Sakhalin: merging history and culture

Japan once forcibly sent thousands of Koreans to Sakhalin Island in Russia’s Far East. Elderly people by now, they are torn between the dream of repatriation and their families, for whom Russia has become home.

Sakhalin is a region in Russia’s Far East, famous not only for its stunning beauty and unique wildlife, but also for being one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country.

The ethnic minority groups here include the native Sakhalinians, or Nivkhs, Muslim migrants from Central Asia, and, unexpectedly, a six per cent population of Koreans.

Just under a thousand Koreans were sent to Sakhalin as forced labor migrants to work in coal mines – thus they supplied Tokyo with resources needed for the war. The Japanese occupation ended more than six decades ago and most of the coal mines are no longer operational, but the Koreans are still here.

Now, there are almost fifty times as many ethnic Koreans living on the island, and if the third generation has adapted to life there, many of the older people – who see themselves as forced migrants – still dream of going back. Even their holiday gatherings turn into political rallies.

Korean Kim Yun De prefers to be called “Dyadya Kolya” – “Uncle Kolya” Russian style. Now a 90-year old man, he worked in Sakhalin’s coal mines for more than four decades, under two different political regimes.

He still remembers the night his life changed completely.

Japanese soldiers came to our village in Korea in 1943 and dragged me and some of my family out of our house,” Kim Yun De recalls. “They said they were taking us to Sakhalin to work in a mine, and promised it would only be for two years. But as you can see, I’m still here.”

Kim lives in a small mining village in eastern Sakhalin, which is home to several hundred people who share his story.

Family Reunion is an organization that deals with repatriation and has helped more than 1,500 Koreans return home over the past 20 years. Its president says this number would be even higher, if Tokyo provided help.

We believe Japan is guilty of causing our situation in the first place. Since 1985 we’ve heard Tokyo apologize twice. But it hasn’t gone anywhere from there – there’s been no action. That’s why we rely on our own resources and help from Russia and South Korea,” says Lee Su Jin of Family Reunion.

Moscow’s stance has been to assist the repatriation of the Sakhalin Koreans. And local authorities say they try to do just that. But the number of people wanting to leave is diminishing every year.

We fully co-operate with local Korean organizations on repatriation,” says Irina Korzhova from the Sakhalin administration. “But ethnic Koreans are getting more and more settled into Sakhalin life. They hold positions in the administration, they’re successful in regional business and they get a good education. That’s why some even come back after repatriation to Korea.”

Kim Yun De says he would happily return to Korea, but all of his family is in Sakhalin. So like many within the Diaspora, he sees no point in leaving his home – even if this was not the home he chose.