Citizens of nowhere return after decades
|Park Woo-cheon, 81, a Sakhalin repatriate now living in an apartment complex in Ansan, Gyeonggi, said Thursday, “For us, the liberation of Aug. 15, 1945 has not come yet.” By Hwang Young-jin|
Go Chang-nam, 72, said he always knew Korea was his home, even though he’d never been there.
After World War II ended, he and 40,000 other ethnic Koreans living in Sakhalin, now Russia’s largest island, were stranded ― citizens of nowhere.
Japan, which had moved them to Sakhalin to work as laborers, no longer considered them citizens. Russia, which took control of the island, didn’t either ― although some were later allowed to apply for citizenship. And South Korea had no diplomatic relations with Russia.
So most of them lived for decades without a country to call home, or even a passport.
Although South Korea was less than three hours away by plane, it was a place they could only imagine.
“When Japan lost World War II,” Go said, “the Japanese government took only its people back, even the bones of the dead. We also had Japanese nationality until 1945, but the Japanese government didn’t care about our trip back home.”
Go, speaking in an office at his home in Ansan, Gyeonggi, said he applied for Russian citizenship when he was in his late teens. Go was 65 when he came to Korea for the first time.
He is now the head of the Ansan Gohyang Maeul Elders’ Association of Sakhalin Repatriates. About 820 Koreans from Sakhalin live in an apartment complex there, while another 800 live in other parts of South Korea.
Recently, the Korean Red Cross and the government announced that 610 more Koreans from Sakhalin will be coming to live in Nonhyeon-dong, Incheon by the end of the year. As they did in 2000, the government will provide the repatriates with free use of an apartment and a pension, about 500,000 won ($530) a month.
That is better than the $100 or so per month pension Go said he gets from Russia. He and the other former Sakhalin residents who live in Ansan are mostly retired.
Go said he’s happy with his life in the Gohyang neighborhood.
“So are the others,” he said. “None of the Sakhalin repatriates have returned to Sakhalin.”
Still, they miss their families.
“For us, the liberation of Aug. 15, 1945 has not come yet,” said Park Woo-cheon, 81, who left Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang for Sakhalin when he was 17. He didn’t have any citizenship until 2000, when he became a Korean.
But to him, some things are more important than nationality. “My family and I; my parents and siblings, became part of a diaspora,” he said.
Park said he chose to come to Sakhalin in 1943, then never saw his parents again. In 2000, he parted with his sons and grandsons to come to Korea, when the first ethnic Koreans from Sakhalin were allowed to return for the first time. “We welcome the government’s decision to bring in 610 more, but we also need the government to allow our offspring to come into Korea,” he said.
Just getting that far has been a long battle. In 1976, Sakhalin resident Do Man-sang asked the Russian government to allow his family to return to South Korea. He was one of the first to challenge the system. Instead, in January 1977, Russia sent him and seven other family members to North Korea. In November of that year, four men and their families were deported to North Korea after asking to return to South Korea.
South Korea and Russia reestablished diplomatic ties in 1991. However, it took another nine years before the Sakhalin residents were allowed to repatriate here.
“It was basically a financial problem,” said Lee Gang-min, manager of the education and culture team of the Overseas Korean Foundation. Korea was worried that if the former laborers returned here without any financial support, it could cause problems in society.
Finally, in 2000, the Korean government agreed to give them a pension and an apartment. That year, 820 residents moved to Korea.
Lee, who is working on a number of projects to support the Koreans in Sakhalin, said the Korean government has agreed to bring in all Sakhalin Koreans who wish to return by the year 2010.
“The Japanese government has been a very big help,” Lee said. “The Gohyang Maeul apartments [in Ansan], which have 489 units, were built with Japanese government funds.”
Another ethnic Korean from Sakhalin, Jang Seong-ok, said the Russian and Korean governments need to work more actively to bring the other Koreans in Sakhalin back.
“Did we fight with the Russians?” he said. “I remember my friends killing themselves because they couldn’t come back home ... I understand proper procedures are required, but does it really take years to bring a few hundred people back to their country? The people and I have waited for more than 60 years to come back home.”
Oh Yeong-jo, 83, originally from Daegu, remembers times when he was refused service in a restaurant. “The restaurant owner said, ‘Go back home.’ I wanted to yell back and say that I wanted to, but the Russian government wouldn’t let me.”
Oh, however, said nothing.
Go said he never forgot his homeland of Korea, “especially when I faced discrimination.”
He was born in Sakhalin in 1935. “The Japanese government started drafting Koreans and even Japanese ... starting in 1943, but my father arrived in Sakhalin at least seven years earlier. He came after seeing a recruitment bulletin in his hometown.”
Go’s father worked in the mines, hewed timber and performed other jobs. He died in 1978 without ever becoming a citizen of any country.
Around 1958, Go said, representatives from North Korea came and tried to convince the Sakhalin people to move there. They talked about how good the country was and said North Korea could offer a full education without any problems of racial discrimination.
“The approach was quite friendly, with free Pyongyang tours and all that,” he said. Some Koreans living there left for North Korea, he said, but not many.
The main reason, Go said, is most of the Sakhalin residents are from the southern parts of Korea: the Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces.
Although discrimination still exists in the free market, the diligent ones are the victors, Go said. “Koreans in Sakhalin are very good at making money,” he said.
Go and others, however, realize some customs have changed. “Koreans in Sakhalin still keep the traditional way in weddings, but here it’s all Western.”
He and the others also cook Russian dishes occasionally, and the supermarket in the apartment complex carries Russian ingredients.
Still, he has a hard time with one aspect of Korean society.
“Education is the biggest thing I can’t understand,” Go said. “I feel pity for Korean kids who have to wake up early in the morning and stay up late to go to cram schools. And still, Korean university graduates are no better than those from other countries.”
By Hwang Young-jin Staff Writer[email@example.com]