Tue, 08 Feb 2000

Korean forced laborer comes home after 58 years

By Jun Kwan-woo

ANSAN, South Korea (AFP): It took 58 years for Son Yong-chol, snatched from Korea by Japan's Imperial Army to toil as a forced laborer, to realize his dream: To return home to die.

Son, 76, was one of 118 elderly Koreans forced into the service of Japan's Imperial army in the 1940s who returned here last week after Seoul, Tokyo and Moscow united to end their long exile.

"Coming back an ailing and old man, I wish to be buried in this soil, my warm motherland," the 76-year-old said, brimming with emotion.

A native of Taegu, 189 miles (118 kilometers) south of Seoul, Son had to leave home at the age of 18 when he was sent to work in a coal mine on Sakhalin island, off far eastern Russia, in 1942.

Japan conscripted an estimated 45,000 Koreans for forced labor on Sakhalin during its brutal 1910-1945 rule here, according to government statistics, effectively banishing them from their homeland for half a century.

The draftees' life was tough and dangerous, working endless hours in dark and dusty coal mines with little food available.

"We felt always hungry because only a handful of grain was rationed to us," Son recalled. "We all under strict, round-the- clock surveillance by armed Japanese soldiers."

Four of his colleagues died in dynamite explosions at the mine. "Their skeletons are still buried somewhere in the cold land thousands of miles away from home."

His ordeal seemed close to an end in August 1945 when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, freeing Korea from Tokyo's brutal colonial rule.

But it was not to be. The Soviet Union seized control of Sakhalin from Japan and the Cold War set in. Most of the laborers became Soviet citizens.

They became trapped behind the Iron Curtain while the Korean peninsula was divided into two -- the Stalinist North and the capitalist South, and the world settled in for a half-century- long standoff.

"We all dreamed every day of fleeing Sakhalin and returning home after we were freed from Japanese rule," Son said.

"But we were abandoned as confrontation erupted between communists and capitalists. We cried helplessly to be allowed to come home, but no-one listened us for decades."

"We used to feel bitter towards our homeland for neglecting us."

A total of 36,000 ethnic Koreans, including the descendants of first-generation workers, still live in Sakhalin.

An initial breakthrough was only made in 1994 when Japan agreed to share the costs of the repatriatiation as it moved to right its record with Seoul over the highly emotional issue of its occupation.

That accord, made four years after Moscow and Seoul set up diplomatic ties after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ultimately led Russia to agree to send its ethnic Korean citizens who wanted to return back to Seoul.

But it took six more years to realize as plans for accommodation, financial aid and other welfare benefits were laid out in Seoul for the 1,000-odd workers and their spouses who had indicated they wanted to return.

The 118 are the first official batch of 810 former forced laborers and their spouses who plan to leave their adopted home of 50 years and settle here. Another 149 have trickled into the country over the years.

An apartment complex to house 978 of them was built here at Ansan, southwest of Seoul, while a nursing home for 100 ailing and disabled draftees was erected in the western port of Inchon.

They were built with Japanese money, while Seoul provided the land.

But the scheme requires some sacrifice for the long-suffering senior citizens: only former draftees and their spouses are eligible, forcing many to leave behind close relatives in Sakhalin when they return to Korea.

"In one way, I am happy to be back here," Son said. "But in other ways, I feel sad to have left my lovely children."

But the opportunity to return home at last was too important to lose. "I thought this might be the last chance for me to come home before dying."