BUSAN, South Korea – Let’s be honest: my family is totally messed up. Messed up in a good sense thoughâas our cultural background and traditions are a mix of those from two different countries, Russia and Korea. Growing up in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the largest city on the Russian island of Sakhalin, I naturally accepted that at every family meal there would be both Olivier salad and kimchi awaiting me on the table. And I never thought twice when my Korean grandmother switched back and forth between the tongue of Mother Russia and that of Korea. This was my life.
Of the many cross-cultural occurrences that took place within the walls of my home, perhaps the one thing I took for granted was the story of how these two cultures converged not so long ago and how the historical fusing of Russians and Koreans on Sakhalin continues to this day.
My maternal great grandfather, Seo Jeong-chun, moved from Gyeongsang Province in Korea to Sakhalin, in the very far east of Russia, on New Year’s Eve of 1942 as part of the forced migration of Korean workers that started in the late 30’s as the resource-hungry Japanese Empire’s National Mobilization Law obligated every Korean family to send at least one male to work in the mines or the lumber mills.
At the peak of World War II, along with 400,000 Japanese civilians, roughly 150,000 migrant Koreans lived on Sakhalin. Due to my great grandfather’s elevated status within the Yangban (??) systemâthe traditional Korean noble class during the reign of the Joseon DynastyâJeong-chun was not subject to the mobilization law. He followed his fellow countrymen simply to find work and to settle an urge for adventure.
Unfortunately, roughly 43,000 were refused repatriation by Japan and were stranded on Sakhalin. Additionally, they were refused entry into Korea and so, unable to return home and barred from Soviet citizenship, the Sakhalin Koreans were a people without a countryâcut off from all contact with the outside world under Soviet rule.
After his arrival, Jeong-chun was assigned work in a mine in the southeastern part of the island. Though inhospital to most, Jeong-chun quickly adjusted to his new environment. A year after his arrival he sent for his wife, Jeong-sun, and their two daughters to come join him.
After promising her family that she would return home in no more than two years, Jeong-sun and her girls arrived in Sakhalin towards the end of 1943. Reunited on foreign soil, the couple went about living their lives, soon adding two more daughters to the mix. Two years later, everything would change.
After the War
As World War II drew to a close, the empire found itself surrounded by American and Russian forces. Following the Soviet invasion of Sakhalin and Japan’s defeat in the war, more than 400,000 Japanese civilians living there were allowed to return to the Japanese mainland. Of the 150,000 Koreans, most safely returned to Japan, with many of those then going to the Soviet controlled northern part of the Korean peninsula to restart their lives.
Unfortunately, roughly 43,000 were refused repatriation by Japan and were stranded on Sakhalin. Additionally, they were refused entry into Korea and so, unable to return home and barred from Soviet citizenship, the Sakhalin Koreans were a people without a country âcut off from all contact with the outside world under Soviet rule.
The Soviets set about trying to integrate them by establishing Korean language-based schools, but their Russian overlords believed the Sakhalin Koreans to be ‘infected with the Japanese spirit’âa belief that prevented them from establishing collective farms, mills, factories, schools, or hospitals under the Soviet system.
In one of history’s great ironies, the task of establishing Korean-run organizations was given to several hundred ethnic Koreans from Central Asia who were bilingual in Russian and Hangul. In short, imported Koreans were used to organize and employ imported Koreans.
During the decades following WWII, the Republic of Korea chose not to provide assistance to their stranded countrymen. At that time the number one priority was economic recovery. Japan also ignored most requests for Korean repatriation, granting permission only to those having either a Japanese parent or a Japanese spouse.
Despite the adversity, my grandparents remained resilient âespecially my grandmother. One of her gifts was a talent for telling stories. As a young girl in Korea, her grandfather often read books aloud and Jeong-sun relished every word. In Sakhalin, she quickly became known for her hospitality and reputation as an amazing story-teller. Every evening, five or six families would gather under one roof and talk until late in the evening. The conversations would generally start with small talk before turning to musings on Korea, the motherland they longed for.
The years passed. Then in 1966, Park No-hak, a former Sakhalin Korean who had returned to Japan with his Japanese wife, petitioned the Japanese government 23 times to discuss the issue of the Sakhalin Koreans with the Soviet government. His actions, along with separate efforts by Tokyo housewife Rei Mihara and a team of 18 Japanese lawyers suing the Japanese government to accept diplomatic and financial responsibility for the repatriation of Sakhalin Koreans to South Korea, an inspired group of Koreans in Seoul began radio broadcasts targeted at Sakhalin with the intent of assuring their people that they had not been forgotten.
It wasn’t until the 80’s when perestroika in the Soviet Union lifted the Iron Curtain between Sakhalin and the outside world. In 1985, after years of pressure from their own citizens and the outside world, the Japanese government established a repatriation fund for first generation of Sakhalin Koreans. This was later followed by the 1990 apology by the Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Nakayama.
‘Japan is deeply sorry for the tragedy in which these people were moved to Sakhalin not of their own free will, but by the design of the Japanese government, and had to remain there after the conclusion of the war.
In the late 1990’s, the government of South Korea, awash in its new found wealth, partnered with the Japanese government in launching programs allowing all Sakhalin Koreans the chance to return home. Both the original settlers and their locally-born descendants were given grants for visiting Korea and, if they wished, repatriation. By the end of 2002, 1,544 Koreans had settled in a joint Korean-Japanese district in Ansan, just south of Seoul. An additional 14,122 people travelled to South Korea on short-term visas at the expense of the Japanese government.
However, a growing regional economy in Sakhalin and the cultural assimilation of the younger generation of Koreans drove more than 95% of them to stay on Russian soil. And 10% of the 1,544 repatriated Koreans living in Ansan eventually returned to Sakhalin.
Koreans who remain from the first generation of settlers, along with their locally-born descendants, make up 12% of the local population, with 55,000 Koreans now living on the island. Many of those have inter-married and raised families with Russian citizens. While much of the younger generation no longer speaks Hangul, it is estimated that around 30% of Koreans living in Sakhalin continue to refuse Russian citizenship.
Two of my maternal grandmothers, who were born in Sakhalin, visited Korea several times before finally settling down in Incheon in December of last year. Jeong-sun would no doubt be proud that her children are finally back home.
Karina Druzhinina is a visiting student in the Department of International Studies at Dongseo University in Busan.
Photos courtesy of Karina Druzhinina