Posted : 2007-07-27 20:00
Updated : 2007-07-27 20:00

Koreans in Utoro Call for Home Country’s Help

Kim Kyo-il, leader of Utoro village in Japan, reads a petition letter to President Roh Moo-hyun during a news conference at Cecil Restaurant in Seoul, Monday. He called for the help from the South Korean government to stop the Japanese government’s plan to oust Korean descendents living in the village in Kyoto.
/ Yonhap

By Bae Ji-sook
Staff Reporter

Korean descendents living in Utoro, Japan are facing a difficult time as their residence is about to be sold to another buyer. The move could oust them from their homes as early as this month.

Nine of the 200 residents of Utoro, a hamlet in Kyoto, visited Korea to ask for the government's support as the deadline for the purchase agreement approaches.

Utoro was first built in the 1940s when the Japanese colony drafted 1,300 Koreans to build strips for the air force. But the construction was not completed because the war ended before the development was finished. As a result, those Koreans were left stranded in the middle of nowhere.

People who could not afford to go back to Korea gathered around the town of Utoro and lived in slated houses, battling poverty and racism.

However, the Japanese government, which owned the land and let the Koreans stay there, sold the real estate to a private corporation in 1987. Since then, the residents had to struggle against those who tried to sell the land and rid of them from their homes.

In 2005, their news caught the eye of several progressive people in Korea and 500 million won was contributed to allow the people buy the land from the Japanese owners, but it was only a fraction of what the owners were asking.

Recently, the new landlord told residents that another real estate development company was willing to buy the land. He gave the ultimatum that unless the current residents buy the land, or at least tell him that they would buy the land by July 31, it will be sold off and that they will have to leave. The bidder is said to be in the planning stages in developing the land.

In 2005, Ban Ki-moon, then foreign affairs minister and currently secretary-general of the United Nations, promised the residents aide if the donation by civilians fails to meet the required amount.

Kim Kyo-il, the village headman, and seven others visited the National Assembly, sponsors and civic groups asking for help.

However, the government said it is impossible to give them money, as it would be unfair to other Koreans living in Japan who are not entitled to government subsidies. According to some reports, all it can do is help find a social welfare center that could accept them after the demolition takes place.

Kim said he understands the government's dilemma. ``But what we are expecting is some legal advice which does not require large amounts of money,'' he added.

To many residents, leaving the village means more than just moving away. The place has been a haven for those who were discriminated by Japanese society.

``Utoro was labeled a Joseon slum among Kyoto residents. Many people looked down on us and put us through hard times. But we were happy that we had each other's company,'' Kim said.

During their trip to Korea, some non-governmental organization members held charity concerts and encouraged residents by holding campaigns to promote the story of Utoro.

Several lawmakers, who were supporters, promised to address their plight in the National Assembly, but the plenary session is due in September, and it may be too late.

``But thank you all for caring for us this much. We will fight to our last to live in our places, and please pray for us and support us in Korea,'' the Korean residents in Utoro said as they left for Japan Tuesday.

The 6,400 pyong (587.6 square meters) of land was where they kept their identity as Koreans, Bae Ji-won, director of Utoro supporters' group, said. She explained that the 1,300 residents, who were literally drawn to the land, received no compensation from the Japanese government for the draft and the land they live in is the only thing they rely on.

Bae also said that it is time for the Korean government to put more attention on Koreans living overseas unwillingly, due to the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, the Korean War and the Cold War. ``Many of them love Korea and refuse to change their nationalities, hoping that the country would accept them as part of its society.''

Rev. Oh Choong-il, another supporter of Utoro residents, said that what the government can do at least at this stage, is to find ways to extend the deadline so that more people can participate in buying the land for them.

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