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Koryoin who fled Ukraine arrive home in S. Korea

Justice Ministry streamlines visa application system for compatriots in Ukraine amid calls for more action

Anita, a compatriot Korean from Ukraine, fled the worn-torn country via Hungary and met with her grandmother in Incheon Airport on Mar. 22. (Yonhap)
Anita, a compatriot Korean from Ukraine, fled the worn-torn country via Hungary and met with her grandmother in Incheon Airport on Mar. 22. (Yonhap)

A group of Koryoin -- ethnic Koreans living in Central Asia as well as Ukraine and Russia -- who fled the Ukraine war arrived in South Korea to seek a new home on Wednesday.

The latest group to arrive includes eight children and infants and 13 women, according to Korean Cooperative, also known as Koryoin Village, a Gwangju-based incorporated association representing the ethnic Koreans.

Nearly 30 people, consisting of children, women and seniors, will come to the country this week alone following the arrival of a 10-year-old girl from Ukraine earlier this month after taking shelter in Budapest, Hungary.

“Our plan is to have a further 100 people arrive here,” said one official of Koryoin Village who wished to stay anonymous.

In the Koryoin Village, a town for Koryoin in the southwestern city of Gwangju, some 300 Ukrainian nationals are currently living, the official said. They have family and relatives living in the war-torn country. 

A group of Koryoin who fled the city of Odessa in Ukraine arrived at Incheon Airport on Wednesday night. (Yonhap)
A group of Koryoin who fled the city of Odessa in Ukraine arrived at Incheon Airport on Wednesday night. (Yonhap)
When they asked for help, the local community stepped in, raising over 33 million won ($27,319) in March through donations sent to Koryoin Village from individuals and groups.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Gwangju has provided 15 flight tickets, while the Gwangju YMCA donated 2.5 million won.

The list provided by the incorporated association shows it also received many small cash donations from individuals ranging from 10,000 won to 100,000 won.

Shin Jo-ya, the head of Koryoin Village who is a Koryoin herself, said Koryoin have no other place to go.

“No other countries have stepped up to help them apart from South Korea. South Koreans have shown great consideration for these people who are fleeing a war-torn country,” she said.

“Korea is the country for our Korean people, for Koryoin. Where else would they go?”

Koryoin or Koryo-saram, literally translates to the “people of Korea.” Some 500,000 ethnic Koreans are thought to reside in the post-Soviet states including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

Their immigration dates back to the 19th century. With the Joseon Dynasty of Korea on the decline, some people left the country and decided to move toward Russia.

“They are the descendants of our independence fighters. When the Soviet Union collapsed, other ethnic groups returned to their own country, but Koryoin were left alone in Central Asia and neglected by the South Korean government,” the Koryoin Village official who wished to stay anonymous said.

“With many Koryoin finding themselves in a difficult situation amid the Ukraine war, but getting little attention and help in relocating to a safer place, they have asked for our help, and we have decided to step in. Now our story has been picked up by the media,” the official said.


Government urged to do more


Neomeo, a Gyeonggi-based incorporated association representing Koryoin, has urged the government to issue emergency travel visas and speed up the immigration process for Koryoin living in Ukraine.

“Some 15,000 Koryoin and their family members who are living in Ukraine are fleeing the country as refugees as they face threats to their lives and the danger of a war,” the association said in a statement.

But people hoping to come to Korea through neighboring countries to Ukraine such as Poland and Romania are facing challenges, as some of them have lost their identity documents and passports, making it difficult to receive visas, the association explained.

“We urge the government to provide support so Koryoin refugees who wish to return home can enter the country as soon as possible,” the association said.

Shin said she has been able to help Koryoins who have family members in Korea and retain a passport.

“Those who have relatives here talked to each other on the phone, sending photos of their passport. This way we can purchase a flight ticket and help them come here.”

But she added it is hard to help those without identification.

Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Justice announced on Tuesday it would expand the scope of family visas issued for compatriots in Ukraine and those in Korea who have relatives in the Eastern European country.

A total of 3,831 Ukrainians were living in South Korea as of February, among which 2,413 were compatriots, data from the Justice Ministry showed.

Between March 8 and 27, 164 Ukrainian nationals entered South Korea.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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