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Sakhalin Koreans: pain of separation continues

Lee Su-jin must now abandon any hope he had managed to cling to, as the end of the 18th National Assembly on Tuesday took with his chances of reuniting his family. The session ended without the passing of a bill that would have provided settlement aid to ethnic Koreans on Russia's Sakhalin Island.

The bill's failure means Lee won't be able to bring his child from Sakhalin to South Korea.

Lee's father was drafted to Sakhalin Island by the Japanese military in 1940. Lee himself was born and raised there. To earn a living, he obtained Russian citizenship and settled on the island with his Korean wife, but he always longed for the homeland of his parents.

The establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Russia in 1990 saw the beginning of privately led efforts to resettle Sakhalin Koreans in South Korea. In 2002, it became possible for those born before independence on Aug. 15, 1945, to come to South Korea as permanent residents with settlement support from the Japanese government.

Lee came to South Korea in Jan. 2011 to obtain medical treatment for his ailing wife, leaving his child behind on the island. Now living in a rented apartment provided by the government in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, he said, "I came to the homeland I had yearned for, but I've had to deal with people despising for me for 'sucking off the government teat.'"

"It wasn't my decision to go to Sakhalin, and I'd like to live out the rest of my life honorably without guilt in South Korea with my family," he added.

Sakhalin Koreans are anxious to come to South Korea, but their dream is a long way from coming true. They were drafted to the island during the Japanese occupation, only to be abandoned there after Japan lost the Pacific War in 1945. For decades, they have faced discrimination and hardships as stateless people - neither Japanese nor Russian nor South Korean - but they have received less attention from the South Korean public than their counterparts in China and Japan.

To date, over four thousand Koreans have returned home through the efforts of those hoping to settle in South Korea. Around one thousand of them have since passed away. The number of those who have been unable to come to South Korea for various reasons stands at around 1,400. When their descendants are factored in, the number still on Sakhalin Island is estimated at around 43 thousand.

The Koreans on the island have consistently called on Seoul to act responsibly and offer support. The 17th and 18th National Assemblies saw the presentation of special legislation to provide support, which would permit the children of those born after liberation to become permanent residents, and provide livelihood support for elderly Koreans remaining on Sakhalin.

But the Sakhalin Koreans found themselves pushed down the list of priorities as the government focused its policy efforts on North Korean defectors and multicultural families in the interests of social unity.

"There are still a lot of people [on Sakhalin] who would like to settle in their homeland but can't leave their children or are suffering from illness, so they can only long for home," said Im Yong-gun, 59, the Sakhalin Koreans' association chairman.

"Their lives are indescribably difficult, and they want the support and attention of the South Korean government," Im said.

The Sakhalin Koreans are now launching their third attempt. Private groups, domestic Sakhalin Korean associations, and religious figures planned held a ceremony Tuesday at the Press Center in Seoul's Central district to announce the launch of a "Sakhalin Hope campaigning group." Their aim is to have the 19th National Assembly enact the special legislation and to build a history museum on Sakhalin Island.

"This year is the 75th anniversary of the drafting of the Sakhalin Koreans," said Bae Deok-ho, president of the Korean International Networks, one of the participating NGOs.

"The state should not delay taking responsibility for addressing the suffering of Koreans who were deprived even of their proper right to come home after the war," Bae said.

By Lee Kyung-mi

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