How Koreans became 'lords of the onion fields' in the USSR
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the vast majority of ethnic Koreans in the USSR lived in Central Asia, where they had been forcibly relocated in the late 1930s.
From time to time though, one could come across groups of young to middle-aged Koreans working in the fields of Ukraine and southern Russia – several thousand miles away from the Korean villages of Central Asia.
They did not live in those parts of the country. They came there every spring to work in the fields. It was a part of a rather unique scheme, which had little if any precedent within the Soviet economic system.
This system was known as kobongchi (or kobongchil), and it enabled Soviet Koreans to earn a decent income while ameliorating the gross inefficiencies of Soviet state-run agriculture.
In the Soviet Union, all land was state-owned. And agriculture was supposed to be managed by state-appointed agricultural officials. Farmers had little incentive to work hard – not least because the amount of work they did was not directly reflected in their income. At the same time, farm managers were obliged to meet state-set quotas and would get in trouble if they did not.
This was where self-organized work teams of ethnic Koreans came to the rescue. Such groups usually consisted of family members or close friends. Every spring, Soviet Koreans would go through many parts of the western Soviet countryside, looking for a good deal. Once such a deal was struck, a large work team would arrive.
A kobongchi team was allocated a few fields, which they used as they wanted. After the harvest, they had to provide the farmer with an agreed amount of produce – normally slightly in excess of the state-set quota.
This enabled managers to report to their supervisors that the obligations had been met. Everything that the team could produce in excess of their quota was theirs, and they could later sell it in the private market.
In most cases, these work teams did what Koreans have been very good at for centuries – growing lots of vegetables and fruit (onion and watermelon were especially popular).
Technically speaking, the entire scheme was illegal. Sometimes the teams could be cheated by officials. Nonetheless, things usually worked out just fine. Both work team and local managers needed one another.
For Korean workers, the scheme was hugely profitable. Unlike state-controlled farmers, their income was decided by the amount they produced and therefore, most of the time, the "Korean" fields would produce two to three times more than the state plan usually envisioned (in some exceptional cases, a team could exceed the plan by 800 percent).
A successful kobongchi worker could become very rich indeed, by then Soviet standards. Even skilled professionals, if they happened to be ethnic Koreans, could be found working in the fields – after all, a good worker could make some 5000 rubles in a successful summer (this was equivalent to the annual salary of a university professor).
For some reason, this scheme remained an exclusively Korean endeavor. In a sense one could say that in the USSR, ethnic Koreans were the only ethnic or social group that was allowed to engage in semi-private agricultural activities on a large scale.
The kobongchi system all but disappeared in the early 1990s, which coincided with the revival of private agriculture. Ethnic Koreans found less backbreaking ways of making money in the new economy. But the memory of hard work and huge pay from the onion fields is still alive in many ethnic Korean families in the former Soviet Union.
First published by RBTH Asia