Sakhalin forced laborers to get Russian pensions

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Sakhalin forced laborers to get Russian pensions

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Kim Jong-dal, a Korean man who was taken to Sakhalin, an island off Russia’s east coast, and forced to work in the coal mines there in 1944, shows his Russian passport, which expired in 1998. He returned to Korea in 1994 and currently lives in Goryeong County in North Gyeongsang. By Gong Jeong-sik

Twenty-five elderly men and women who were forced to work on Russia’s Sakhalin island during the Japanese colonial period have received some good news - despite returning to Korea in the 1990s, they are still eligible for pensions from Russia.

Now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, these men and women were among the thousands conscripted by the Japanese government to work on Sakhalin, off Russia’s east coast.

“I spent 15 hours a day in Japanese coal mines and, while they made me suffer excruciatingly, they barely paid me proper wages,” said Kim Jong-dal, a 94-year-old man forced to work there. “That Russia would give us the wages fills me with thankfulness.”

In November 1944, Kim, then 24 years old, was conscripted and taken to the coal mines of Sakhalin. Korea won independence the following year, on Aug. 15, but Kim was stuck on Sakhalin because Korea did not have official relations with the Soviet Union at the time.

Kim eventually married a Sakhalin woman and raised a family there. “But I never forgot my motherland,” he told the JoongAng Ilbo.

After Korea and Russia established diplomatic ties in 1991, he was finally able to return home. In 1993, Kim acquired a Russian passport and, with a group of 45 former conscripted workers in Sakhalin, returned to Korea the following year.

Kim left behind his family and ended up staying at a nursing home in Goryeong County for former conscripted workers.

These returned workers received Korean resident registration cards, permanent residency and eventually Korean nationality. Since then, more former conscripted workers have returned to Korea, and in Kim’s nursing home alone, 150 people returned from Sakhalin. Most of them have since passed away, and only 25 remain in that nursing home.

Kim, along with most of those former conscripted workers who had retired in Sakhalin, initially received a national pension from the Russian government.

But after the returned to Korea and their Russian passports expired, those pensions were cut off.

At the time, Kim thought there was nothing he could do about it.

But Shin Wol-sik, the director of the nursing home, eventually learned about the situation and decided to get in touch with the Russian consulate in Busan.

Unexpectedly, they were told that pension payments were possible “if their identities were confirmed.”

On Jan. 29, diplomats from the Russian consulate in Busan visited the nursing home, bringing presents, including Russian bread and sausages.

They confirmed the identities of the 25 survivors and took their photos. After their identities were confirmed, they renewed the passports of the 15 whose passports had expired. For the remaining 10, they issued documents needed to resume receiving pension payments.

They were told by the Russian Consulate General that regardless of acquiring Korean nationality, they will “always be Russian citizens,” as Moscow allows dual nationalities.

These former conscripts of the Japanese government are expected to receive their renewed passports and other documentations confirming their identities as early as the end of this month.

Afterwards, they will be able to apply for pensions, which can be as much as 1.5 million won ($1,408) over a three-month period.

“These former conscripted workers from Sakhalin held as their dream all their lives to return back home but were largely shunned by their relatives and have lived lonely lives,” said Shin. “So the news that Russia will continue to pay them pensions has been a great solace.”

“I will send the pension to my son, who is still in Russia,” said Kim.

An estimated 4,000 former conscripted workers returned to Korea from Sakhalin.

BY SONG YEE-HO, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]


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