the South Korean government launched the Visit and Work Program in 2007, also known as H-2 visa, the ensuing influx of former Soviet Koreans has increased by leaps and bounds, from 1,974 in 2007 to 12,413 in 2014, according to a 2015 report sponsored by the Overseas Koreans Foundation (OKF), a state-run entity. Around the same time, the so-called ‘visa for coethnics abroad’ (F-4) became allotted more frequently to Korean Chinese and former Soviet Koreans, who were officially included in the ‘coethnics abroad’ category in 2004. The number of Koryo Saram holders of the F-4 visa jumped from 21 in 2007 to 13,597 in 2014.

According to the OKF report, about 26,000 H-2 and F-4 visa holders are from the CIS. In reality, the numbers could be even higher when unregistered migrants are accounted for. Neomeo, an Ansan-based NGO supporting Koryo Saram, estimates that there are around 40,000 Koryo Saram in South Korea.

(Video) Koryo Saram: 4th Generation Redefines Korean 'Roots'

Kim Young-sook, Neomeo’s director, says former Soviet Koreans face challenges in staying long-term in South Korea. According to her and Koryo Saram I interviewed, H-2 visa allows coethnics from the CIS to live and work in South Korea for only up to 4 years and 10 months, short of 5 years they would need to qualify for permanent residency; and F-4 imposes its own restrictions on employment. On top of it, Korean language proficiency and proof of financial assets are necessary for permanent settlement but unobtainable for many Koryo Saram, who often don’t speak Korean and have no family or relatives who would help them settle down.

Despite having a sister to count on, Sumin hasn’t had the easiest life in South Korea. She first arrived in 2008 to visit her sister and travel around. As she saw other Koryo Saram earning money at factories, at higher salaries than in Uzbekistan, she began to work illegally at a cosmetics manufacturer. The only viable job option for her was the so-called ‘3D work’ (dirty, dangerous, and difficult), mainly due to her lack of Korean language skills and connections. But she endeavored to learn Korean and eventually became a teacher, aided by her English degree from Uzbekistan.

Like her sister, she also married a South Korean citizen. Many South Korean grooms, especially outside urban centers, have sought foreign brides since the late 1980s, due to difficulties in finding Korean-born wives. In return, marriage migrants like Sumin and her sister have a strong chance of gaining permanent residency after two years of living in South Korea, if they or their South Korean spouses can prove a consistent annual income, property ownership and a bank statement showing cash holdings that exceed 30,000,000 won (around $28,000)

Even after the migrants pass through the narrow gates to South Korea, they experience being othered by South Koreans. Many people know about Chosonjok, or Korean-Chinese — the biggest group of foreign residents in South Korea. South Koreans see plenty of Korean-Americans on TV. But many don’t know who Koryo Saram are, often due to severe lack of representation in public, and frequently question what Uzbek people look like.

(Video) Fourth generation ethnic Koreans from Central Asia face deportation in Korea

“When I say I’m from Uzbekistan, no one really knows where that is. Then I say I’m Koryo Saram and still no one understands. We are just perceived as foreigners or Chinese,” said Victoria Yoo, a Koryo Saram staffer at Neomeo.

In everyday life, Sumin experiences this unpleasant sensation of being ‘othered.’ When she goes to the bank or the hospital, her Koryo Saram name gets called out, which like many others is in Russian style.

“People stared at me. Often I felt as if something was on my face. They looked into my mouth when I spoke, checking how my tongue moved and why such a different language, not Korean, was being spoken,” said Sumin.

The discrimination often goes deeper — even over her marriage. In South Korea, where foreign brides from poorer countries often make headlines, some people scorn women like Sumin because of their foreign accents and treat them as opportunistic foreigners who married South Korean men solely for economic benefits.

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Because of this, some Koryo Saram women don’t reveal that their children are of mixed heritage. They are afraid that their children would be stigmatized at school for being different.

Even after mastering the Korean language, just being Koryo Saram still matters. Victoria, who speaks nearly perfect Korean, said, “I was at first just happy to be in the homeland of my ancestors. If I did well at school and work, even as a Koryo Saram I was treated as Korean, with the same blood. However, if I made a mistake or didn’t perform well enough, then I was a foreigner.”

That ambivalence towards Koryo Saram informs the relationship between migrant women and their in-laws. South Korean husbands or parents-in-law often seek coethnic brides from the CIS, assuming that they would be more trustworthy than Korean-Chinese brides and quickly learn the way of being ‘Korean.’ However, when Koryo Saram wives don’t meet their South Korean families’ expectation, over issues such as performing ancestral rites and handling other family matters, they are often perceived as fundamentally different and ostracized.

Sumin finds the imposition of that liminal identity, not being quite Korean nor foreign, deeply frustrating.

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“Now I am here in Korea, where my grandfather and grandmother were born, my ancestral home. But I don’t know why I have to still hear that I am a foreigner. Frankly that kind of talk weighs on my mind a lot,” she said.

“I thought I could lead a good life as a Koryo Saram here, but that’s not the case.”

Cover image: People on the streets of Seoul, South Korea. (Source: Alexandre Chambon via Wikimedia Commons, CCo 1.0)


What language do Koryo-saram speak? ›

Koryo-mar, Goryeomal, or Koryŏmal (Korean: 고려말, Russian: Корё мар), otherwise known as Gore-mal (고레말) by speakers of the dialect, is a dialect of Korean spoken by the Koryo-saram, ethnic Koreans in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

What is the identity of Koryo-saram? ›

I use the terms post-Soviet Koreans, Central Asian Koreans, Kareitsy (Kareisky migrants), and Koryo Saram interchangeably to refer to Koreans born in the post-Soviet Republics.

What is the ancestry of Koryo-saram? ›

Among them is a population of Korean-Uzbeks whose ancestors lived through Stalin's brutal repressions, which saw millions of ethnic minority groups forcibly transferred to remote, often very inhospitable, parts of Soviet territory. The self-designated Koryo-Saram are ethnic Koreans living in Soviet countries.

What is Koryoin in Korea? ›

Koryoin refers to the descendants of ethnic Koreans who migrated to the former Soviet Union region between 1860 and Aug. 15, 1945 when Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule.

What is the strongest dialect in Korea? ›

  • 1 – Jeju dialect is perhaps the most difficult dialect in South Korea, since it has its own language. ...
  • 2 – They tend to combine words at the end of a sentence.
Dec 14, 2018

What is the rare language in Korea? ›

Jeju is closely related to Korean. It was traditionally considered an unusually divergent dialect of Korean, and is still referred to as such by the National Institute of the Korean Language and the South Korean Ministry of Education.

Who are the Koryo people? ›

Koryo-saram (Korean: 고려사람; Russian: Корё сарам; Ukrainian: Корьо-сарам) is the name which ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states use to refer to themselves. The term is composed of two Korean words: "Koryo", a historical name for Korea, and "saram", meaning "person" or "people".

What is Koryo culture? ›

Koryŏ dynasty, in Korean history, dynasty that ruled the Korean peninsula as the Koryŏ kingdom from 935 to 1392 ce. During this period the country began to form its own cultural tradition distinct from the rest of East Asia. It is from the name Koryŏ that the Western name Korea is derived.

What impact did the Koryo have on Korean culture? ›

Koryo kings ordered the construction of hundreds of Buddhist temples and the creation of countless religious artworks. In 1234, Koreans invented the world's first movable type, and at about the same time carved the entire Buddhist canon from some 80,000 woodblocks.

Who are Koreans descended from? ›

A more detailed analysis using 65 alleles at 19 polymorphic loci was performed on six populations. Both analyses demonstrated genetic evidence of the origin of Koreans from the central Asian Mongolians. Further, the Koreans are more closely related to the Japanese and quite distant from the Chinese.

What is the oldest clan in Korea? ›

With this it shows that the surname Han may have existed since the time of Gojoseon and establishes the Han clan (韓) as the oldest surname in Korea (dating back to around 5000 years ago) and as the rulers Gojoseon and Mahan.

What is the most rare surname in South Korea? ›

Rare Korean Surnames
  • Sobong (소봉) | 18 people.
  • Eogeum (어금) | 51 people.
  • Jeo (저) | 48 people.
  • Hak (학) | 101 people. ...
  • Ya 夜 (야) | 180 people. ...
  • Janggok (장곡) | 52 people. ...
  • Chun 椿 (춘) | 77 people. The word chun has the meaning of spring and seems to be more commonly used in Japan. ...
  • Tan 彈 (탄) | 155 people.

What does Saram mean in Korean? ›

사람 (saram) means “person”; it is the 훈(訓) (hun, “interpretation”).

What do they call obsessive fans in Korea? ›

In South Korean culture, a sasaeng, or sasaeng fan (Korean: 사생팬; Hanja: 私生팬; ), is an obsessive fan who stalks or engages in other behavior constituting an invasion of the privacy of Korean idols, drama actors or other public figures.

What do you call a fake girl in Korean language? ›

10. Nae-soong (내숭) This word defines someone who is not real. A fake person.

Which Korean dialect is easiest? ›

Standard dialect is usually the easiest to learn when you're first starting to study Korean. However, adding in some satoori makes it a lot more fun! Not only that, but it will help you when you travel to the various parts of Korea.

Which part of Korea speaks most English? ›

Assuming everyone speaks English

It's generally not a very widely spoken language in South Korea. However, you'll have better luck finding a local who can speak English in main tourist neighborhoods, such as Myeongdong, Dongdaemun and Hongdae.

Which language is closer to Korean? ›

In terms of grammar, Korean is closest to Japanese. It also shares many words of Chinese origin. As such, learning Korean will give you a head start on learning Japanese, as well as some Chinese vocabulary.

What language did Jesus speak? ›

Most religious scholars and historians agree with Pope Francis that the historical Jesus principally spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Through trade, invasions and conquest, the Aramaic language had spread far afield by the 7th century B.C., and would become the lingua franca in much of the Middle East.

What are the top 3 languages in Korea? ›

South Korea has one official language: Korean, although Japanese, English and Mandarin are widely spoken and understood.

What is no 1 in Korean language? ›

1: 일 (il) 2: 이 (i) 3: 삼 (sam) 4: 사 (sa)

What is Koryo known for? ›

Goryeo (Koryo) ruled Korea from 918 to 1392. The kingdom oversaw an unprecedented flourishing in culture and arts with developments in architecture, ceramics, printing, and papermaking.

Who are the unreliable people in Koryo Saram? ›

Koryo Saram (the Soviet Korean phrase for Korean person) tells the harrowing saga of survival in the open steppe country and the sweep of Soviet history through the eyes of these deported Koreans, who were designated by Stalin as an "unreliable people" and enemies of the state.

How did Koryo fall? ›

It fended off massive armies of the Red Turban Rebels from China and professional Japanese pirates in its twilight years of the 14th century. A final proposed attack against the Ming dynasty resulted in a coup d'état led by General Yi Seong-gye that ended the Goryeo dynasty.

What are some important facts about the Koryo dynasty? ›

Koryo Dynasty (918-1392)

It was founded by Taejo Wang Kon. Its capital was moved to Kaesong just 8 km north of the demarcation zone that currently divides the Korean peninsula. Buddhism expanded around the peninsula and significant technological achievements were made, such as the world's first metallic paintings.

What is another name for Koryo? ›

Koryo or Goryeo (Korean: 고려; Hanja: 高麗; RR: Goryeo; MR: Koryŏ) was the name of several states in Korean history, known as Corea or Coree in the western world: Goryeo was a state located in northern and central Korean Peninsula and southern and central Manchuria from 37 BC to AD 668.

When did Koryo fall? ›

The Koryo dynasty fell in 1392 and was replaced by the Choson dynasty. Under the Choson dynasty, Buddhism was replaced by Confucianism.

What strongly influenced Korean culture? ›

Through much of its history Korea has been greatly influenced by Chinese civilization, borrowing the written language, arts, religions, and models of government administration from China, and, in the process, transforming these borrowed traditions into distinctly Korean forms.

What culture had the greatest influence on Korea? ›

It is a region that is heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Japan's culture is substantially derived from Tang Dynasty China. Korea's was strongly influenced by China's art and religion.

What was the reason for the Koryo dynasty rise? ›

History and Leaders of the Koryo Period

Stimulated by the rise of printing in Song China, Koryo also made great headway in printing and publication, leading to the invention of movable metal type in 1234, two centuries before the introduction of movable type in Europe.

Why do Koreans have good skin? ›

Since ancient times, Koreans have only used natural, harsh-free ingredients for their skincare routines: green tea, “snail slime”, bamboo extracts, propolis, and honey are just some examples of the elements they used and have passed through generations.

Are Koreans and Japanese cousins? ›

By about 400 b.c. Korean farmers migrated across the Sea of Japan (called the Eastern Sea by Koreans) to southern Japan. This was the beginning of farming villages in Japan and much of the modern Japanese population is descended from these immigrants. The Japanese and Korean people are really close cousins.

What is the main ethnicity in Korea? ›

South Korea's largest and primary ethnic group is Korean, at about 99%, making them one of the most homogenous nations in the world. This ethnicity itself is most closely related to Siberian and Mongolian groups, and actually shares little genetically with China.

What are royalty Korean surnames? ›

Today, many Koreans have Kim, Park, and Lee as their last names. These “big three” are the prestigious Korean last names that are primarily associated with royals and the upper class. The last name Kim means gold, and it is also the last name of Kings.

Who is the last royal bloodline of Korea? ›

Who is the last royal bloodline of Korea? The House of Yi, also called the Yi dynasty (also transcribed as the Lee dynasty), was the royal family of the Joseon dynasty and later the imperial family of the Korean Empire, descended from the Joseon founder Yi Seong-gye.

Which clan is the strongest in Korea? ›

The Sunheung Ahn clan (순흥 안씨, Korean pronunciation: [sunhɯ̽ŋ ans͈i]) is a clan connected with the town of Sunheung, South Korea, and was well known during the Goryeo Dynasty and in the early Joseon Dynasty for its "blue-blood" status. 73.5% of people with the Korean surname 'Ahn' belong to the Sunheung Ahn clan.

What is the most used name in South Korea? ›

The most common family names in South Korea are KIM (김), PARK (박), LEE (이), CHOI (최), CHUNG (정), with around half of all Koreans having one of these five names.

What is the most common Korean family name? ›

The most common Korean surname (particularly in South Korea) is Kim, followed by Lee (Rhee, Yi) (second most common) and Park (Pak) (third most common). Together, these top three surnames made up slightly more than half of the Korean population (based on South Korea in 2000).

What does Sarang Saram mean? ›

I got to know because of you. Why person (saram/사람) and love (sarang/사랑) sound similar. You make “live” to a “love” “Live” to a “love” I got to know because of you.

What does hanguk saram mean in Korean? ›

South Koreans refer to themselves as Hanguk-in (Korean: 한국인, Hanja: 韓國人) or Hanguk-saram (Korean: 한국 사람), both of which mean "people of (Sam)han."

What is Hamnida Korean? ›

To apologize for something you have done, or for causing someone pain or inconvenience, say Jwesong hamnida (I apologize.) In an informal context, Mian hamnida (I'm sorry) is just fine. 죄송합니다.

What are Korean gangsters called? ›

Kkangpae (Korean: 깡패) is a romanization of the Korean for a 'gangster', 'thug', 'punk' or 'hoodlum', usually referring to members of unorganized street gangs.

Why do Koreans clap for themselves? ›

Nine out of ten Koreans clap their hands when laughing (or hit a person next to them). Clapping is almost like the habit of all Koreans. It's one way to react or empathize with others when something funny comes up. People on the Korean reality shows shouting “mom” as they are surprised by certain things.

What is sasaeng in English? ›

sasaeng. One group of people widely looked down upon are sasaengs (사생팬) or sasaeng fans. This slang derives from a Korean word (sa for “private” and saeng for “life”) that refers to an obsessive fan who stalks or otherwise violates the privacy of a Korean idol.

What are pretty girls in Korea called? ›

Example: 아름다운 꽃 (areumdaun kkot) – beautiful flowers. 예쁜 여자 (yeppeun yeoja) – pretty woman.

What is jinjjayo in Korean? ›

So, Jinjjayo is used to mean “really?” or “did it really happen?”. Jinjjayo is an informal term, used in casual conversation. The more polite version of it is 정말요? (jeongmal yo?), which typically translates to “is it true?” “TOD teaches Korean language basics in just 20 hours!”

What does a Korean girl call an older girl? ›

언니 (eonni, "older sister"), used by females to address a slightly elder female.

What are the 3 main languages spoken in South Korea? ›

South Korea has one official language: Korean, although Japanese, English and Mandarin are widely spoken and understood.

What languages are spoken in Koreatown? ›

In Koreatown, Korean is predominant in that the town is named “Korea” and the streets are mostly covered with business signs written in Korean. Since language is a crucial factor in the constitution of a nation, the town's Korean-language business signs are intriguing when considering the notion of national identity.

What country is Koryo now? ›

The capital in modern-day Kaesong, North Korea was a center of trade and industry. Goryeo was a period of great achievements in Korean art and culture.

What language did goguryeo speak? ›

The Goguryeo language, or Koguryoan, was the language of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BCE – 668 CE), one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Early Chinese histories state that the language was similar to those of Buyeo, Okjeo and Ye. Lee Ki-Moon grouped these four as the Puyŏ languages.

What language is closest to Korean? ›

In terms of grammar, Korean is closest to Japanese. It also shares many words of Chinese origin. As such, learning Korean will give you a head start on learning Japanese, as well as some Chinese vocabulary.

What is South Korea main religion? ›

According to Pew Research Center (2010), about 46% of the population have no religious affiliation, 23% are Buddhist and 29% are Christians. According to 2015 national census, 56.1% are irreligious, Protestantism represents (19.7%) of the total population, Korean Buddhism (15.5%), and Catholicism (7.9%).

How long does it take to learn Korean? ›

The FSI puts Korean as a Category V language. Which means, it's one of the hardest languages to master. They estimate 2200 hours of study before you can reach fluency in Korean. Or 88 weeks of extremely intense study.

What is the most Korean city in America? ›

Los Angeles

Where is Korean most spoken in the US? ›

Another Asian origin language – Korean – belongs to the most widely spoken languages in the United States. Almost 1.1 million Korean speakers are located mainly in the states of Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. Still, they can also be found in the US major cities like Chicago, Washington, and New York.

What state speaks most Korean? ›

The ten states with the largest estimated Korean American populations were California (452,000; 1.2%), New York (141,000, 0.7%), New Jersey (94,000, 1.1%), Virginia (71,000, 0.9%), Texas (68,000, 0.3%), Washington (62,400, 0.9%), Illinois (61,500, 0.5%), Georgia (52,500, 0.5%), Maryland (49,000, 0.8%), Pennsylvania ( ...

Why did the Koryo culture decline? ›

Repeatedly attacked by invaders from the north, the weakened Koryo was unable to repulse the Mongol forces of Kublai Khan who invaded in 1231, and ultimately annexed the peninsula in 1258. Under Mongol domination, Korean subjects were forced to adopt Mongol customs, language and dress.

Was Goguryeo Korean or Chinese? ›

Summary. Goguryeo (Koguryo in old romanization) is the name of an ancient kingdom that existed from 37 BCE to 668 CE in present-day North Korea and Northeast China (also known as Manchuria), as well as small portions of South Korea and the Russian Far East.

What is the oldest Korean language? ›

Old Korean (Korean: 고대 한국어, 고대 조선어; Hanja: 古代韓國語, 古代朝鮮語; RR: Godae Hangugeo, Godae Joseoneo; MR: Kodae Han'gugŏ, Kodae Chosŏnŏ) is the first historically documented stage of the Korean language, typified by the language of the Unified Silla period (668–935).

What are the 5 tribes of Goguryeo? ›

The first mention of Goguryeo in written history divides them into five main tribes or clans: the Yŏnno, Chŏllo, Sunno, Kwanno, and Kyeru. These loosely confederated clans eventually formed the centralized Goguryeo state.


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