A South Korean man’s 20-year mission to trace the steps of his long-lost father recently brought him to the site of an old coal mine in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Choi Rak-hun, 73, from Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, came to Japan in the hope of finally discovering what happened to his father, Choi Chon-ho, after losing contact with him as a child immediately after World War II.

Choi believed his father might have worked at the Kaijima coal mine during the war, because a photograph suggested that possibility — the only clue to his father’s whereabouts his mother left before she died in 2007.

A number of workers from the Korean Peninsula were at the mine during the war. Although it was closed in 1976, Choi was able to visit the remains of the mine in the city of Miyawaka and peruse records at a memorial museum run by the city.

“If he had come all the way to Japan and had to do such hard work, I cannot imagine how much he suffered,” Choi said, looking at the pictures and documents displaying the harsh environment at the mine.

Choi had failed to discover any clues until a recent probe by a South Korean government agency found that two of the eight people shown in the photograph with his father had once worked at the mine.

The photograph shows nine young men, with the handwriting at the top saying in Japanese “Daiichi Kyowa Training Members — Taken on Sept. 13, 1942.”

On the back were the Korean names and birthplaces of each person. His father was then 25.

The photo is believed to have been taken in Japan as the Kyowa training squad was a group of workers from the Korean Peninsula organized during the war, and the building behind them appears to be Japanese.

Choi was 2 when his father went to Japan. His father sent a letter every month, but stopped after one shortly after the end of the war in August 1945 that said he would return home in September.

“Did the ship that was carrying him back sink?” Choi wondered. “I have already registered his death with the authorities, but I want to trace his footsteps at least, even if it is not possible to locate his remains.”

Choi joined a group of other next of kin in South Korea 20 years ago to look for his father. He first searched for the eight men in the photo to no avail, as they were already dead or could not be traced.

But the probe by the South Korean agency pointed to the possibility his father may have also been at the Kaijima coal mine in Fukuoka.

Choi’s latest efforts have not borne fruit. On June 24, he visited the Miyawaka Municipal Government’s social education division, which administers the mine museum, to apply for permission to see a list of Koreans who were there during the war.

He was told by an official, however, that the city no longer keeps such lists.

Nonetheless, “By visiting Fukuoka, I feel I was able to get much closer to my father,” Choi said. Addressing the photograph, he added: “I promise to find you before I die.”

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