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Safe in Seoul, Ukrainian-Korean Maria Nam worries about her family members still in Ukraine.

Ms Nam’s mother and younger sister fled to South Korea to join her after the Russian invasion, but her father remains in kyiv and her grandparents are stuck in Kherson.

The Ukrainian port city fell to Russian troops at the start of the invasion in February.

“My grandparents… when we call them, they often say it’s fine, but I know they’re scared,” Ms Nam said.

“When they see the price changed in rubles, they are worried.”

Ms Nam came to Ukraine with her family when she was three, then moved to South Korea to pursue higher education in 2014.

Ms Nam, pictured in kyiv, says the Russian invasion has strengthened her Ukrainian identity.(Provided.)

Tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans like Ms Nam’s parents fled Uzbekistan and resettled in southern Ukraine when the former Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s.

Although living abroad, Ms Nam said the war had made her feel more Ukrainian than before and that she hoped to be able to return once the fighting was over to help rebuild her country.

Many Korean Ukrainians share this sentiment, and for them the fight against the invasion means more than independence.

“My family no longer wants to live under Russia,” she said.

The province of watermelon

Kherson, with its fertile agricultural land, is Ukraine’s watermelon province.

It became home to many Soviet Koreans, called Koryo Saram, when they first emigrated to the country.

People hold a banner in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Many residents of Kherson protested against the Russian occupation of their city.(Reuters)

Many ethnic Koreans in Kherson are descended from those who were deported en masse from the Russian Far East in the 1930s.

Over 170,000 people were deported to Central Asia as part of Joseph Stalin’s policy of ethnic cleansing.

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When the former Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, many returned to Ukraine and built new homes in Mykolaiv, Dnipropetrovsk and sometimes in Crimea and Odessa.

The current governor of Mykolaiv, Vitaliy Kim, is also a descendant of Koryo Saram.

Since the start of the invasion, her social media posts with updates on the local situation have attracted many followers, including Ms. Nam.

“He and his work inspire a lot of Ukrainians to fight,” Ms. Nam said.

“Because of him, I started thinking about a political career. I hope that in the future I can work in his party.”

According to local reportsapproximately 20,000 to 40,000 ethnic Koreans lived in Ukraine before the war.

For Ms. Nam, whose parents and grandparents were born in Uzbekistan, moving to Ukraine was about freedom.

“Being free to say what you think is key to my culture, both Ukrainian and Korean.”

Reclaiming Korean Roots

Marina Lee poses for a photo behind a net.
Marina Lee works as a volunteer in western Ukraine.(Provided)

Marina Lee, 51, was born in kyiv to a father of Korean origin who came to study in Ukraine from Uzbekistan.

She also shares Ms. Nam’s belief that freedom is essential to being Ukrainian.

“Russians have often loved tough kings like Stalin, but in Ukrainian history people have been free,” Ms Lee said.

Like many Ukrainians who lived in Kyiv, Ms Lee made a long escape trip before finding temporary accommodation in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine.

Before the war, she was a proud performer and curator of traditional Korean dances in Kyiv.

With a little help from her father, who barely speaks Korean himself, she started learning dances from internet videos and traveled to South Korea to study.

Marina Lee's grandchildren play in the dirt in a field.
Marina Lee’s grandchildren play in a field.(Provided)

For Ms. Lee, learning and teaching the dance was a way to ensure her roots weren’t forgotten, after previous generations of Soviet Koreans were stripped of their language and customs.

She discovered that Ukrainians also liked to watch and learn Korean arts.

“I try to show people here our Korean culture. They are very interested. Everyone likes dances and many also like K-Pop and Korean movies.”

She is now also concerned about the preservation of Ukrainian culture after the widespread destruction of Russian bombs.

Working as a volunteer at a Christian home caring for refugees from all over the country, Ms. Lee does not want to leave Ukraine now.

“My life is here. They need my help now,” she said.

“Same for everyone, I want to defend our independence.”

Korean Ukrainians no longer want to be victims of Russia

A head and shoulders image of Oleksandr Shyn during a pro-Ukrainian protest in Taiwan.
Oleksandr Shyn attends a pro-Ukrainian protest in Taiwan.(Provided)

Ukrainian-Korean Oleksandr Shyn, who lives in Taiwan, is doing all he can to help his home country.

“My life over the past month has basically been about talking as much as I can about the situation in Ukraine,” Shyn said.

Mr Shyn, whose grandfather was among those expelled from Russia in the 1930s, said his grandparents were discouraged from speaking Korean.

His parents grew up in Uzbekistan and moved to Kherson when he was one.

They grew up with the perception that Russian was a much bigger language and that Russian literature and culture was superior to Korean language and culture.

“Their policies were aimed at making everyone realize themselves as Soviet citizens first at the expense of what they had, their history, their memory, their culture, their language,” Mr. Shyn.

He was living in an isolated community when the family first moved to Ukraine.

At first, his parents struggled to integrate well in Ukraine, but growing up there with his siblings, “Ukraine is everything” to him, he said.

The revolution builds a new identity

Oleksandr Shyn speaks into a microphone as he stands next to people at a pro-Ukrainian protest in Taiwan.
Korean Ukrainians Abroad Speak Out Against War.(Provided)

With recent democratic changes – such as the 2014 Maidan revolution that toppled the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych – Mr Shyn’s sense of civic responsibility has become more pronounced.

“We were able to feel above all strengthened by the democratic changes in Ukraine. We started to feel more responsible for everything that happens in the country.”

Ms Nam’s said her sense of belonging had also been boosted by the revolution.

“That patriotic seed was planted in me,” she said.

“Ukraine means slightly different things to my parents and my generation.

“My father is still in kyiv, helping people rebuild their homes. But if Ukraine loses, he will come to South Korea.”

A woman holds a Ukrainian national flag and a sign
Ms. Nam holds a Ukrainian national flag and a sign reading “Stand with Ukraine” in Seoul.(Provided)

She said that as an ethnic Korean, her father had the option of obtaining a South Korean passport.

“For me, it is better to return to Ukraine. I will not change my passport.

“It doesn’t matter if we lose or win, I want to help Ukraine get back on its feet.”