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Korean space launch inspires ethnic kin in Central Asia

by Staff Writers
Baikonur, Kazakhstan (AFP) April 8, 2008
As South Korea's first astronaut roars into space on Tuesday one group of overlooked fans will be staring up from this remote ex-Soviet territory with special enthusiasm: ethnic Koreans.

If Yi So-Yeon represents everything that is youthful and optimistic about her homeland, the ethnic Koreans resident around Baikonur cosmodrome are testimony to a painful period of uprooting and hardship under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

"My soul is rejoicing! It's even better that it's a woman. I'll be watching the launch of course," said Larisa An, 48-year-old owner of Ginza, a popular restaurant that serves up spicy Korean specialities in Baikonur, the centre of Russia's manned space programme.

Thousands of Koreans were exiled to the arid plains of Soviet Kazakhstan in the 1930s, one of several cases in which Stalin moved ethnic groups en masse, causing huge suffering in the name of national security.

The Koreans were mainly deported from regions close to the current border between Russia and North Korea. Many were well-off farmers and as such, in those paranoid times, were judged enemies of the Communist state.

Baikonur only became the hub of the Soviet space programme in the 1950s but soon became a vital source of work for local people.

An, the owner of Ginza, grew up in what is now a bustling Korean community in the nearby Kazakh city of Kyzylorda. The city boasts a Korean church, school and several kindergartens.

Baikonur continues to be managed by Russia despite the Soviet Union's break-up and local inhabitants are proud of their association with space travel.

The Koreans among them will have a prime viewing spot as one of their own streaks into the heavens on a Russian rocket bound for the International Space Station, in the company of two Russian cosmonauts.

The flight takes place 47 years after Yury Gagarin was launched from Baikonur to become the first human in space on April 12, 1961.

An has never been to South Korea but says she still speaks Korean, follows Korean religious traditions, sent her son to a Korean school and is proud to serve Korean cuisine in the middle of the vast Kazakh steppes.

"We dream of returning to the homeland of our ancestors one day," she said.

The news of the space launch was also being followed by Korean women selling pickled mushrooms and carrots at Baikonur's market -- a vibrant mix of colours and smells typical of Central Asia's bazaar culture.

Many of them come from the Korean farming villages that have grown up around Baikonur.

"We're very proud. It's our nation after all," said one 68-year-old saleswoman with a wizened face hunched over the counter, who declined to give her name after two police officers approached her stall.

"We were sent to the desert and left here. We're victims of Stalin," said the saleswoman, who complained that ethnic Koreans had not been officially recognised as victims and were therefore not eligible for compensation.

Korean community leaders estimate there are now 100,000 ethnic Koreans in Kazakhstan, many of them in and around the economic capital Almaty.

Others live in neighbouring ex-Soviet Uzbekistan.

And some have done well from the post-Soviet liberalisation of Kazakhstan's resource-rich economy, notably a billionaire metals tycoon, Vladimir Kim.

"It's a well-educated community.... We have our own newspaper, radio and television. We're very united and we support our diaspora," said Korean community leader Roman Kim, head of the Korean Association of Kazakhstan, in a telephone interview.

Many Central Asians have revived contacts with relatives in South Korea since the 1991 Soviet collapse, while some have been drawn to resettle there.

Others however have become attached to this land, with its vast horizons and close-knit communities.

And others still have become so integrated with the wider Russian-Kazakh community as to be largely indifferent to South Korea.

"I don't feel any special emotion just because (Yi) is South Korean.... I really feel very far away from there," said Alyona Kim, an ethnic Korean who is deputy head of Baikonur's space museum.

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