To transform a historical atrocity into a positive, teachable experience for successive generations, it’s first necessary to accurately recount the incident. Few practices are so devilish as the false and purposeful revision of historical facts. In this article, I want to highlight a little-known historical occurrence and honor the character and culture of the Koreans during a sad and dark time in their nation’s 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 driven and intently focused on their pursuits, willing to put up with the most severe and inconvenient circumstances. These dedicated professionals were Korean, and I soon began referring to them as my “Seoul mates.”
I had met and worked closely with John Kim and Dr. Soon Ja Choi of Messengers of Mercy, centered in Chicago. John 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 bought a piece of property with their own money and had personally designed and built a two-story clinic on the site.
“We never knew where we would ever get the necessary equipment or supplies to run this clinic. But then God sent Project C.U.R.E. to help finish our dream,” John told me.
I asked him, “Where are all these excellent Korean doctors coming from? They’re absolutely the best!”
Project C.U.R.E. had been requested to help many Korean medical and ministry organizations working in central Asia, including Daniel Kim, CEO of the Young Nak Foundation in Seoul, South Korea; the Central Asian Free Exchange (CAFÉ); and Drs. Joshua Koh and Herbert Hong, representing the Institute of Asian Culture and Development (IACD). 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 began hearing distinct calls for help from their displaced kinfolk, who emerged from the shadows as soon as the old Soviet curtain of secrecy came crashing down. Those calls had emboldened these doctors and missionaries and had ignited their passion to help their betrayed and violated brothers and sisters. Nothing makes people stronger than when they hear a call for help.
As I mentioned earlier, the brutal invasion and occupation of Korea by imperial Japan in the early 1900s resulted in many Koreans fleeing to Russia. The Koreans were diligent workers and good businessmen who became successful landowners and farmers. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, most of the Koreans sided with the Bolsheviks, who were members of the workers’ Social Democratic Party. But as Joseph Stalin and the Communists began to steal the revolution away from the Bolsheviks, the comrades who lusted after the Koreans’ productive farms began to view the land-owning Korean entrepreneurs with suspicion and distrust.
By 1925, approximately 120,000 Koreans had settled in the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok. In subsequent years, a secret plan of ethnic cleansing was adopted to resettle the Koreans in central Asia. The propaganda claimed that it was to prevent any possibility of Koreans spying for Japan. Joseph Stalin’s plan of systematic population transfer was carried out between September and December of 1937, forcibly relocating nearly 180,000 Koreans to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in central Asia. Orders called for an immediate removal of the Koreans to be completed by the end of the year.
The Koreans were transported by railway trains, consisting of 124 livestock and merchandise wagons, to undisclosed destinations. Deportation took place in two stages of around thirty days each. To accomplish the quicker deportation schedule, people were crammed into the cattle cars without heat or other provisions. Thousands of Koreans never even survived the trip.
According to one account, thirty-four thousand Koreans were resettled in Ushtobe, Kazakhstan, a desolate region in central Asia. People had to fend for themselves, struggling to find shelter and enough food to survive, and many died of starvation, illness, and exposure during this time. 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.”
Project C.U.R.E. was working right where most of the displaced Koreans had ended up during Stalin’s murderous transmigration scheme. Over time, these Koreans had lost their ethnic identity and even their language, speaking only Russian.
One Korean family I met, who had come to Uzbekistan to help, represented the Good Samaritan Medical Aid Foundation. Dr. Chong Soo Kim started out his medical career in Seoul, Korea, as a neurosurgeon. In 1971, he traveled to Indiana University School of Medicine and became certified as an anesthesiologist. But in 1994, Dr. Kim heard about the plight of the Koreans in central Asia and decided to take his family to Uzbekistan. They sold everything they owned, and he walked away from a lucrative medical career paying well over $300,000 a year.
Dr. Kim grappled with the harsh realities of Uzbekistan. Offering medical service was a way to establish a relationship with the people. But there were problems with the local authorities. There was also a shortage of medical training in the Tashkent province, so Dr. Kim began teaching Western medicine. Most medical textbooks in Uzbekistan were outdated, so Dr. Kim taught from American textbooks, and his daughter moved to Tashkent to help teach the students English and Korean.
Dr. Kim had purchased and remodeled an old Soviet kindergarten building in the city of Almalyk using his own money. The buildings were terribly run down, but Dr. Kim turned the facility into a delightful clinic. All he needed was for Project C.U.R.E. to stock the clinic with medical supplies and equipment. We not only provided the desperately needed items, but we delivered medical goods to the local government hospital in Almalyk as well!
As I continued to work 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 heroic 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 you heart—has it been broken in love for your wounded brothers?
I salute you, my Korean friends!