Deokhyo Choi, University of Sheffield – Grant Report

Posted by: Hannah Giles  |  Posted on: September 22nd, 2022

My project aims to illuminate the story of Korean internment in Soviet labour camps after the end of World War II.

During the war, over 200,000 Korean youth were conscripted into or forced to “volunteer” for the Japanese military, and some 150,000 were also employed by the Japanese military as kunsok (gunzoku, civilian employees). Among these Korean military personnel and civilian employees, 15,000 enlisted in the Japanese Kwantung Army stationed in Manchuria. At the end of the war, the Kwantung Army was disarmed by Soviet troops, and some 3,000 Koreans were captured as prisoners of war and sent to Soviet labour camps in the Siberia region together with Japanese POWs. In late 1948, the Soviet authorities released some 2,300 Korean POWs to North Korea. Among these, some 500 crossed the 38th parallel and returned to their homes in South Korea. This episode, called the “Siberian internment,” was not widely known in South Korea until the early 1990s, when the former POWs began to speak publicly about their experiences of internment by the Soviet Union. In 2004, the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) launched an official investigation into the history of the Korean “Siberian internment” and conducted oral history interviews with twelve survivors. By drawing on the TRC’s oral history collection and my own archival research in South Korea, my project explores the history of the Korean “Siberian internment” and its legacies in South Korea.


During my archival research in South Korea, which was supported by the BKS grant, I researched the collections of oral history interviews conducted by the TRC and collected historical materials on the Siberian internment. At the National Assembly Library in Seoul, I researched various Korean newspapers published between 1945 and 1949 and found numerous news articles on Korean survivors from the Siberian internment. I also collected secondary sources edited by the Centre for Historical Truth and Justice (민족문제연구소), titled “시베리아 억류자 귀환 60주년 기념 자료집.” In order to examine how the South Korean government responded to the return of Korean POWs from Siberian camps through North Korea in 1949, I researched the government internal documents (국무회의록 / Assembly Records of the National Affairs) held at the National Archives of Korea. By drawing on my archival research, I drafted a conference paper titled “수차례의 월경(越境)과 식민주의・냉전의 폭력―제2차 세계대전 후 ‘시베리아’에 억류된 어느 조선인의 체험을 통하여” and presented my work at an international conference held by the Institute for Humanities at Pusan University on January 27.


During my archival research in South Korea, I was able to obtain important primary and secondary sources for my project. In particular, Korean news articles and the collection of oral history interviews are crucial to my research on the history of the Korean “Siberian internment” and its historical memories and legacies in South Korea. These sources allow me to analyse the key questions regarding the previously underexamined history, such as the questions of how Korean POWs were treated by the Soviet authorities, what their life in Siberian internment camps was like, how they crossed the 38th parallel after their release to North Korea in late 1948, and how they were treated by the South Korean authorities after their return to South Korea in 1949. Currently, I am analysing Korean news articles that reported the border crossing of those survivors into South Korea and their internment in a “refugee camp” in Incheon after being captured as possible “spies” sent by the North Korean government. My analysis of the news reports illuminates how the tragedies of both Japanese colonialism and the Cold War converged in the fate of the survivors from the Siberian internment.


During my stay in South Korea, I drafted a conference paper by drawing on the new materials I obtained. I also presented the paper at an international conference held by the Institute for Humanities at Pusan University. I am currently planning to develop the conference paper into an article manuscript for submission to the Journal of Asian Studies or Critical Asian Studies.

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