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Korean Migrants and the “Yellow Peril” on Russia’s Borders

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The flight of the novel coronavirus across the globe has sparked fears about a “yellow peril.” To stop the virus from seeping further into their countries, multiple governments have instituted travel bans on noncitizens who have recently gone to the epicenter of the outbreak in China. Russia initially imposed a total ban on the entry of Chinese nationals, but recently changed its policy to a partial ban that allows holders of specific visas to enter the country.  Its rationale was to maintain vital economic ties with its top trading partner, China. The dueling impulses that gird this recent policy—to seal the border from danger and to open it for profit—are part of a long history of governing borders between Russia, Korea, and China. The anxiety about borders was often tied to an anxiety about a “yellow peril.”

The discourse of the “yellow peril” in Russia emerged parallel to that in the American West and the Pacific region. The phrase was invoked to describe the waves of Asian migration into Russia’s own frontier: the Russian Far East. At the height of the movement in 1906-1910, approximately 500,000 Chinese entered the region. This figure exceeds the total number of Chinese who entered the United States over six decades, from the 1880s to the 1940s.

Photo credit: USC Digital library.

What is less known, however, is that Koreans migrants were also part of the “yellow peril.” As noted in my recently published book Sovereignty Experiments, when measuring the size of their permanently settled population in the Russian Maritime Province, which bordered northern Korea and China, Koreans surpassed Chinese in number. Indeed, Koreans became a prime source of anxiety in Russian bureaucratic circles because of their tendency to settle in families, perhaps an early example of so-called chain migration. (Chinese had high male-to-female ratios and mostly engaged in circular migration.) 

Korean migrants were driven to Russia and China in the 1860s due to devastating floods on the Tumen River and continued to migrate and settle. With a population of 150,000, they formed almost one-quarter of the total population of the Maritime Province in the late 1920s. They not only provided a steady supply of labor in agriculture, mining, fishing, and construction, but also ran their own local administrations, schools, churches, and businesses. A significant portion had naturalized as Russian subjects. They were a lifeline for the region.

What is less known, however, is that Koreans migrants were also part of the “yellow peril.” 

It was the very tension between these qualities—easy mobility and necessary labor—that set a pattern of contradictory border policies, however. Russian officials simultaneously aimed to tighten the border to stem the flow of “yellows” and to open the border to benefit from their labor. Contradictory views about Koreans also proliferated. As former inhabitants of China and Korea (after 1910, a colony of Japan), Korean migrants were deemed both civilized and uncivilized, innocuous and perilous. As workers, they were diligent but also “lazy,” “vapid,” and “unhygienic.”

Across the border in Manchuria, China, where hundreds of thousands of Koreans had settled by the 1930s, Chinese and Japanese official discourse about Koreans differed from that of Russian/Soviet officials. What remained strikingly similar, though, was the anxiety surrounding how to govern the border—whether to restrict the flow of “dangerous” people and at the same time to open it to laborers and settlers.

In the current crisis, it remains to be seen how the discourse about the perils of opening and closing borders will evolve in the region, not only in Russia but also in China and North Korea. North Korea likely feels the tension over border governance most acutely, both needing to protect itself and to accept aid from its neighbors.

*Featured image: Korean fishermen in Vladivostok, early 20th century.

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Alyssa Park is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.  She researches migration and governance in Korea, Russia, and northeast Asia.  Park is currently working on a new project on the repatriation of Koreans and the crisis of decolonization on the Korean peninsula after World War II.

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