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SKorea’s WWII Victims Return Home

January 12, 1998

KORYONG, South Korea (AP) _ The stooped, white-haired man walks slowly down the dimly lit corridor of a nursing home, stopping frequently to rest.

For Kwon Kyong-han, a former slave laborer, this is home _ but not the one he was forced to leave more than a half-century ago and will never know again.

Kwon was 24 when Japanese occupation police came to his village and rounded up young Korean men during World War II. They were forced into the boxcars of a train and then herded onto a coastal freighter.

Two weeks later, the bewildered youths found themselves on the icy, wind-battered island of Sakhalin off Siberia, toiling in airfields and coal mines that were part of Japan’s military machine.

The war ended a year later and the Japanese scurried home. But the Koreans were trapped _ for more than 50 years _ when the Iron Curtain came crashing down, shutting all the doors to pro-Western South Korea, where most of the slave laborers came from.

Kwon, now 78, considers himself lucky to be among 270 Koreans allowed to return home under a complex deal still being worked out by Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Of 43,000 Koreans conscripted for forced labor in Sakhalin, only 7,000 are still alive. Among the few who have made it home so far, some were so fragile they died within days of arriving.

``I don’t know what all this business is about, living the life I have lived,″ said Kwon, gazing at the rice fields and pine trees surrounding his nursing home.

Kwon’s memory sometimes fails him and he speaks with difficulty because his lungs were damaged from inhaling coal dust. But like other residents of the nursing home, he remembers World War II as if it ended yesterday.

``We were cold and hungry. We ate our breakfast at dawn _ one-third bean, one-third rotten rice and one-third coal dust,″ he said. ``When we returned from the mines at night, we just dropped and slept.

``Many good young men were wasted,″ Kwon added.

``There was a man who tried to run away. They caught him hiding in the spruces. They clubbed him so badly his hands and feet were mashed. They tied him at a stake for all of us to see but not to touch. When I managed to bring some water at night, he was already dead.″

Unlike ``comfort women″ _ Asian women forced to be sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army _ Sakhalin’s abandoned workers rarely drew international attention. They were forgotten victims of World War II and the Cold War.

After the war, hoping they would soon return home, many refused to take Soviet citizenship. They lived from hand to mouth in a place where economic conditions were severe even by Soviet standards.

``Every year, we hoped we would go home the next year,″ said another returnee, Chang Man-sool, 71,

``Ten and twenty years passed, and we despaired. One night, we sat around a radio set and cried all night when we heard the voice of a friend’s wife on South Korean radio reading a letter to her husband in Sakhalin.″

The door finally opened when the Soviet Union collapsed and South Korea opened diplomatic relations with Russia in 1990.

But repatriations have been painfully slow. The forced laborers demanded that the Japanese compensate them for their shattered lives. Tokyo resisted, fearing that would open the door to endless legal battles. Russia, unhappy with a decreasing population on barren Sakhalin, demanded compensation for those who remain and their children as well.

After years of talks, the first group of 76 people arrived in South Korea in 1992. Kwon’s group came last February. But thousands remain on Sakhalin.

For those who made it home, the transition was hard. They found their parents and close relatives long dead. Distant relatives refused to accept them. Their homes were gone.

So, for most of the elderly, ailing people, charities like the Dae Chang Nursing Home, a four-story, red brick building near Koryong, 145 miles southeast of Seoul, are about all that life back in South Korea has to offer.

The 56 residents at Dae Chang live four to a room. In the common areas, men and women play Chinese chess and idly warm themselves in the afternoon sun.

Some do simple assembly work in the home’s basement. They save the earnings and an $11 monthly government allowance to buy toys for their grandchildren in Sakhalin.

``I thought everything would be all right once I got back to South Korea,″ said Yoo Soon-nam, 77. ``But I lose a lot of sleep thinking of my children back in Sakhalin. I want to bring them here and live my last days with them.″

A few of the returnees have gone back to Sakhalin.

For Kwon, there is no going back.

``I don’t have much to do here, except to wait an end. But I don’t want to be buried in Sakhalin. It was too cold there.″

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