In order for an historical atrocity to become a positive and teachable experience it is necessary and sufficient to accurately recount the incident for those who follow. Few practices in history are so devilish as the false and purposeful revisionism of factual matters. I want this short story to highlight a little known occurrence in history, and honor the character and culture of the Koreans during a sad and dark time of their history.
In my early travels to northern Russia, and especially as I made my way across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, I continually met up with some of the most dedicated and compassionate expatriate doctors, nurses, and teachers I had ever met. They were intently focused on their pursuits and willing to put up with the most severe and inconvenient circumstances. They were driven. They were Korean, and I soon began referring to them as my “Seoul mates.”
I had met and worked closely with John Kim and Dr. Choi of Messengers of Mercy,centered in Chicago. Kim had traveled with me to Afghanistan and Albania, and had introduced me to a Korean husband and wife medical team, Dr. Jae Doo Shim and Anna. They had found a piece of property, bought it with their own money, personally designed and built a two-story clinic. “We never knew where we would ever get the necessary pieces of equipment or the necessary supplies to run this clinic … but then God sent Project C.U.R.E. to help finish our dream.” I asked John Kim, “Where are all these excellent Korean doctors coming from? They are absolutely the best!”
Project C.U.R.E. was being requested to help many Korean medical and ministry organizations working in Central Asia: Daniel Kim, CEO of The Young Nak Foundation from Seoul, Korea, CAFÉ (Central Asian Free Exchange), and the doctors Joshua Koh and Herbert Hong, representing the IACD (Institute of Asian Culture and Development). I slowly began to understand that Project C.U.R.E. had landed in the middle of an incredible miracle story of love and international compassion. All those Korean doctors and organizations had heard the distinct call for help from the dim shadows of their lost kinfolk just as soon as the old Soviet curtain of secrecy and silence had come crashing down. The very call had emboldened them, and had ignited their passion to help their betrayed and violated brothers and sisters. Nothing makes a person as strong as when he hears the call for help.
The brutal invasion and occupation of the Koreans by Imperial Japan resulted in many of the Koreans escaping into Russia. The Koreans were diligent workers and good businessmen and became successful landowners and farmers. During the 1917 Russian revolution, most of the Koreans sided with the Bolsheviks. But, as Joseph Stalin and the Communists began to steal the revolution away from the Bolsheviks, the landowning Korean entrepreneurs were seen as untrustworthy by the comrades who lusted after their productive farms.
By 1926, Koreans represented more than a quarter of the rural population of the Far East Vladivostok, Russia, region. A secret plan of ethnic cleansing was adopted under the idea to resettle the Koreans, “on suspicions of disloyalty to the Soviet Union.” The propaganda claimed that it was to stop any possibility of penetration of Japanese espionage. Joseph Stalin’s plan of systematic population transfer moved into high gear between September and October, 1937, moving over a quarter million Koreans to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Orders called for an immediate removal of the Koreans, to be totally completed within ninety days.
Orders called for the Koreans to be transported by railway trains of about fifty carriages each, with twenty-five to thirty people per carriage. Travel to the undisclosed destinations took between thirty and forty days. To accomplish the quicker time schedule of movement, people were simply crammed into the cattle cars without heat or other provisions. Multiplied thousands of the Koreans never even survived the trip. One survivor wrote of his arrival at an unknown destination, “Each family dug a hole to live in. We made a Korean ondol (heated floor). We burned bushes for heat. There were no trees or charcoal. We lived that way for two or three years.” Many Koreans were placed far from each other in isolation to prevent contact with each other. Thirty-four thousand Koreans were placed on the desolate outpost of Ushtobe, Kazakhstan, with no food and no shelter, and were forced to survive on their own for almost three years. Thousands died of starvation, sickness, and exposure during the first few years in Central Asia.
Project C.U.R.E. was working right where most of the displaced Koreans had ended up during Joseph Stalin’s murderous transmigration scheme. Now, the Koreans had lost their own identity and even spoke only Russian.
One such Korean family I met, that had come to Uzbekistan to help, represented the Good Samaritan Medical Aid Foundation. Dr. Chong Soo Kim had started out his medical career in Seoul, Korea, as a neurosurgeon. In 1971 he traveled to Indiana University Medical School and certified as a U.S. anesthesiologist. But, in 1994, Dr. Kim heard about the plight of the Koreans in Central Asia and decided to take his family and go to Uzbekistan. They sold everything they owned and he walked away from a good job paying well over $300,000 a year.
Dr. Kim was met by the harsh realities of Uzbekistan. Offering medical service was a way to establish a relationship with the local people. But there were problems with the local authorities.
There was a great shortage of medical training in the Tashkent Oblast, so Dr. Kim began offering medical classes where he would teach Western medicine. Most medical textbooks in Uzbekistan were over twenty years old and written in the Russian language. Dr. Kim started teaching out of American textbooks. That required the students to learn English. Dr. Kim’s daughter moved from Evansville, Indiana, to Tashkent to help teach the students English and Korean.
Dr. Kim had been able to purchase an old Soviet kindergarten school in the city of Almayk. When he purchased the old facility, the buildings were terribly run down and the gardens consisted of only weeds. He used his own money to repair and remodel the facility into a very delightful clinic site for the city. All he needed now was for Project C.U.R.E. to come and fill the building with pieces of equipment and medical supplies. We not only furnished his facilities, but went to the local government hospital in Almayk and sent needed supplies and pieces of equipment to them as well!
As I continued to work with the heroic Koreans in Central Asia after the fall of the dismal Soviet system, my heart would at times nearly burst with compassion and pride for the thousands of Koreans who responded to the urgent call for kindness, justice, and righteousness. In my quiet moments I would think:
Show me your hands, are they scarred by compassion?
Show me your feet, have the rough trails left them bruised?
Show me your heart, has it been broken in love for your wounded brothers?
I salute my Korean friends!