Wages of an Old War

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DONALD MACINTYRE Koryong countyKim Jae Koo was eating dinner at home when the Japanese soldiers came for him. He tried to resist, demanding to know where they were taking him. The soldiers didn't respond. Before he was dragged away, he remembers twisting around to tell his stunned family: I don't know where I'm going, but I'll be back. That was in 1943. He was shipped from his home in southeast Korea to Sakhalin, an isolated island off Siberia, to work as a slave laborer in a coal mine. When Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Sakhalin returned to Soviet control, and Kim and some 43,000 other Koreans found themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Half a century later, the survivors are starting to come home to South Korea. But for many, the ordeal isn't over.Sakhalin was a living hell, says Kim, now 82. During the war, the Koreans lived in squalid camps managed by brutal guards who sometimes beat them with shovels. Life under Soviet rule was almost as grim. Koreans faced poverty and racial prejudice. But what makes Kim shake with anger even today is this: the Koreans never received the token wages they were promised. The Japanese deducted room and board and put the rest into postal savings accounts that most of the workers never saw. A survivors' support group estimates that their collective savings are now worth almost $200 million, figuring in more than 50 years of interest.It's a sum that would make life more bearable for these men, now in their 70s and 80s and worn out by long, hard years in forced exile. But they can't get their hands on it. Japan's Foreign Ministry says postwar treaties between Japan, South Korea and the Allies absolve Tokyo of legal responsibility to return the money. Postal officials say the original documents are missing anyway, so it's almost impossible to figure out who is owed what. Kenichi Takagi, a Japanese lawyer representing the survivors, argues that the Koreans' situation parallels the plight of Holocaust survivors who were turned away by Swiss banks after the war when they tried to reclaim their savings. The postal ministry has been managing this huge sum of money for the benefit of the Japanese economy, he says. It should be returned to the Koreans taken to Sakhalin.The dispute is only one of many bitter legacies of Japan's brutal 35-year rule on the Korean peninsula. As war created a labor shortage, Japan press-ganged Koreans into grueling jobs in factories, mines and construction sites around Asia. An estimated 4 million of them were forced to join this army of slave laborers. Japan also made as many as 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, provide sex for Japanese troops, say scholars. Today, relations between the two countries remain tense, despite a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties. Japan's seeming inability to apologize without mumbling angers many Koreans, who would like to see a clear expression of contrition. That's what Korean President Kim Dae Jung will be hoping to hear when he arrives in Japan this week for a four-day visit.PAGE 1  |  
The lost Koreans became a public issue only in 1989, when the cold war began to wind down and rapprochement between Seoul and Moscow made returns possible. Some 500 Sakhalin Koreans have come back so far. Most have little money and no homes to return to. Some can't even trace their families. After years of using Japanese or Russian, many no longer speak Korean fluently. And men weren't the only victims. The support group in Taegu, South Korea facilitating the returns includes women still waiting for husbands. The Koreans' needs are more than the non-profit volunteer group can handle. Neither the Korean nor the Japanese governments seem to care, says Lee Doo Hoon, the group's founder.Japan hasn't turned a blind eye. Tokyo has paid airfare for the returning Koreans and it is also putting up $24 million to build apartments near Seoul and an old-age home with hospital facilities near Inchon. The Korean government contributed the land for the projects, as well as pensions for returnees. More than 1,000 former laborers are expected to return from Sakhalin to live in the new facilities in Korea when they are completed next year. That would leave fewer than 1,000 on the island.But Takagi says that assistance is not enough. To compensate for their lost savings, the survivors want Japan to build a music hall in Sakhalin for Koreans and their family members who want to stay put. They are also demanding that Tokyo pay pensions to Koreans who return home. Kim and the dozens of others who still have their wartime postal savings books have another demand: they want their money. Tokyo contends that the Koreans lost their right to make claims against Japan under the 1965 treaty.There is still hope. Last week a group of Japanese legislators proposed a bill aimed at sorting out war-related complaints lodged against Japan by its Asian neighbors. The bill would create a committee to study the issues and force ministries to make public the mountains of wartime documents still hidden in their archives. But all this may be too late for Kim. At his old-age home in central Korea's Koryong county, Lee unfolds a yellowed postal savings book stamped with the Sakhalin post office chop. The entries total 940 yen, worth about $4,000 today. Kim says he hopes to buy a home with the money, unaware of how much things have changed during his 50 lost years.  |  2