NK’s move to control Sakhalin Koreans foiled

Appearance of the Sakhalin Koreans who cannot come back after the draft.

The former Soviet Union was home to the world’s fourth largest overseas Korean community. At the time of the break of the Soviet Union in 1991, some 450,000 of its inhabitants were of Korean heritage. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the population of ethnic Koreans was split between the successor states with the vast majority of Koreans residing in Russia, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.

Actually, it might be stated that Russia has two ethnic Korean communities, whose history, and to an extent, current standing, are significantly different. One is that of ethnic Koreans who reside in Central Asia. Their ancestors moved to Russia from the northern provinces of Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century. Initially the migrants settled around Vladivostok, but in the 1930s they were all relocated to Central Asia, where most of them still reside. These people constitute some 90% of all ex-Soviet Koreans.

The other Korean-Russian community – some 10% of the total – is located on the remote island of Sakhalin and has a completely different history. Unlike the ethnic Koreans of Central Asia, they never planned to go overseas. Instead, the land where they happened to live suddenly changed hands and they found themselves in a foreign country of which they knew almost nothing. Unlike the Koreans of Central Asia, they maintain close association with their ancestor’s land, and – again unlike Central Asian Koreans – they were much more involved with the Korean politics, including the rivalry of two Korean states.

In 1905, after a spectacular victory over Russia, Japan took over the southern part of Sakhalin Island, and soon Koreans – then subjects of the Japanese Empire – began to move there. Most of the new arrivals took well-paid but unskilled jobs in coal mining, fishing and the logging industry. From around 1940, many Koreans were sent to the island involuntarily, as a part of the forced labor mobilization. By 1945, the ethnic Korean population of the island reached some 25,000 (some eight percent of the total population of Southern Sakhalin at the time) – nearly all of them natives of the areas which later became parts of South Korea.

And then the Russians came. In August 1945, the Soviet army established full control over Southern Sakhalin. Soon afterwards, all the Japanese residents of the area – some 280,000 of them – were ordered to pack their bags and leave the island. The Korean workers wanted to go as well – not to Japan of course, but to their homeland – however, much to their disappointment, they were not allowed to do so.

The recent discoveries of a Russian-Korean scholar Yulia Din, has proved that initially the Soviet government planned to eventually repatriate Koreans back to their native land, but it was decided to postpone the plan for few years, because Sakhalin had a great shortage of skilled labor. Koreans were therefore explicitly forbidden to leave the island. With the onset of the Cold War, it became politically impossible for the Soviet Union to allow a large scale relocation of Koreans back to South Korea (and most of the Korean residents of Sakhalin were from South Korea originally).

To ameliorate the labor shortage on the island, the Soviet authorities even began to hire unskilled and semi-skilled workers in North Korea and send them to work in Sakhalin’s fisheries and mines. Some 26,000 workers came to the island in 1946-1950, but 14,400 left by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 while some 11,000 remained in Sakhalin.

For over two decades, a majority (some two thirds) of the Sakhalin Koreans were not citizens of any state. Theoretically they could become naturalized in the Soviet Union, but they believed (correctly) that accepting Soviet citizenship would deprive them of any chance of ever returning home. So most of them chose to remain stateless until the 1970s.

This peculiar status meant that they faced manifold difficulties in their daily lives. The stateless Koreans could not travel outside the island without prior permission from the authorities. They had to notify police every time they went on a trip to another district on the island of Sakhalin. Initially, stateless Koreans could not enter Soviet colleges, but this ban was partially lifted in the mid-1950s.

Nonetheless, most of the first generation of Sakhalin Koreans accepted all these difficulties. Being poorly educated and having almost no command of Russian, they could not realistically hope for any social advancement. At the same time, they were deeply nationalistic, and their major dream was to return to their native country at the first opportunity. Indeed, stories of the coming repatriation widely circulated amongst the Sakhalin Koreans (most of such rumors were completely unfounded).

To give the Soviet government its due, the local authorities endeavored to take care of the educational and cultural needs of these involuntary migrants. Korean language schools, heavily subsidized by the government, operated on the island until the mid-1960s. Libraries were provided with Korean language publications, a Korean language newspaper as well as a Korean cultural center operated thanks to government subsidies.

In the late 1950s, the North Korean authorities tried to make inroads into the Sakhalin Korean community. North Korean diplomats and intelligence operatives worked hard to persuade Sakhalin Koreans to accept North Korean citizenship, while also insisting that they should eventually move back to the loving bosom of the Great Leader, Marshall Kim Il Sung (no matter that most of them actually came from South Korea). The North Korean agencies tried to create an underground network of the Korean Workers’ Party cells (disguised as ‘study groups’), and also made attempts to recruit some Koreans for espionage (they were interested in mining technologies and equipment, above all). The North Korean government even suggested to build a special ‘Korean settlement’ where all Koreans – or, at last, all Koreans who were not Soviet citizens – should be relocated and then eventually shipped to North Korea (obviously, Pyongyang wanted to indoctrinate and control the Korean population inside the settlement).

The interest of the North Korean state partially stemmed from the then recent successes in Japan. The Korean community in Japan consisted of people moved to Japan from Korea in the 1930s and 1940s. From the late 1940s, Pyongyang sympathizers became highly influential within this community and in 1955, they established the Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan). Some two thirds of ethnic Koreans in Japan initially became Chongryon members.

The “Chongryon Koreans” of Japan were North Korean citizens. They were encouraged to live lives largely separate from Japanese people.  Chongryon had its own schools, with portraits of Kim Il Sung (and later Kim Jong Il as well) proudly displayed in every classroom, its own banks and mutual-support networks, its own media which bombarded the faithful with stories of North Korea’s prosperity and South Korea’s depravation and decadence. The “Chongryon Koreans” were educated to be loyal to North Korea, its system and ideology. Chongryon began to decline in the 1980s, but well into the 1990s it served as a major source of income, and as a support network for North Korean espionage and smuggling activities.

This was a success story North Korean authorities wanted to repeat in Sakhalin. For a brief while, their efforts were successful. By 1962, 11,475 Sakhalin Koreans – over one third of the entire community – had accepted the North Korean citizenship while some 20,000 ethnic Koreans remained stateless.

But this success proved to be short lived. Few thousand Koreans were naive enough to move to North Korea. They were shocked by what they saw and soon found ways to warn their friends and relatives back in Sakhalin that North Korean propaganda is remarkably less reliable than the propaganda of Soviet Union. As one of the returnees wrote to his once skeptical friend: “Things here are not as bad as you used to warn, rather they are much worse” (of course, this and other dangerous letters had to be sent with a reliable person, not mailed).  There were even incidents when the returnees fled back, illegally crossing the Soviet border and asking for asylum (since the relations between Moscow and Pyongyang were very tense at the time, the asylum was granted).

Soon, the North Korean diplomats and spies learned that Soviet Union was no Japan. First, the Soviet authorities would not tolerate a state-within-a-state, whose members loyalties were not towards Moscow but some foreign capital – and they could use methods which would not be acceptable or possible in democratic Japan. Second, by the early 1960s most Sakhalin Koreans had amassed enough experience with Soviet propaganda to see through the very rosy picture of Pyongyang’s official publications and the stories told by North Korean diplomats.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1960s did the first signs of assimilation start to appear. A growing number of Sakhalin’s Koreans began to make money through semi-legal private agriculture. Unlike Russian farmers, they knew how to grow vegetables in the harsh climate of Sakhalin. Their children became fluent speakers of Russian and began to dream about social advancement. Younger Koreans (and many of their parents) came to see the Korean language education system as unnecessary, even as an obstacle that could prevent them or their children from being accepted to the best Soviet universities and colleges. Therefore, the language of school tuition was switched to Russian, much to the satisfaction of the more socially ambitious members of the community.

By the early 1970s, illusions about North Korea in Sakhalin were all but completely shattered, and Sakhalin Korean community switched from admiration of the alleged North Korean successes to the complete, universal and deep hostility towards Pyongyang. But the hope for eventual return to the native land was still alive. It was this hope that led to the so-called “Korsakov incident”.

In 1976, the Soviet government, obviously influenced by the then spirit of detente, decided to allow Sakhalin Koreans to apply for permission to leave the island and move to Japan (with implicit understanding that most of them would immediately proceed to South Korea). In the Soviet Union it was a rare privilege since only ethnic Jews and Germans were usually permitted to emigrate. The Soviet authorities obviously assumed that the offer would have few takers – by that time the Korean population was successful and well integrated. But this was not the case. Quickly, the rate of applications exploded. It became clear that such an emigration would be politically embarrassing and hence could not be allowed to happen. Therefore, the decision was reversed: the authorities said that no outbound migration will be allowed

This did not merely lead to an outbreak of discontent. The remote and sleepy city of Korsakov saw something very unusual for the Soviet Union of 1977 – an anti-government demonstration. The family of To Man-sang staged a picket in front of the local party committee. Their posters said ‘let us go home’.

The authorities decided to deal with the participants in an unusual and quite brutal way. Since the participants of the demonstration were so intent on going home, they were to be sent home, i.e. to North Korea. Unfortunately, the participants belonged to those ethnic Koreans who back in the 1960s had opted for North Korean citizenship, obviously because of their nationalist inclinations. Therefore, as troublesome aliens, they were shipped back to North Korea, never to be seen again. In all probability, all of these people – some two dozen – soon perished in North Korean prison camps. About 40 ‘repatriation movement’ activists, all holders of the North Korean passports, were deported to North Korea in 1977. There were never seen or heard again, and all eventual attempts to learn what happened to them ended in naught: when in the 1990s the Korean groups began to make inquiries, the North Korean government and its embassy in Moscow ignored their letters.

The Sakhalin Korean community was terrified by this turn of events. As one of the participants later related to me, his father said: “I believe we have a right to return home, and I would not be afraid of going to prison to defend this right. But everyone knows that North Korea is much worse than Soviet prison. And they might send not only me, but my entire family to that hellish country.” Because of this fear (but also because younger Koreans were not too enthusiastic about repatriation), the ‘repatriation movement’ was effectively suppressed.

Only in the 1990s did Sakhalin Koreans begin to move to their native lands in South Korea. This relocation was supported by the governments of South Korea, Japan and post-Soviet Russia. But this is another story, which among other things has nothing to do with North Korea.

3 Responses to NK’s move to control Sakhalin Koreans foiled

  1. Pingback: “북한 ‘사할린 동포 통제’ 실패” « All « THEAsiaN

  2. Maruoma 27 May , 2012 at 2:06 am

    Pah!!! Fake!!!! This Communist bastards only want to cover their cmiers by putting this piece of shit propaganda!! Their cmiers are even more worse than this,raping,murder of innocent civilians,looting and other cmiers on the South Koreans.Lets say i reveal the bastards’ cmiers and i’ll see how their faces are like.Good thing South Korea rejects your unity and Communism go to HELL!!!

  3. Helin 27 May , 2012 at 9:59 pm

    hey, i saw this video, and i’m very happy to know thatthere is a peosrn who likes KOREA.sometimes, i think that the foreigners don’t like KOREAbecause they may see many unpleasant stuff during theirtrip, or experience weird situations but, now, i’m EXTREMELY glad because you introduceour country very well. and thank you.

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