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Thousands of Korean Laborers Still Lost After WWII, Cold War End


South Korean Shin Yun-sun shows photos of her 92-year-old mother, Baek Bong-rye, during an interview at her house in Seoul, South Korea Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Thousands of Korean Laborers Still Lost After WWII, Cold War End
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Shin Yun-sun describes her life as a series of dead ends.

The South Korean has spent many of her 75 years questioning government officials, looking through records and searching burial grounds on a distant Russian island.

She is searching for evidence of a father she never met.

Shin wants to bring back the remains of her father for her 92-year-old mother, Baek Bong-rye. Japan’s colonial government sent Shin’s father away to do forced labor in September 1943. At the time, Baek was pregnant with Shin.

As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II nears, the thousands of conscripted Korean men who disappeared on Russia’s Sakhalin Island are a largely forgotten part of Japan’s severe rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Historians say Japan forcibly moved around 30,000 Koreans as workers during the late 1930s and 1940s. They were sent to what was then called Karafuto, or the Japanese-occupied southern half of Sakhalin, near the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Most of the Korean laborers in Sakhalin came from the South.

When World War II ended, the Korean Peninsula was divided into a Soviet Union-backed north and U.S.-backed south. The 1950-53 Korean War came after, followed by the Cold War.

Soviet officials offered the Korean workers Soviet or North Korean citizenship beginning in the 1950s. But many chose to remain stateless in hopes of someday returning to South Korea.

Some of the Korean workers protested for a return to South Korea in 1976. Soviet officials answered by sending 40 of them and their families to North Korea.

South Korea and Russia established diplomatic relations in 1990 and about 4,000 Koreans have returned from Sakhalin in the years since. But for people like Shin, who lost contact with family members long ago, there has been little progress.

“The Soviet Union detained him, prevented him from going home and exploited his labor,” Shin said about her father. “(The Russian government) should at least find and send back his remains.”

Last year, Shin and other family members sought help from a United Nations group to find 25 Sakhalin Koreans. The U.N. group in June asked Russia’s government to search for 10 of them first, said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal expert from the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group. He has helped with the U.N. involvement.

Shin said that relatives only started feeling safe talking openly about their missing fathers in the last 20 years. This meant their effort got less attention than other cruel acts tied to Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, said Bang Il-kwon, a scholar at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

In 2011, a South Korean government group investigating colonial forced movement began working with Russia to identify and return the remains of the Koreans in Sakhalin who died before the 1990s.

South Korean researchers spent years examining the island’s poorly kept burial areas, where stone or wooden markers were often missing, damaged or not clearly marked. In 2015, South Korean researchers reported that at least 5,000 graves belonged to Korean forced laborers.

But the efforts soon lost strength. South Korea’s conservative government at the time refused to extend the group’s mandate after 2015.

There has been little talk about restarting the activities under liberal President Moon Jae-in. His government has clashed with Japan over other wartime issues but also wants engagement with North Korea.

South Korea has said it hopes to reach a new agreement with Russia that would expand efforts to find and return the remains. However, Lee Sang-won, an official from South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety, admits nothing has been agreed to yet.

Shin is critical of the slow progress.

She said, “Who knows how long it will be before my mother is gone, too?”

I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.

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Words in This Story

dead end - adj. a situation, plan, or way of doing something that leads to nothing further

conscript - v. to force (someone) to serve in the armed forces

exploit - v. to use (someone or something) in a way that helps you unfairly

scholar - n. a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it

grave - n. a hole in the ground for burying a dead body

mandate - n. an official order to do something

engagement - n. the act or state of being involved with something

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