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Russians of Korean origin teaching Japanese


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
The NYT reporting on Koreans living in Sakhalin/Hopporyodo ("Northern territories"); Sep. 1, 2002:

A Tug of War for Russian Island's Ethnic Koreans

By James Brooke

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia 窶 Their grandparents languished on Sakhalin, a former penal island, forced for decades to work here as "the last prisoners of World War II."

But as Asia's economic growth gallops into this corner of Russia's Far East, the demand for labor under free-market rules is sharpening for the thousands of young ethnic Koreans living here.

On one end of the tug of war, South Korea is combating a labor shortage by loosening work-visa rules to attract overseas ethnic Koreans, members of the Korean diaspora who are sprinkled from here to Uzbekistan.

But this island of about 600,000 people is also desperate for trained and bilingual workers. The demand is stoked by plans of foreign energy companies to invest $13 billion here through 2006. In Russia's largest capital investment project of the decade, gas and oil reserves are being developed for export, largely to Japan and South Korea.

"All our students plan to work for big companies," said Ten Ok Ne, a Russian of Korean background who directs a middle school specializing in teaching Korean and Japanese.

Pavel Park, 16, paused from remodeling work at the school to say he was learning Korean so he could work for a Korean company, as well as talk with his grandparents.

Taking a view that once was heresy here, he added: "But we were born here, our parents are here, this is our home. We don't want to go live in South Korea."

For half a century, the Koreans of Sakhalin 窶 now numbering 40,000 窶 were a stateless people, inhabiting this desolate island against their will. At the height of World War II, imperial Japan brought them from Korea, then a Japanese colony, to work as slave laborers in coal mines.

When Japan lost the war, the Soviet Union expelled the Japanese, but Stalin still needed coal miners. With few Russians living on what was once a czarist penal colony, he refused to let the Koreans go.

"We saw all the Japanese children go," Kim Ok Sun, an elderly ethnic Korean recalled. "I never imagined that we would have to stay here for such a long time."

She added: "We were not Russian. We were not Japanese. We were stateless."

In the last few years, the doors finally opened with direct flights to the South Korean cities of Seoul and Pusan. Since 1999, about 1,500 elderly Sakhalin Koreans have moved to South Korea, with several hundreds moving into an old-age center built in part with aid from the Japanese government.

Park He Ren, president of the Sakhalin Koreans Association, plans to meet soon in Tokyo with officials of the Japanese Red Cross. Speaking here in this city on the island's southeastern edge, he demanded that Japan pay "100 percent" of repatriation and pension costs for 3,500 additional first-generation Koreans.

But as tearful freedom flights to Seoul gradually gave way to routine shopping and family excursions on Asiana Airlines, much of the anger has drained from this lost colony.

"Why would I want to move to Korea?" Bae Kan Sun, a 67-year-old retired seamstress, asked over a dinner in her comfortable two-bedroom apartment where vodka washed down kimchi, the Korean cabbage dish. After making two trips to South Korea in recent years, she concluded: "Russia is my home."

She values her $60 a month pension but, more important, her three grandchildren live here. Two blocks from her apartment in a Soviet-era housing complex is a symbol of the new affluence of a younger generation of ethnic Koreans: the Seoul restaurant and night club.

At a different club, the 777, smartly dressed Asian women bobbed on a recent evening among knots of Slavic Russian friends and Westerners, mostly energy company workers.

"They are all Korean Russians 窶 there are no Japanese or Chinese here," said one American oilman, watching the mass of people, almost an interracial human billiard game playing out over four floors.

Outside, another American businessman, looked at the parking lot and said: "The Russians don't like to see Koreans going around in Land Cruisers, while they are driving around in Zhigulis."

But with Sakhalin boasting an unemployment rate of 2 percent, the same as South Korea, there should be work for all ethnic groups.

In 1890, one visitor, Anton Chekov, wrote of the island, "If only those who wanted to lived here, Sakhalin would be deserted." Now people move here voluntarily.

With a stream of foreign workers coming for energy projects, an English-language newspaper, The Sakhalin Times, started publishing last year. A new international university will open in December.

Seoul is the airline hub for international passengers, and Pusan the hub for air freight. Hokkaido , the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, is only 25 miles from Sakhalin, and Japan is trying to re-establish an economic presence on the Russian island. In the last 18 months, Japan has opened a consulate, a commercial bank branch, an economic promotion office for Hokkaido and a news bureau for the state television network, NHK. Taiwan has also jumped into the fray, sending its first trade mission here in June.

But in the racial geopolitics of the Russian Far East, Koreans are the "good Asians" while Japanese are met with lingering distrust.

Half a century after Stalin closed Korean schools, newspapers and theaters; burned Korean books, and banned the Korean language, Korean-language studies are expanding here and in other cities of the Russian Far East.

In this city, a main street is lined with portraits of Victory Heroes, Soviet soldiers killed fighting the Japanese in August 1945. On the Russian mainland, a whitewashed monument in Khasan hails the defeat of the "Japanese samurai" in 1938, fighting that cost 1,500 lives but blocked the Japanese march toward Vladivostock.

Looking to the future, Russia is deeply insecure about China, a nation of 1.2 billion people. China borders an expanse of Russia, eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, an area with some 16 million inhabitants. Today, about 100,000 Chinese work in Russian border areas, constituting a growing force in trade and farming.

In August, President Vladimir V. Putin spent a week in Vladivostok where he lectured 10 regional governors about economic development. His basic message was: Use it or lose it.

With South Korea's economy now larger than all of Russia's, ethnic Korean youth here on the island feel the tug of the ancestral homeland.

Starting Sept. 1, visas for ethnic Koreans working in South Korea will be valid for one year, four times longer than before. South Korea is following Japan's strategy of easing a labor shortage by giving priority for work permits to foreigners of Japanese descent.

With South Korea's population aging, the Constitutional Court there has given the government until the end of 2003 to loosen immigration and work rules for the 2 million ethnic Koreans in China and the 500,000 ethnic Koreans scattered across the former Soviet Union.

In an alternate strategy, South Korean manufacturers want to farm out back-office and assembly work to low-wage free-trade zones in North Korea. [On Friday, North and South Korean negotiators agreed to begin construction before the end of the year of a huge industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea, about 50 miles north of Seoul.]

South Korea's government also sponsors Korean language and culture camps for ethnic Koreans overseas. From Sakhalin, hundreds of children go every summer to camp in South Korea. Lee Den Ja, director of a Korean folklore group here, said: "The kids still speak Korean badly. Nowadays, they think of themselves as about 70 percent Russian."

Copyright © 2002
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