What’s in a name? For the Koreans of Sakhalin, a harrowing story

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SAKHALIN ISLAND, Russia – On remote Sakhalin Island, near Russia’s eastern border, stories of nostalgia and fragmented identity are embedded in people’s names.

Some people here have three different names: Russian, Korean, and Japanese, each representing a different chapter in the island’s centuries-old history of forced resettlement and wars.

Taeko Nisio got his name from the Japanese authorities in 1939 after arriving in Sakhalin, at age 8, when it was part of the Empire of Japan. The Soviets captured the island at the end of WWII and her new Russian friends began calling her Tanya. But at first, Ms. 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,” he remembers Ms. Nisio’s daughter, Kim Geum-hee, exclaiming when the South Korean Consulate phoned her concrete apartment block this fall. “We are going home!”

Koreans on the island of Sakhalin, a people stranded by history, are on the move once again. This year a South Korean law went into effect allowing more members of the Sakhalin Korean diaspora to return to their ancestral homeland, a time of delayed redemption for a people brought here as workers three generations ago and then left as stateless under Soviet rule.

But the story of the Sakhalin Koreans, who now number about 25,000 on this 600-mile-long Pacific island, is also a very Russian story of emigration and the long shadow of war. Although Seoul this year expanded the reach of Koreans from Sakhalin receiving government support to return, most still do not qualify, forcing the thousands who do to make often heartbreaking decisions about staying or leaving, and potentially leaving behind. To his family.

“There will be more families disintegrated,” said Pak Sun Ok, head of a defense group for the Sakhalin Koreans in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island’s main city. “This wound is opening again.”

So many people have come to ask about the possibility of letting it go that a printed poster hangs on the ground floor of the Korean Cultural Center: “Check with the consulate for information on moving to Korea.” Above, Ms. Pak pursed her lips and frowned as she scrolled through a document just released by the South Korean Consulate that showed that 350 people had already been approved to leave 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, frowning and gaping, holding his hat to say goodbye, as he walks alone down the runway toward a waiting plane.

For some 40 years before and during World War II, Japan controlled the southern half of Sakhalin and brought in thousands of workers 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 came from the south, and for decades they were separated from their home and family by an Asian iron curtain.

When the Soviet Union fell and Seoul and Moscow established ties, South Korea allowed the Sakhalin Koreans who had been born while the island was still under Japanese control to retreat. It was an echo of Israel’s welcome to Soviet Jews and of Germany’s repatriation program for ethnic Germans from 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 behind the family they had raised in Russia. Ms Pak says the wailing at the airport on the day she went to say goodbye to her stepsister recalled that many “funerals of the living” were happening at the same time.

“They wanted to go to their homeland to die,” Viktoriya Bya, editor of Sakhalin’s Korean newspaper, said of that first wave of repatriation.

Many of those who stayed were successful in capitalist Russia, benefiting from Sakhalin Island’s energy boom, trade with South Korea and Japan, and lucrative trade ties with North Korea. One businessman, Li Ku Yul, displayed gold and silver medals in his Sakhalin office awarded by the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Congress of North Korea. He had one top piece of advice for fellow Russians traveling to Pyongyang: “Never criticize” your hosts.

These days, Korean culture permeates Sakhalin, a region of about 500,000 people. You can find Korean restaurants all over the island and kimchi in roadside shops. The Presbyterian Church is led 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 school of arts has a Korean department where some of the performances are based on North Korean songbooks, but with modified lyrics.

“Sometimes there is a really beautiful melody and we don’t tell the kids that it’s about the Great Leader,” said Yulia Sin, who heads the Korea 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 the coronavirus border closures. The new law allows young Koreans from Sakhalin to move to South Korea if they are caring for a first-generation returnee. But the restrictions remain: Only one person, along with their spouse, can qualify as someone’s “caregiver,” forcing siblings to negotiate who will move out and prohibiting their older children from going.

“A lot of people are really arguing, fighting over this,” said Sergei Li, 33, a bank employee who voluntarily distributes Korean groceries to older members of the diaspora, paid 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 become much more substantial during the pandemic. Russia’s borders were reopened to South Koreans in August only, and South Korea still requires a 10-day quarantine for most arrivals.

Mr. Li’s in-laws plan to move to South Korea under the new law, leaving their grandchildren behind. He said he had no plans to leave and described himself as a proud Russian with a Russian mentality, which he defined as, for example, having the courage to speak up when one disagrees with elders.

Ms Pak, the head of the advocacy group, says she will stay for now, contrary to rumors that she plans to leave. Ms. Bya, the newspaper’s editor, resists her parents’ pleas to join them in South Korea because she values ​​her current job. Liede San Bok, a human resources specialist, says she would like to move in the future, but her older sister has already applied as her mother’s caregiver.

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 throughout the former Soviet Union, Sakhalin Koreans are seen as a separate group, with a particular legacy of forced resettlement. But South Korean lawmakers were hesitant to grant special rights to Sakhalin’s Koreans, and even when the breakthrough came last year, thanks to influential lawmakers from the majority party sponsoring the new legislation, they still imposed strict limits.

Ms. Nisio, 89, said her mother had brought her from southwestern Korea to Karafuto prefecture, as it was known south of Sakhalin, where Ms. Nisio’s uncle worked in a coal mine. She had wanted to return to South Korea two decades ago, but did not do so because it would have meant leaving behind her daughter, Ms. Kim, who was ill at the time.

Under the new law, the two can now leave Russia together to become permanent residents of South Korea. The government will provide an apartment and, Kim hopes, a television, a key service for Ms Nisio, a fan of South Korean dramas.

Ms. Kim estimates that two 50-pound bags will be able to be carried, which should be sufficient.

“I’m very happy,” Ms. Nisio said recently in broken Russian, as she prepared to say goodbye to Sakhalin. “Because the homeland, the homeland is there!”

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul.

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