The Ethnic Korean Community of Kazakhstan

Michael Vince Kim’s, The Koreans of Kazakhstan tells the story of a Korean community living in the Russian Far East, a century after their ancestors left their native homeland to escape famine, poverty, and Japanese colonial oppression.

© Michael Vince Kim, from the series, The Koreans of Kazakhstan

Although Michael Vince Kim began taking photographs in his teens, it was language that sparked his on-going project, The Koreans of Kazakhstan, about the ethnic Korean community of Kazakhstan.

As part of his linguistics degree at Edinburgh University, the self-taught photographer researched what he describes as “sociolinguistic variation in the Korean language”, which led him to the Koryo-mar dialect spoken by ethnic Koreans who had settled in the former Soviet Union. In the mid-19th century, many Koreans relocated to this part of the world to escape famine, poverty, and Japanese colonial oppression, Vince Kim explains. 180,000 of these people were deported to central Asia in 1937 under Stalin’s ethnic cleansing rule. 40,000 died during the grueling journey.

michaelvicekim01.jpg#asset:260:url© Michael Vince Kim, from the series, The Koreans of Kazakhstan

Fascinated by the near-extinct language and also the story of the displaced Korean community, Vince Kim decided to make a photography project about these topics. “My parents migrated to Argentina to escape what was one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War,” explains the 29-year-old. “The lingering sense of identity as a displaced ethnic Korean is something I have first-hand experience with. This subject became the topic of my dissertation, but what began as linguistic research quickly extended to socio-cultural issues. After all, language is a marker of social and cultural identity… I felt compelled to meet this community and tell their story, and to see how their culture and their language had diverged from the roots that we shared.”

Arriving in Kazakhstan in the summer of 2014, Vince Kim soon met ethnic Koreans who helped him to network and with translation. Staying at a local church for several weeks, the American-born Korean immersed himself in his new environment and got to know the local people, taking photographs of them with his Rolleiflex camera. “[We had] conversations over tea, lunch, or dinner,” he comments. “Koreans are very hospitable people.”

© Michael Vince Kim, from the series, The Koreans of Kazakhstan

Despite the difficulties of their past, the Koreans of Kazakhstan have retained a sense of identity, says the photographer. They also continue to practise many of their traditions and rituals. Through his images of domestic spaces, portraits and landscapes, Vince Kim captures glimpses of some of these customs - the foods eaten, arts practised and traditional garments worn.

The project is a work in progress, says Vince Kim, who plans to photograph in other parts of the former USSR and in South Korea. “The issue of migration, displacement and identity within the Korean diaspora is something I’ve been interested in for most of my life. Photography has just been a medium that allowed me to explore it visually.”

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Michael Vince Kim is a Korean-American-Argentinian photographer whose work focuses on migration, language, and identity. To see more of Vince Kim's work visit his PHmuseum profile.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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