11 January 2004

Sakhalin Koreans and Business Development

On 1 September 2002, the New York Times published a story datelined Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk about a tug-of-war between South Korea and Russia over the labor potential of the Sakhalin Koreans. (The text of the story is preserved in a news archive at Arizona State University.)
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 Sakhalin to Uzbekistan. But Sakhalin is also desperate for trained and bilingual workers. The demand is stoked by plans of foreign energy companies to invest $13 billion in Sakhalin 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.

Pavel Park, 16, paused from remodeling work at the school to say that 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, 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 - now numbering 40,000 - 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 release the Koreans.
A year later, on 1 September 2003, another story datelined Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It paints the Sakhalin Koreans as helpless pawns of the Russians and Japanese, most of whom desperately want to leave.
Thousands of Koreans such as Chen went to Sakhalin before and during World War II, sometimes voluntarily -- lured by promises of good wages -- but often at gunpoint. When the war ended, they were abandoned here. Decades later, they are still waiting to return to their homeland, a tragedy they blame on the Japanese government.

"I've always dreamed about moving home," said Chen, who was overworked and underfed for much of his life. Wiping tears away from his eyes as he spoke in his house on the outskirts of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, he added: "I don't know if I'll die here or not."
At about the same time, on 9 October 2003, the Korea Herald ran a story about the revival of Korean language on Sakhalin, suggesting mainly cultural, rather than economic, reasons.
The young generation, born into a Russian culture, are interested in their homeland thanks to the success of the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
It's easy to focus on the painful history of the Sakhalin Koreans. That's the dominant perspective of the "mournful and elegaic" 1995 video entitled A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans, produced by Dai-Sil Kim Gibson, who has produced other films about Koreans victimized abroad. This video does suggest, however, that it is primarily the old people who want to return to Korea. The younger people are more likely to feel that Sakhalin is their home.

The picture I come away with is one of much better economic times ahead for the descendants of the long-suffering Sakhalin Koreans, although they will face a new round of cultural adjustments very similar to those faced by the many Latin American Nikkeijin now working in Japan.

A map of the Sakhalin region and a list of the languages there is available online, and the Sakhalin Museum also has a website. (Warning: glacier-powered server!)

UPDATE: James J. Heinis compiled a long travelogue about his visit to Alaska in 2000. Here's what he had to say about economic development plans in Sakhalin, looking from the other direction, with a hint about some of the difficulties, too. (I've embedded his links and updated two of them.)
At the hostel, back in Anchorage, I talked with a woman who was involved in the Alaska-Russia small business exchange. There is a lot of interest in Alaska about working with the Russians on Sakhalin because of oil. Investors include such companies as Shell, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Marathon (all in Sakhalin-II), Exxon (Sakhalin-I and Sakhalin-lll), and Mobil and Texaco (Sakhalin-III). There is a website on Sakhalin-Alaska development [where a search on "Sakhalin" returns a long list of links] and also one on Sakhalin which is also known as Karafuto in Japanese. The island's southernmost coast (visible on a clear day from the northern tip of Japan), barely gets warm enough for a chilly late summer dip. The northern half of the island is arctic and is often rocked by seismic activity. Commercial development began in 1977. A large earthquake in 1995 killed approximately 2,000 people on Sakhalin (total island population is about 680,000). Winter brings huge, moving ice floes so the weather is terrible at best: The Sea of Okhotsk is subject to dangerous storm winds, severe waves, icing of vessels, intense snowfalls and poor visibility. The average annual extreme low ranges between -32 deg C and -35 deg C. Ice sheets of up to 1.5 meters thick move at speeds of 1-2 knots. By the way, Dad [a retired botanist] was on the Sea of Okhotsk while in Japan, see [his homepage with 2 dozen travelogues].

The future director of the exchange was upset because she was going to direct the University of Alaska-Anchorage Russia Business Training Center in Yuzhno-Sakhlinsk, Russia. This training center jointly coordinates the dissemination of Western businesses and technical know-how to the management and employees of Russian companies. The previous American directors were deported. In Russia, when you are deported, they wait until the visa is expired and they then put you on a plane going out. Taxes are on 70% of a person's salary and the only ones who pay taxes are American who are hired part time and have two different jobs to cut down on taxes. The local newspaper made it appear that her predecessors were spies. Russians from Sakhalin do a lot of buying in Alaska of very specific items because it is cheaper.

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