A Land They Never Knew: Ethnic Koreans From Ukraine Seeking Help in the ROK

By | August 17, 2022 | No Comments

From Oleksandr Sin to the late Pavlo Lee, many ethnic Koreans in Ukraine have made their mark as members of the broader Ukrainian society. Nevertheless, an ethnic connection to the Land of the Morning Calm has proven to be a blessing for many Koryoin whose country has been torn by armed conflict. Often unable to speak their ancestral language, South Korean civil society has opened its arms to help many of their ethnic brethren who have come to a land that they never knew. 


“My head and my back hurt” – Koryoin in South Korea who fled the war in Ukraine[1]

Reporting from the Ansan Ddaetgol Village’s Treatment Support Center for resident Ukrainian Koryoin  

“Is there an optician here, too?” 

Ansan City, Gyeonggi. Ansan Foreign Residents’ Support Headquarters, third floor. 10:00 a.m. Earlier, someone in their 60’s had been making inquiries. Unable to speak Korean well, he was a “Koryoin” living at the “Ddaetgol Village” Koryoin Village in Ansan who had fled the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

That day, from early in the morning, there was a real hustle and bustle in front of the Ansan Foreign Residents’ Support Headquarters. Beforehand, starting with the Koryoin Village, a Korea University Medicine medical support vehicle planned to visit. A mobile check up van and a treatment bus were already prepared to take care of “patients”.

The third floor lecture hall temporarily converted to a treatment center was abuzz with activity. On the second floor were patients who had checked in and were waiting. Individuals affiliated with Korea University Ansan Hospital wore reddish vests, while volunteers and other supporters of  the “Neomeo Koryoin Support Center” civil society organization wore yellow vests. At 10:08 a.m. the first “guest” arrived at the temporary treatment center.

“First, we’ll start by taking your blood pressure.”

A volunteer interpreter from “Neomeo” is assigned to help those Koryoin who can’t speak Korean well – most of the Koryoin were young people. For those who don’t have a specialist background in medical terminology, performing this type of interpretation is no small feat. 

As one interpreter said:

“I came here to help full of confidence, but when push comes to shove, it’s by no means easy.”

One “patient” who said they have cardiac issues said they wanted to have their heart checked out. After noting whether or not they were currently on any medication, the patient grimaced as soon as a syringe used to draw blood was stuck into their arm. The patient’s blood pressure and a urine sample were taken right there. They also had their weight and height measured.  A CT and X-ray scan were taken at a mobile checkup van labeled “OnDream Mobile Clinic” in front of the Foreign Residents’ Support Headquarters.

As Korea University Hospital Ansan professor of rehabilitation medicine Kim Dong Hwee explained: “We undertook a preliminary examination for Koryoin who have requested medical treatment so we can attend to their specific needs. Considering the requests for treatment we’ve received, professors specializing in four fields of treatment, including musculoskeletal health, respiratory health, internal secretion and cardiothoracic issues have taken part in treatment support.” 

While the Koryoin seeking medical attention varied in age, the majority of people, more than families or senior citizens, were young and middle-aged people. Occasionally, some patients needed surgery. Korea University Medicine has set up funds to cover thr costs of their surgeries. It is said to be a way to provide support taking into consideration the start of health insurance benefits and the urgency of surgery.

Amidst all the activity, as soon as another “patient” came in, Professor Kim began making inquiries. “You say your back and your head both hurt?” As soon as the patient answered, the interpreter conveyed the message. “Tell him that the last time I had a checkup was in 2019, when I was pregnant, and that I haven’t had one since then.”

According to Professor Kim “From the volunteer end, hospitals are providing treatment support for Koryoin. If lawmakers in the National Assembly interested in the Koryoin produce relevant legislation, it could possibly lead to more systematic support for the Koryoin at the governmental level” he mused.


And life goes on


According to the Academy of Korean Studies, Koryoin have been living in Ukraine since 1922. By 1926, 103 Koryoin had been living in Ukraine, data show. From there the number gradually increased: in 1959 there were 1,341, in 1970, 4,480, in 1989, 8,669, and by 2001 the number of Koryoin in Ukraine had reached 12,711. In 2014, following the Crimea referendum, when the Crimean Autonomous Republic was integrated with Russia, approximately three thousand resident Koryoin became Russian citizens.

Life has become rough for the Koryoin who had lived in Ukraine ever since the Russian invasion. At present, the number of Koryoin who have entered South Korea stands at approximately 1,200.  Among those, around 200 have arrived at the Ddaetgol Koryoin Village. 

According to Kim Jin-yeong, a volunteer at the Neomeo Koryoin Support Center, at first many Koryoin here didn’t register that there was a war, but then more than a few of them fled to neighboring Poland and Romania. Entering South Korea from Poland under a simplified visa regime under an administrative process, even without a passport, took one month. In many cases Ukrainian men were called up to serve in the fighting and couldn’t leave, so only women and children could take the road to safety.

After a Koryoin we will refer to simply as “A” came to Korea in December, A’s mother as well as some nieces and nephews took a flight to Korea after the war broke out. “It was a very dire situation, and my relatives and the womenfolk had no choice but to flee. A lot of children died.” “A” said that they cannot offer assurances as to when the war will end, and that it is frustrating.

Another Koryoin, “B”, ran a nail salon in Ukraine. Her husband was a chef. She had witnessed the outbreak of the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in 2014. This conflict broke out when pro-Russian forces in the Donetsk province moved to declare the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Afterwards, Luhansk Province declared its independence as the Luhansk People’s Republic, after which time the Donetsk region and Mariupol fell into a period of continuous hostilities.

At that time, she sought refuge in Korea. As of now, however, this is the second time she has fled to Korea. She first came here with her husband and their son, yet she felt uneasy having left her in-laws and her sister in Ukraine. “You get used to the sounds of the fighting, yet because of continuous warfare, I had been thinking about leaving Ukraine for good” she said.

Healthcare support continued throughout the day. As time passed, more and more patients came in, and wanting to help out, our correspondent took over the reception desk for a while.

Of course, it couldn’t have been a big help. 

After finishing up coverage, our correspondent went down to the second floor reception room and made eye contact with a young Koryoin child. The boy crinkled his eye, winking. Standing there awkwardly and confused, there was never a chance to say hello properly.


Original article by Kim Yang Kyoon. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna


[1] Source: “My head and my back hurt” Koryoin in South Korea who fled the war in Ukraine [“머리도, 허리도 아프고”…우크라 전쟁 피난 한국 온 고려인들] ZDNet Korea, August 8, 2022, https://zdnet.co.kr/view/?no=20220808094521


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