By Jong Eun Lee
The Russia-Ukraine War has divided many Russians and Ukrainians who have families and relatives living on either side of the border. Within Ukraine’s southern and southeastern regions, Pro-Russia separatists are fighting on the side of “liberators”. Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the same region, however, have supported Ukraine’s military in defending their country from Russian military offensive.
Other nationalities living in the former Soviet Republics have also been drawn into the war. While Belarus government has permitted Russia’s forces to pass through its territory to attack Ukraine’s capital Kyiv from the north, number of Belarusians have enlisted in Ukraine’s military to fight against Russian forces. The Chechens, who attempted political secession from Russia in the 1990’s but were suppressed after fighting two destructive wars, have also become divided. While the Pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadrov have sent militias to fight alongside Russian forces, anti-Russian Chechens have formed battalions to fight for Ukraine.
The Soviet Koreans, also known as “Koryo-Saram”, have also not been free from the pressure to take a side in the war. The “Koryo-Saram” first immigrated to the Russian Far East in the late 19th and early 20th Century when Korea was being colonized by Imperial Japan. Later, Soviet Koreans were forcibly relocated to Central Asia by Stalin’s order, and eventually settled across different parts of Soviet Union. Currently, there are estimated 150,000 ethnic Koreans living in Post-Soviet Russia. As many as 40,000 live in Ukraine.
In Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet Republics, ethnic Koreans have attained social positions in multiple areas such as military, art, public service. The Russia-Ukraine War has obligated number of ethnic Koreans living in the two countries to actively participate in the war or “special military operations”. Several have become celebrated heroes by the Russian and Ukrainian media, while others have lost their lives in the battlefield.
Vitaliy Kim is governor of Mykolaiv Oblast in Ukraine’s southern region. A strategic location which Russian forces must capture to advance toward Odessa, Ukraine’s major Black Sea port, Kim has led successful defense of his province for the past five months. Similar to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kim has been proactive in the use of social media to rally Ukrainians’ resistance and has become one of Ukraine’s popular political leaders. In an interview with South Korea media, Kim appealed for South Korea’s support for Ukraine and had expressed desire to visit Korea after the war to search for his ancestral roots.
Pavlo “Pasha” Lee is Ukrainian actor. Apart from his acting role, Lee was also the host of the Ukrainian entertainment program “Day at Home”. When the war broke out, Lee enlisted in Ukraine’s territorial defense force. He was killed while defending Kyiv. Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists and the Odessa International Film Festival commemorated Pasha Lee’s death. His fans and colleagues pledged to never forget his talent and service.
Stanislav Kim is Russian military officer. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that during the early phase of the “special military operation”, 1st Lieutenant Kim led his tank battalion in repulsing an ambush from Ukrainian forces, capturing dozens of Ukrainian prisoners. The Russian public media and Joseon’s Voice (the website of Korean Russian association with pro-DPRK ties) have publicized Kim’s “heroic” valor. In an interview, Kim’s family responded they were proud of Kim’s service and waited for his heroic return.
Dimitri Park is also Russian military officer. Originally born in Uzbekistan during the Soviet period, Park’s family later moved to Russia after the collapse of the USSR. After being commissioned as an officer, Park served under Russia’s overseas military missions in Libya and Syria. In 2014, Kim participated in Russia’s annexation of Crimea Peninsula. This year, Captain Park was deployed again to military operations in Ukraine, where he was killed. The Russian media paid tribute that Park’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather have also served in Russian military. In an interview, Park’s older sister wept, “Park promised to return home safely just like our father and grandfather, but could not keep his promise”, while also commemorating that her brother was a brave, dutiful solider.
Christina Kim is Russian combat medic. Kim has been serving with Russian airborne unit dispatched on a combat mission to “liberate” Ukraine’s Donbas region. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that during combat, Kim personally rescued twelve wounded Russian paratroopers. Russian public media have applauded Kim’s heroism, characterizing her as “Korean-Russian Guardian Angel”, “A hero comparable to valiant Soviet medics during the Great Patriotic War (WWII)”. In an interview with Russian media, Kim expressed gratitude for the applause from home and requested for continued support for her and her comrades serving their country’s duty.
These individual stories represent struggles of ethnic Koreans in Ukraine who risk their lives to defend their country’s territorial sovereignty. They also represent sacrifices of ethnic Koreans serving in the Russian military who dutifully implement their country’s military operations. As the war prolongs, many more Korean Ukrainians and Korean Russians will participate in the war, and many more lives will be sacrificed.
I am reminded of an episode from the American Civil War. In the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Northern Union Army’s Irish Brigade encountered the Irish Battalion of the Southern Confederate Army. The soldiers on both sides anguished over the tragic fate that have placed them in adversarial armies. On that day, many Irish Americans were killed by their fellow kinsmen with whom they have left Ireland together in search for better lives in the new continent.
The Koreans who remained in the Korean Peninsula also experienced bloody fratricidal conflict during the Korean War, which lasted for three years. This year marks the 69th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. My hope is that ethnic Koreans in Russia and Ukraine would not experience similar tragedy of prolonged, unresolved military conflict. Furthermore, I pray that North and South Korea would not forget the history of the Korean War and work together to ensure today’s armistice would eventually evolve into a sustainable peace in the Korean Peninsula.