The Korea Herald


260 Sakhalin Koreans to return home

By Ahn Sung-mi

Published : Nov. 25, 2021 - 18:11

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Yonhap) Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Yonhap)

Starting Saturday, some 260 Sakhalin Koreans -- ethnic Koreans who were forced to relocate to the far-eastern Russian island by their Japanese colonizers during World War II -- are set to arrive in their ancestral homeland, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday. 

The repatriation is in accordance with legislation that took effect in January, which expanded the eligibility criteria for relocation and financial support from the South Korean government for Sakhalin Koreans. 

Previously, the law restricted the government’s repatriation program to first-generation Sakhalin Koreans -- those who were born before World War II ended in August 1945 -- and their spouses, along with any children of first-generation Sakhalin Koreans with disabilities. 

But the new law now allows each first-generation Sakhalin Korean to bring a spouse plus one direct descendent and that person’s spouse. 

The Foreign Ministry said 337 people will be eligible for relocation this year, with 77 having already settled in South Korea. 

The rest of the 260 returnees will arrive here Saturday through Dec. 10. Only 21 are first-generation Sakhalin Koreans, mostly in their 80s and 90s. The first group of 91 people will arrive here on Saturday. 

Once they land in South Korea, they will stay at a separate facility for 10 days to undergo isolation for COVID-19. After the quarantine steps, they will settle in government-provided housing in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, and Incheon. The returnees will also go through a settlement program run by the Korean Red Cross for three months, during which time they will learn how to adjust to South Korean society -- such as procedures to apply for citizenship, establish bank accounts and access public services. 

A Foreign Ministry official stressed that there are calls to expand the scope of the repatriation program, taking into account that many Sakhalin Koreans have more than one child and have left other family members behind. 

“We need society’s interest so that the program can be expanded in the future,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity. 

Historians estimate that some 150,000 Koreans were forced by Japan to move to the southern half of Sakhalin, which was then controlled by the Japanese, in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japan’s colonial rule. 

The uprooted Koreans ended up working at Japanese-run coal mines, lumber yards, pulp mills and construction sites. 

After Japan’s 1945 surrender in World War II, the Soviet Union took control of all of Sakhalin, and many Koreans moved to Japan or North Korea, a Soviet ally. About one-third of them wished to return to South Korea but weren’t permitted to leave as the US-aligned South had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union -- leaving them effectively stranded and stateless for the next four decades. 

After South Korea and Russia established diplomatic relations in the early 1990s, about 4,400 Koreans were able to return home under the government program. 

The government estimates that some 43,000 Koreans lived on the island when World War II ended. Many have since died, while others decided to stay in Russia to be close to their families.