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Receding Soviet wave reveals islet of Korea


MOZDOK, Russia -- Here at the headquarters for the Russian military assault on Chechnya, the mud was just turning to dust when the Seoul Broadcasting System television crew drove into town, in two smartly washed Hyundai all-terrain vehicles.

They had driven all the way across Asia to be here.

Their cars were stacked with donated medical supplies. The on-air talent, a craggy-looking older man who was the portrait of seriousness, did stand-ups all day long. Amid the mud, the fumes, the shouting, the disorder of a Russian military operation, here was crispness. And they aren't the only crisp and serious Koreans who have been drawn to Mozdok.

For more than a year now, the Rev. So Young Lee and his wife, Soon Yang Lee, have been running the Iang Gok Presbyterian Church here. They came from Los Angeles after Mr. Lee had decided that God's will was directing them to this beat-up crossroads town on the plains stretching north from the strife-torn Caucasus Mountains.

The gravity of all these visitors is considerable. The TV crew was after the most solemn and sobering video and showed that seriousness in everything they did. The Lees are out to save souls, but have concluded in the meantime, by the way, that the war in Chechnya probably signals the beginning of the end of the world.

And what is it about Mozdok that has attracted them here? It's simply that, in this most unexpected of places, there's a large community of ethnic Koreans -- about 700 families. Here live people like Nikolai O, a wily 74-year-old who has many qualities, but as it happens seriousness is not one of them.

There have been Koreans living in what was once the Soviet Union for a long time -- as many as a half-million of them. Some have lived here for generations. Some arrived from North Korea after the Korean War. Some, like Mr. O, were living as conscripted laborers on Japanese-held Sakhalin Island when the Soviets took possession at the end of World War II.

Most Koreans live in the Far East or Central Asia, but for reasons that no one can remember a little enclave sprouted and grew here.

And now that Soviet restrictions have fallen away, the greater Korean world community is making its way to Mozdok to interview the Caucasian Koreans, to preach to them, to teach them proper modern Korean, even to school them in the ways of Korean martial arts.

Mr. O, a farm laborer most of his life (who was born in Vladivostok before his family moved back to Korea when he was young), finds it all a little amusing.

Of course he was sorry when Mrs. Lee was tied up by thieves last summer and the $12,000 she and her husband had raised to build a new Korean Cultural Center was stolen. ("It was Satan's work," Mrs. Lee said.) And he's pleased that his daughter-in-law, Liza Kim, has a good job working for the Lees, and is bringing up his grandson, Kolya, to be a good Korean.

And, yes, this veteran of the Red Ossetia Collective Farm (specializing in rice and onions) is trying out this business of going to church on Sundays, in what used to be a chess club, because it means so much to his wife, Tonya.

But as Mr. O sees it, life was good even before the new influx of Koreans. The Soviet Union offered him the chance to work hard, and he doesn't quite figure that he stands in need of improvement.

"We worked 10 times better than the Russians," he notes. "The Russians are pigs."

He built a house, and then built another one, of brick. It has four rooms and a kitchen downstairs, and a loft above. There's running water, even if there's no toilet. It's neat and scrubbed and well-painted.

What poor peasant in North Korea could boast of comfort like that?

Mr. O was delighted to accept a couple of American travelers as guests (there being no hotel in Mozdok). The first Americans he ever met had been Japanese-held prisoners of war back on Sakhalin Island -- emaciated and brutalized.

"They were," he says, "the most honorable people I've ever met. They were good men."

He slipped them rice balls when he could, he says. He's sure it made the difference between life and death for some.

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