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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Native Koreans Stuck in Sakhalin Return Home

ReutersSouth Koreans rejoicing in their homecoming, after years of being stateless.
INCHEON, South Korea -- Korean Park Jung-ja spent the first six decades of her life on wind-swept Sakhalin, the bad breaks of the Cold War making her a citizen of nowhere. Now, she has finally found a home in suburban Seoul.

Park, 68, is one of hundreds of Koreans returning to the country of their ancestors after being stranded on the island since the end of World War II.

"I have waited to come here my whole life. My [late] husband said he would even walk across the water from Sakhalin to Korea if he could."

About 150,000 Koreans made their way to Sakhalin in the early 1940s, at a time when Japan ruled Korea as a colony and held the lower half of Sakhalin.

The Koreans -- some forced into working for the Japanese army and others desperate for jobs -- ended up in backbreaking labor at Japanese-run coal mines, lumber yards and pulp mills.

When the war ended, many found their way to Japan or to North Korea. About one-third, most of them with family in what became South Korea, were left behind, stateless.

Their Japanese nationality was gone, the Soviets did not claim them, and Moscow was not about to send them home to a U.S.-backed state.

"My parents didn't go to Sakhalin with thoughts of staying." said Lee Mi-sook, 67, who returned to South Korea on Oct. 18.

"They needed money and were planning to work for three or five years. But the doors slammed shut and they ended up getting stuck there," said Lee, who left a son behind in Russia.

Lee and her husband, who speak Russian at home, now live in a small but modern apartment about an hour west of Seoul. It took years of negotiations among Japan, Russia and South Korea to devise a repatriation plan.

Japan, which says all its compensation claims with South Korea were settled by an accord the two signed decades ago, has quietly and on humanitarian grounds helped fund the return, South Korea's Overseas Information Service said.

Han Jae-ho / Reuters
Ahn Maeng-hwan, 76, displaying the driver's license he used in Sakhalin.
The Koreans receive rent subsidies, pensions and health insurance from the South Korean government, with Japan kicking in money for their transport and appliances for their new homes.

The first group of 900 Sakhalin Koreans came back in 2000. The current program, open to Koreans 65 and older, has been relocating another 610 people since the start of October.

"My parents wanted to come back so much. They spent their days crying until they finally passed away," said Chung Young-ja, 67, who went with her parents to Sakhalin when she was a toddler.

South Korea says there are still 3,200 first-generation Koreans on Sakhalin.

On leaving Russia, Chung and her husband, Chang Jung-gi, left behind three children and seven grandchildren who are settled in the country and are never likely to live in South Korea.

Among the pictures they brought back from Sakhalin is one of a memorial stone to the Koreans who waited in vain at a harbor for a refugee ship to take them home.

"Our parents waited there for years and years but the ship never came. They missed their homes so much," Chang said.

After about 15 years of being stateless, many of the Koreans left for North Korea in the early 1960s, when the Communist state was economically more advanced than the South.

New arrival Lee Mi-sook said, "My heart finally feels like it is at home."