Saving Sakhalin stories before they get forgotten
By Kim Se-jeong
Earlier this month, a book of letters was delivered to members of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee. They came from Sakhalin, an island in Russia's Far East.
The letters included "What I want is a chance to visit my family," written in Korean, Russian or Japanese.
The authors were among an estimated 43,000 Koreans who were forcibly sent to the island by Japan to provide labor between 1938 and 1945 when Japan was stepping up its war efforts.
About 4,000 permanently returned to South Korea with the help of Korean and Japanese funds since the early 1990s, and 600 have passed away.
But many remain behind, separated from their family members.
The writers of the letters desire one thing ― legislation that would assist those who wish to return home and help to raise the quality of life among those who have already settled here.
An Men-bok, 78, managed to return in 2001.
He was only seven years old when his father, An Chil-bok, was picked up at a railway station in South Chungcheong Province in 1939 and sent to Sakhalin.
In 1940, one year after his father's departure, the whole family left home to join him.
The island of Sakhalin was divided into two: one half controlled by Russia and the other by Japan as a result of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).
The majority of the Koreans mobilized to Sakhalin were single men in their 20s. Those who had married went alone, leaving their families behind.
At the end of World War II, they found themselves in limbo.
With the defeat of Japan, 400,000 Japanese residents on the island returned home under the auspices of the United States-Soviet Union agreement of repatriation.
Korea, on the other hand was first divided and then the Korean War broke out, leaving no resources to look after those left on Sakhalin.
The first opportunity opened up in 1990 when the Korean and Russian governments formed diplomatic ties.
But it still wasn't enough for those left on the island.
Most of the Koreans there were barely making ends meet, not having enough money to pay for a visit or find a place to stay in their motherland.
They turned to both the Korean and Japanese governments for help, but both initially declined.
Pent-up anger led to a lawsuit against Japan, which eventually forced it to offer assistance.
The first group of Koreans arrived in 2000 with the provision of shelter.
The Japanese government paid to build eight apartment buildings with the capacity to house approximately 1,000 in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province.
The South Korean government offered the property. The Japanese government also paid for a one-way ticket to Korea.
An said signs of hardship on the island were everywhere.
The weather was harsh as was the discrimination by the Japanese.
Workers and their families lived in segregation.
Food was rationed and never sufficient. "We sometimes collected grass to eat, and we had to reduce our meals down to two a day," he said. One of his younger sisters died of starvation.
The village was heavily guarded by Japanese forces.
"I felt like a prisoner," An said in retrospect.
Hospital was a luxury, he said. For the first five years on the island, he never saw a doctor.
"When I cut my finger, my mom wrapped a kimchi leaf around it."
The life of segregation carried on the same way after his father was sent to Japan in 1944.
In 1991, An and his mother came to visit Korea, and found the grave of his father, who apparently came back to Korea right after liberation in 1945.
An's command of the language is evidence of the identity crisis Koreans on the island had to confront.
"I speak little bit of Korean, Russian and Japanese," he said, none of which goes beyond conversational-level. "I never received a comprehensive education in any of the three languages."
Bae Deok-ho of the Korean International Network, a Seoul-based non-governmental organization aiming to have the Korean government compensate workers and their families, said many Koreans on Sakhalin addressed the identity crisis.
"They were at a crossroads. They wanted to keep their Korean heritage and nationality. But (while living in Russia), they needed to acquire Soviet Union citizenship in order to send their kids to school or to work." Some remained on a Korean passport.
An is currently living in a small flat in Yangcheon-gu, Seoul. He pays rent out of the 400,000 won he receives from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs every month.
At the National Assembly, the foreign affairs committee is currently reviewing four bills proposed by four different lawmakers to help those in the same plight.
Settlers request paid-trips to Sakhalin and visits from the island by their family members, a larger monthly allowance that would cover their rent and international phone calls.
Whether the bill can live up to the all the demands is questionable, but above all it lacks political motivation from the members of parliament.
"There's very little awareness among politicians. Some politicians have asked me where Sakhalin is," Bae said.
Rep. Park Sun-young of the opposition Liberty Forward Party, the main author of one of the proposed bills, called for attention from her colleagues to help the forced laborers and their families.
"The bill is sleeping in a committee," Park said, urging her fellow lawmakers during a speech at the parliamentary floor last week.
"The government once abandoned them, but shouldn't do it again. They're getting old. It's time to help them."