SAKHALIN ISLAND, Russia – On remote Sakhalin Island, near Russia’s eastern edge, tales of longing and splintered identity are embedded in people’s very names.
Some people here have three different names — Russian, Korean and Japanese — each representing a different chapter of the island’s centurylong history of forced resettlement and war.
Taeko Nisio got her name from Japanese authorities in 1939 after she arrived on Sakhalin, at 8 years old, when it was a part of Japan’s empire. The Soviets captured the island at the end of World War II, and her new Russian friends started calling her Tanya. But in the beginning, Nisio’s name was Jeon Chae-ryeon, and after eight decades, she is finally making plans to return to where she was born — South Korea.
“Mom,” Nisio’s daughter Kim Geum-hee recalls exclaiming when the South Korean Consulate phoned at their concrete apartment block this fall. “We’re going home!”
The Koreans of Sakhalin Island, a people stranded by history, are on the move yet again. A South Korean law took effect this year allowing more of Sakhalin’s Korean diaspora to return to their ancestral homeland, a moment of long-delayed redemption for a people brought here as laborers three generations ago and then left stateless under Soviet rule.
But the story of the Sakhalin Koreans, now numbering about 25,000 on this 600-mile-long Pacific island, is also a very Russian story of emigration and the long shadow of war. Though Seoul this year broadened the scope of those Sakhalin Koreans being given government support to return, most still do not qualify — forcing the thousands who do to make often wrenching decisions about staying or going, and potentially leaving family behind.
“There will be more broken families,” said Pak Sun Ok, director of an advocacy group for Sakhalin Koreans in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island’s main city. “This wound is being opened up again.”
So many people have been coming in to ask about the possibility of leaving that a printed-out sign hangs downstairs at the Korean Cultural Center: “Check with the consulate for information about moving to Korea.” Upstairs, Pak pursed her lips and frowned as she scrolled through a document just posted by the South Korean Consulate showing that 350 people had already been approved to depart as early as this month. In the hallway, black-and-white photographs evoked decades of dislocation.
In one, a grimacing old man with a bulging backpack looks back, brow furrowed and mouth open, holding his hat to wave farewell, as he walks alone across the tarmac toward a waiting plane.
For about 40 years before and during World War II, Japan controlled the southern half of Sakhalin and brought over thousands of laborers from Korea. The Soviets captured the island in August 1945 and allowed the Japanese to return to Japan. Many Koreans were left behind and became stateless residents of the Soviet Union.
Some later moved to Communist North Korea. But most hailed from the South, and for decades they were cut off from home and from family by an Asian Iron Curtain.
As the Soviet Union fell and Seoul and Moscow established ties, South Korea allowed those Sakhalin Koreans who had been born while the island was still under Japanese control to move back. It was an echo of Israel’s welcome of Soviet Jews and Germany’s repatriation program for the ethnic Germans of the former Soviet Union.
But unlike those initiatives, South Korea’s did not apply to multiple generations. In the 1990s and 2000s, more than 4,000 first-generation Sakhalin Koreans moved to South Korea, often leaving the family they had formed in Russia behind. Pak says the wails at the airport the day she went to say goodbye to her stepsister recalled many “funerals of the living” happening at once.
“They wanted to go to their homeland to die,” Viktoriya Bya, editor of Sakhalin’s Korean-language newspaper, said of that first wave of repatriation.
Many of those who stayed became successful in capitalist Russia, profiting from Sakhalin Island’s energy boom, trade with South Korea and Japan, and lucrative business ties with North Korea. One businessman, Li Ku Yul, showed off silver and gold medals in his Sakhalin office awarded by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea. He had one main piece of advice for fellow Russians traveling to Pyongyang: “Never criticize” your hosts.
These days, Korean culture suffuses Sakhalin, a region of about 500,000. You can find Korean restaurants across the island and kimchi at roadside shops. The Presbyterian Church is run by a South Korean pastor and feels like the only place in Russia — a nation of COVID skeptics — where everyone wears masks indoors. The public arts school has a Korean department where some of the performances are based on North Korean songbooks, but with altered lyrics.
“Sometimes there’s just a really beautiful melody, and we don’t tell the kids that it’s about the Great Leader,” said Yulia Sin, who runs the Korean department. “We can choose what we take from North Korea and what we take from South Korea, and create something new.”
But now the drama of families separated by emigration and repatriation has returned, magnified by coronavirus border closures. The new law allows younger Sakhalin Koreans to move to South Korea if they are caring for a first-generation returnee. But restrictions remain: Only one person, along with their spouse, can qualify as someone’s “caretaker,” forcing siblings to negotiate who among them will move, and barring their grown children from coming along.
“Many people are really arguing, quarreling because of this,” said Sergei Li, 33, a bank employee who volunteers distributing Korean groceries to older members of the diaspora, paid for in part by a South Korean foundation.
While South Korea has a visa-free policy for Russians and direct flights to Sakhalin, the separation has come to feel far more substantial during the pandemic. Russia’s borders reopened to South Koreans only in August, and South Korea still requires a 10-day quarantine for most arrivals.
Li’s parents-in-law are planning to move to South Korea under the new law, leaving grandchildren behind. He said he had no plans to depart, describing himself as a proud Russian with a Russian mentality — which he defined as, for example, having the courage to speak up when one disagreed with one’s elders.
Pak, the advocacy group’s director, says she is staying put for now, contrary to rumors that she is planning to leave. Bya, the newspaper editor, is resisting her parents’ entreaties that she come join them in South Korea because she values her current job. Liede San Bok, a human-resources specialist, says that she would like to move in the future, but her older sister has already applied as their mother’s caretaker.
Sakhalin Koreans have campaigned for years for the entire diaspora to have the right to claim South Korean citizenship. While people of Korean descent live all across the former Soviet Union, Sakhalin Koreans consider themselves a separate group, with a particular legacy of forced resettlement. But South Korean lawmakers hesitated bestowing special rights upon Sakhalin Koreans, and even when the breakthrough came last year — thanks to influential lawmakers from the majority party sponsoring new legislation — they still imposed strict limits.
Nisio, 89, said that her mother had brought her from southwestern Korea to Karafuto prefecture, as southern Sakhalin was once known, where Nisio’s uncle worked in a coal mine. She had wanted to move back to South Korea two decades ago but did not because it would have meant leaving behind her daughter Kim, who was ill at the time.
Under the new law, the two of them can now depart Russia together to become permanent residents of South Korea. The government will provide an apartment and, Kim expects, a television — a key amenity for Nisio, a fan of South Korean dramas.
Kim figures they will be able to take two 50-pound suitcases with them, which should be plenty.
“I’m very happy,” Nisio said recently in broken Russian, as she was preparing to bid farewell to Sakhalin. “Because the homeland, the homeland is over there!”
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