INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) - 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 Russian Far East island since the end of World War Two in 1945.
“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, a Soviet ally. About a 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 October 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.
LONGING TO RETURN
Lee and her husband, who speak Russian at home, now live in a small but modern flat 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.
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.
LIFE IN LIMBO
It took 45 years for the stranded Sakhalin Koreans to be given the option of heading to the South, when the Soviet Union and Seoul established diplomatic ties in 1990.
Many only caught their first glimpse of the South in 1988 when Seoul hosted the Olympics and Soviet state TV carried images of the Summer Games.
Yet the Koreans left behind established their own community on the island, holding Korean-style weddings and keeping their native tongue alive as best they could.
“We were raised in Sakhalin, educated there and everything. But no matter what, I am truly Korean,” said Chung. “It was so very painful to be in limbo for so many years.”
Twice a week, buses roll up to the apartment complex in Incheon that the returnees now call home. Those who arrived a few weeks earlier line the streets to greet them as Red Cross volunteers escort the new arrivals to their new homes.
The Red Cross helps the arrivals to secure their South Korean citizenship and adjust to life in a country now known for its high-tech gadgets.
“We have to teach them how to use the transport system and how electronic banking works,” said Lee Sang-hon, a South Korean Red Cross official. “They say it is like heaven here.”
New arrival Lee Mi-sook said: “My heart finally feels like it is at home.”
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