Asia Life | Society | East Asia

70 Years Later, Families of Koreans Forced Into Labor Are Desperate for Answers

Thousands of conscripted Korean men vanished on Sakhalin Island, victims of first Japan’s brutal rule and then the harsh geopolitics of the Cold War.

By Kim Tong-Hyung for
70 Years Later, Families of Koreans Forced Into Labor Are Desperate for Answers

Lee Gwang-nam holding a photo of his father Lee Dol-mong speaks during an interview at the house of Shin Yun-sun, not in photo, in Seoul, South Korea Wednesday, July 29, 2020. Lee, 76, and Shin, 75, are among about 400 aging relatives who hope to bring back the remains of family members who went missing on Sakhalin Island after being conscripted for labor by Imperial Japan.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Shin Yun-sun describes her life as a maze of dead ends.

The South Korean has spent many of her 75 years pestering government officials, digging into records, and searching burial grounds on a desolate Russian island, desperately searching for traces of a father she never met.

Shin wants to bring back the remains of her presumed-dead father for her ailing 92-year-old mother, Baek Bong-rye. Japan’s colonial government conscripted Shin’s father for forced labor from their farming village in September 1943, when Baek was pregnant with Shin.

As the 75th anniversary of the end of the war nears, the thousands of conscripted Korean men who vanished on Sakhalin Island are a largely forgotten legacy of Japan’s brutal rule of the Korean Peninsula, which ended with Tokyo’s August 15, 1945, surrender.

Shin vows to never stop searching for her father but fears time is running out.

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“Family members (of Sakhalin laborers) are dying every day, and I can’t even put into words how impatient I feel,” Shin recently told The Associated Press at her Seoul home.

It’s unclear what happened to many of the forced Korean conscripts on Sakhalin. They disappeared during extreme tumult.

World War II ended with the Korean Peninsula divided into a Soviet-backed north and U.S.-backed south, and the devastating 1950-53 Korean War followed. In the ensuing decades, Cold War animosities saw the rival Koreas regularly threatening each other with war.

About 400 aging relatives like Shin hope to bring back the remains of the missing workers, seeking closure after years of emotional misery and economic hardship.

Historians say Japan forcibly mobilized around 30,000 Koreans as workers during the late 1930s and 1940s on what was then called Karafuto, or the Japanese-occupied southern half of Sakhalin, near the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

They endured grueling labor in coal mines and logging and construction sites as part of Imperial Japan’s wartime economy, which became heavily dependent on conscripted Korean labor when Japanese men were sent to war fronts.

Families thought their loved ones would return when Japan’s surrender in WWII cemented the Soviet Union’s full control over Sakhalin.

Soviet authorities repatriated thousands of Japanese nationals from Sakhalin. But they refused to send back the Koreans, who had become stateless after the war, apparently to meet labor shortages in the island’s coal mines and elsewhere.

Moscow’s attitude hardened further after Communist ally North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950; most of the Korean laborers in Sakhalin had come from the South.

South Korea and Russia established diplomatic relations in 1990 and about 4,000 Koreans have returned from Sakhalin since. But people like Shin who lost track of their relatives long before then have seen little progress.

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“The Soviet Union detained him, prevented him from going home and exploited his labor,” Shin said about her father, who, according to Russian records, worked at a logging site at least until the end of 1951.

The Russian government “should at least find and send back his remains.”

Last year, Shin and other relatives submitted petitions to a United Nations group for help locating 25 Sakhalin Koreans. The U.N. group in June asked Russia’s government to search for 10 of them first, said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal advocate from the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group who has helped with the petitions.

While Soviet authorities offered the Korean workers Soviet or North Korean citizenship beginning in the 1950s, many chose to remain stateless in hopes of eventually returning to South Korea.

When some Korean workers protested for a return to South Korea in 1976, Soviet officials responded by sending 40 of them and their families to North Korea, a move that silenced further complaints.

Until the 1990s, it was also difficult for South Koreans to campaign for repatriation because people with family connections in communist countries were often stigmatized amid broad anti-communist sentiment.

Shin said it has only been the last two decades when relatives felt comfortable talking openly about their missing fathers. This meant their plight got less attention than other atrocities tied to Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, including military sexual slavery and labor conscriptions to mainland Japan, said Bang Il-kwon, a scholar at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Another searching family member, Lee Gwang-nam, 76, bears a striking resemblance to his missing father, who was conscripted on the same day as Shin’s father from their hometown of Imsil.

Lee is eager to end a “lifelong wait” by his 93-year-old mother, who wants to be buried with her husband when she dies.

Lee received a letter from an ethnic Korean in Sakhalin in 1990 who claimed of hearing that his father had died, sometime in the late 1960s. He still has no idea where his father was buried.

It wasn’t until 2011 when a South Korean government commission investigating colonial-era forced mobilization arranged joint efforts with Russia to identify and return the remains of the Koreans in Sakhalin who died before the 1990s.

After spending years examining dozens of the island’s poorly kept cemeteries, where stone or wooden markers were often missing, damaged, or indistinguishable, South Korean researchers concluded in 2015 that at least 5,000 graves belonged to Korean forced laborers.

But the efforts lost momentum after Seoul’s previous conservative government refused to extend the commission’s mandate after 2015. There’s been little talk about reviving the activities under the liberal government of President Moon Jae-in, which has clashed with Japan over other wartime grievances but also wants engagement with North Korea.

Bang, who traveled extensively to Sakhalin in past years while helping with the South Korean searches, said the findings remain partial because Russia has refused to allow extensive access to past records of foreign residents, which it protests over privacy safeguards.

Chung Su-jin can’t remember the face of the father he last saw in 1942.

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He does remember the packed truck that drove away with his father and other labor conscripts from their village in Uiseong. Chung’s grandfather scurried across a river in hopes of seeing his son one last time, but the workers were already gone.

Chung’s family, which was already poor, struggled desperately in his father’s absence. Chung said he worked as a farmhand for other households from the age of 6, so that he could eat and help support his mother, now dead, and two younger siblings.

“All I inherited was poverty,” said Chung, who at 83 still cleans buildings to make ends meet.

While Seoul has said it hopes to reach a new agreement with Moscow that would expand efforts to find and return the remains, Lee Sang-won, an official from Seoul’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety, admits nothing has been fleshed out yet.

Shin bristles at the slow progress.

“Who knows how long it will be before my mother is gone, too?” she said.

By Kim Tong-Hyung for the Associated Press in Seoul, South Korea.