By Lee Jin-woo
Some 3,100 Koreans in Sakhalin, an island off the far eastern end of Russia, who were mostly mobilized by Japan during the 1939-45 period, have expressed the desire to return to their ancestral land.
A total of 150,000 Koreans were forcibly taken to the island, which was then a territory of Japan, to work in coal mines and lumber yards during World War II.
Excluding 100,000 Koreans who were subsequently sent to the mainland of Japan, about 43,000 forced laborers had to remain on the island with no nationality for up to three decades.
``The government should no longer waste time. It should help Koreans in Sakhalin spend the rest of their lives in their home country,’’ said Go Chang-nam, the leader of senior returnees at Kohyangmaul, an apartment complex for resettlement in Ansan, southwestern Kyonggi Province.
``It’s already too late to provide them with appropriate compensation as most of them are in their 80s,’’ he said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Now, 854 repatriates from the Russian island live in the apartment complex, which was opened in 2000 with financial support of 3.2 billion yen ($27.8 million) from Japan.
The joint program between South Korea and Japan was actually delayed six years by the South Korean government, which was responsible for preparing land and pensions for the returnees.
So far, some 1,600 returnees have been able to return to South Korea for permanent settlement since 1992.
``Unlike Japan, which helped almost all of its people return to their country after the war, Koreans living in Sakhalin were neglected, forgotten both by the intruders and their fellow Koreans since the end of the colonial period,’’ Go added.
Go said many ethnic Korean groups in Sakhalin had felt they were being ignored as there had been no official reply from the South Korean government for those 3,100 Sakhalin Koreans after sending official requests to the government, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, repeatedly in the last few years.
``I’m satisfied with my current situation, although it’s not perfect. I’m happy to be here,’’ Go, who regained his Korean nationality in 2000, said. ``However, it’s so heartbreaking whenever I think about the remaining Koreans who yearn to come here.’’
He was born in 1935 in Sakhalin to Korean parents, who went there to find a job, instead of being forced by Japanese mobilization.
It was 1956 when Go decided to gain Russian nationality in order to enter a university as there was no institute for higher education on the island.
He said that movement, even on the island, was strictly regulated for ethnic Koreans without Russian nationality, not to mention educational opportunities on the mainland.
Go disagreed with the recent announcement of the Korean National Red Cross (KNRC) to help some 120 Sakhalin Koreans settle down in a new sanatorium under construction in Ansan and vacant rooms available at Kohyangmaul.
Although the KNRC said some 20 people would first arrive here in March, Go said it would be impossible for the current residents of the apartment complex to accept them.
``Due to the lack of space, strangers had to live together in some 50 apartments here. It has caused many problems in our community as it’s not easy for an older person to accept another old person’s different way of living,’’ Go said.
He suggested the remodeling of the current apartment complex so that more seniors can come to South Korea to spend their remaining years comfortably after their hardships in the foreign country.
``The most serious problem we face is the lack of free medical treatment,’’ Go said. ``Most of us receive around 350,000 won per month from the government. My wife and I get 700,000 won and pay about 150,000 won for the maintenance fees including electricity and water. It’s very difficult to cover medical costs if a person needs to get an intensive medical treatment.’’
Many local news media and experts have called for a special law for those Sakhalin returnees similar to the special support offered to ``comfort women’’ or sex slaves to Japanese military so that those seniors can receive free medical treatment.
``A Japanese lawyer has told us to file a compensation lawsuit against the Japanese government to claim about 1.7 billion yen in overdue salaries for the Korean forced laborers who were never paid by the Japanese government,’’ Go said.
``But, as the situation took place a long time ago, only four to five people among us still keep the bank notes. And there’s so many other things to be clarified as the total amount includes some money for Japanese people as well.’’