(571) Koreans on Sakhalin
In 1945, the Soviet Union took over the southern half of the large island of Sakhalin, hitherto a possession of Imperial Japan. Some 310,000 people lived in the south at the time.
When the Soviets came, they immediately expelled all ethnic Japanese residents (some 280,000), but forbade ethnic Koreans from leaving. The result was that some 25,000 Koreans found themselves stranded on the island. Most of them came from what would become South Korea. They lost their Japanese citizenship and became stateless in 1951.
There were new Korean arrivals as well ― some 26,000 Koreans were recruited from North Korea in the late 1940s and were sent to work in Sakhalin’s fishing and mining industries. Only half of them would return, in the 1950s.
Older Koreans stubbornly refused to take Soviet citizenship. They understood that by doing so they would lose any chance of going back to their native towns, and returning to their homeland was a dream for many of them.
This nostalgia might be among the reasons why a number of Koreans took North Korean citizenship in the late 1950s, when the North Korean authorities waged a major propaganda campaign on the island. The interest in things North Korean waned quickly, but as a result of the campaign, a significant number of Sakhalin’s Korean population became citizens of Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.
For a long period, the chances of returning South Korea from Sakhalin looked slim, even though optimistic rumors never ceased to circulate. The Soviet Union and South Korea had no diplomatic relations whatsoever and the Soviet official media always presented the South Korean government as a “murderous clique of American puppets.”
However things took a sudden turn in 1974, at the height of detente. At the time, the Soviet attitude to outbound migration softened somewhat. It was therefore declared that ethnic Koreans from Sakhalin who wished to go abroad would be issued passports good for travel to Japan. It was understood that they would not stay in Japan for any length of time and that they would immediately proceed to South Korea.
Currently available documents don’t explain why the Soviet authorities made such an uncharacteristically liberal decision ― it was at the time unusual for the Soviet authorities to allow its people to leave for good, and South Korea had up until then been a taboo subject. Obviously however, the local authorities did not expect the number of applicants to be large.
Ostensibly such expectations appeared well founded. On the one hand, South Korea of 1974 was not particularly attractive politically or economically. On the other hand, by that time, the Sakhalin Korean community was doing quite well, the younger generation were educationally successful and often moved into prestigious jobs.
The result was a dramatic embarrassment; the number of stateless Koreans who applied was very large, many hundreds, possibly thousands (the exact figure is not known yet). The Soviet authorities would probably not have minded had a few dozen Korean families moved to the reactionary, American dominated South Korea. The possibility of a mass exodus was, though, an all together different matter. And so the decision was quickly reversed.
It led to an outburst of public discontent. Generally speaking, the Soviet countryside in the 1970s was politically docile but, remote and peaceful Sakhalin suddenly witnessed the emergence of a large political movement. Starting from 1976, a number of Korean activists began to campaign for the right to move from the Communist paradise and move to capitalist hell of South Korea.
In December 1976, the town of Kosakov, in the southernmost part of the island held a public rally in front of the local party committee building. The rally was initiated by the family of To Man-sang, a prominent activist in the movement.
It was a dangerous challenge, and the Soviet authorities dealt with it in an unusual way, it was discovered that back in the 1950s, in the heyday of North Korea’s nationalist propaganda campaign on Sakhalin, To and some other leaders of the return movement took North Korean citizenship.
So in 1977, the Soviet authorities expelled the two most prominent activists and their families (40 men and women all together). They chose not to subject them to Soviet judicial process, since such a step would produce a lot of negative publicity for the Soviet Union and sentences would not be particularly harsh (the Brezhnev era was more liberal than is commonly assumed in the West).
Therefore, Kim Do-san and others were “sent to their native country” ― i.e. North Korea ― just as their passports said, even though they had never used them before.
It was a terrible blow, Sakhalin Koreans had no doubts about the actual state of affairs in North Korea. Some letters were occasionally smuggled from there, and as one Sakhalin acquaintance of myself said, “We all knew it was hell.” It is indeed highly unlikely that any of these 40 people survived more than a few years.
The shock was great, and the home return movement immediately disappeared. Older people were terrified and the younger generation had different concerns. They increasingly were coming to think of themselves as Russians and were not terribly interested in moving to their grandfather’s home towns.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.