Time Is Running Out For Elderly Koreans Stranded in Russia

Forced to Work for Japanese During World War II, They Want to Go Home

YUZHNO SAKHALINSK, Russia -- On the outskirts of this city on the remote island of Sakhalin, lies a cemetery reserved for ethnic Koreans. Headstone portraits face east toward the sunrise, the traditional Korean symbol of rebirth and a tribute to the motherland.

It is the closest to home people like 72-year-old Kwon Joon Dal expect they will ever get.

During World War II, when Korea was a Japanese colony and Sakhalin a Japanese conquest, Tokyo pressed Mr. Kwon and some 60,000 other Koreans into work at the island's factories and coal mines. When the war ended, Japan left the Koreans behind. Russia prohibited them from leaving until 1988.

Now, many of the 1,200 first-generation Koreans who remain in Sakhalin want the Japanese government to finance their return to Korea so they can die on their native soil. They note that the Asian women forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese army during World War II were at least allowed to return home. But the Sakhalin Koreans fear time -- and the bureaucracies of Japan, Russia and South Korea -- are working against them.

"The Japanese are just waiting for us to die away so they won't have to pay us," says Mr. Kwon, whose gnarled hands and weathered face reflect a youth spent in slave labor.

Life on this island off the eastern coast of Russia isn't easy. Leather jackets and fox-fur caps help ward off the cold wind that swirls down from the Sea of Okhotsk. Most of the aging Koreans live in clapboard cabins -- known as "Khrushchevs" after the man who had them built -- that are weather-beaten and drafty, with corrugated-steel roofs and cellophane stretched across missing window panes.

Some Sakhalin Koreans, particularly those with wealthy relatives, have returned home. But most, having spent their lives hawking fish in the market that straddles Sakhalin's Japanese-built railroad, or coaxing potatoes and cabbage from the island's stingy soil, are too poor to go home. So they are spending their last years begging for Japan's help.

Ri Chi Kuk, who belongs to a group here that lobbies Tokyo for compensation, was 19 years old when Japanese soldiers snatched him from Korea in 1943 and forced him to work in the coal mines that fed the war machine.

Mr. Ri remembers waking at dawn, marching to the mines with his compatriots, and crouching into tiny carts for the five-mile descent. They chipped at coal with hammers 12 hours a day, six days a week, and gathered the filings by hand. Meals consisted of fish heads, bean paste or leaves, along with a bit of rice.

Many Koreans say they were brought here on "contracts" for a maximum of two years of work and a swift return home. But the Japanese extended many of the contracts. About one in five Koreans died from overwork or disease.

When the war ended, Moscow detained the Koreans to help run Sakhalin's labor-intensive economy. Some remember watching the last boat-load of Japanese depart, leaving hundreds of Koreans on the pier.

Stalin, ever-fearful of ethnic populations as potential pockets of subversion, took no chances in Sakhalin. Soviet police shuttered Korean schools, burned Korean books and banned the Korean language.

In the 1960s, the Sakhalin Koreans say, some accepted an invitation from North Korea to study there. Pyongyang promised their return to Sakhalin after two years. Two years went by and no one was allowed back; many who tried to escape were returned to Pyongyang by Russian border guards, sent to Siberia, or shot.

Things changed after perestroika. Taking advantage of economic reform, many of Sakhalin's second- and third-generation Koreans run successful small businesses. Mixed marriages, once unheard of, are now common.

But such integration deepens the divide between first-generation Koreans and the motherland. Marina Cho, who is in the trading business, says the price of returning her 69-year-old father to Korea is too high. "I'm 50 years old and I have a business to run," she says, kneeling beside her father on his cabin's wooden floor.

Her father, Cho Ki Yeru, nods. He has visited his relatives via one of the free flights to South Korea arranged periodically through the Red Cross. He would like to move back, but relatives there can't afford the burden.

The Sakhalin Koreans say Tokyo should at least pay for their wartime toil. Chae Chong Soo, 75, says he was brought to Sakhalin in 1944 on a contract guaranteeing five yen a day. He was paid only five yen a month, which at the time wouldn't buy dinner for two, he says.

"I want what I was told I'd be paid," he says, producing a hand-written ledger. By Mr. Bok's reckoning, Tokyo owes him 182,000 yen, or about $1,680, after taking inflation into account.

Tokyo still has the Koreans' back pay on deposit and encourages them to collect, provided they can produce the savings book they were issued upon their arrival in Sakhalin. Few Koreans kept them, however. Japan says only two Koreans have collected, a total of about $285 at today's exchange rates. That leaves $1.8 million unclaimed.

Japan last year allocated funds to build a retirement complex in South Korea for 500 Sakhalin Koreans. "We have been sympathetic to their plight," an official at Japan's Foreign Ministry says. But the facility might take years to build, a delay that Kenichi Takagi, a Japanese lawyer representing the Sakhalin Koreans, attributes to foot-dragging by Seoul.

An official at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the government hasn't found a community to accommodate such a large complex.

Meanwhile, the Korean cemetery continues to fill. At funerals, surviving exiles whisper a decades-old poem expressing hope that those back home remember the abducted:

Why don't you write? Have you forgotten the language?

Why don't you come back? Have you forgotten the way?

Standing on the ground of Sakhalin, looking at the moon of native ground.

Why don't you come back, my brothers and sisters?