As Japan-Korea ties thaw, families seek closure on wartime mine disaster
By Ju-min Park and Sakura Murakami
UBE, Japan (Reuters) – On a clear February morning, four elderly Korean men tilted their heads towards Japan’s Seto Inland Sea as the surf lapped near their shoes.
They paid respects to relatives who were buried deep under their feet in a coal mine 80 years ago – amid thousands of Korean bodies scattered across Japan, an enduring symbol of a colonial past that has long shattered relations between neighbors.
But with renewed diplomatic efforts to improve ties, the families of the men drafted into the so-called Chosei mine during the 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula to aid Japan’s war effort see a last chance for closure.
“It’s now or never,” said 75-year-old Yang Hyeon, whose uncle was among the 136 Koreans and 47 Japanese killed when the leaky mine collapsed beneath the seabed off the southern Japanese coast and flooded in 1942.
“Now that things seem to be getting better with Japan, I ask the two governments to think of us.”
Yang, who attended the low-key ceremony in the city of Ube on February 4, is among a group of family members and residents urging the two governments to dig up the bodies and send them home.
The remains of up to 10,000 Koreans who died doing forced labor, digging mines or building dams are still in Japan, according to South Korean government estimates. Japan says it has identified 2,799 remains of Korean war workers.
Efforts to bring them back have been unsuccessful for more than a decade, but since taking office last year, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has sought to resolve historic issues with Japan and embraced common, contemporary threats like nuclear-armed North Korea focus and China.
Those overtures, which led to the first talks between the country’s leaders in years in September, have given hope to older relatives of the Chosei miners that they may still be alive to see the remains of their loved ones being brought back home.
“We’re running out of time,” said Son Bong-soo, a grandson of one of the victims, who at 65 is the youngest family member in the group. “Once we die, no one will care.”
In 2005, Japan announced a push to return the remains of Korean war workers, but the initiative made little headway and ended a few years later amid deteriorating relations.
“We expect a positive discussion with Japan on the repatriation of the remains as South Korea and Japan now both have strong will to resolve the forced labor issues,” South Korea’s Interior Ministry, which deals with colonial-era forced labor disputes, said in a statement.
The ministry said it has not discussed any specific cases like those of the Chosei miners.
Japan’s foreign ministry said it communicated with South Korea about labor issues during the war but could not disclose details.
One of the challenges at Chosei is the cost and logistics of excavating bodies from a submerged mine that extends at least 1km out to sea and almost 40 meters underground.
Japan’s labor ministry, which previously conducted an investigation into the incident, told Reuters that an excavation would likely cost millions of dollars.
But activists argue that this is a price worth paying in recognition of the hardship and injustice families have endured.
According to a 2007 report on the Chosei mine commissioned by South Korea, workers drafted mostly from poor farming towns in Korea lived in overcrowded dormitories surrounded by high fences and were regularly beaten by Japanese overseers.
Living conditions were so desperate that in 1939 more than 200 workers protested, smashing windows and a telephone in the mine’s administrative office, the report said, citing a statement by the Japanese government at the time.
In the months before the mine collapsed, there were constant leaks and pumps were installed to draw water out of the shaft to keep it working, according to testimonies from surviving miners cited in the report.
Jeon Seok-ho is now 89 years old and wears a hearing aid and a cane. He vividly remembers the morning his father died in the mine at the age of eight.
His teacher told him that there had been an accident and that he should go straight home. As he hurried back along the shore, he spotted columns of water gushing out of the sea above the mine. Then he heard the villagers wailing as they saw the water rise to the mine entrance, he recalled.
“It just ended like that. I lost my father,” Jeon said.
After the war, Jeon returned to Korea, but his family struggled to make ends meet on the meager income his mother earned from selling rice cakes and driving cattle for farmers with whatever he could afford.
Growing up, he said, he often thought of his father trapped in the water so far away, but over the years he loses hope of ever bringing him home.
“Governments pay lip service to us but have actually done nothing,” he said while watching a video of the recent ceremony on YouTube at his home in Daegu, South Korea.
His spirits lifted when Yoko Inoue, the 72-year-old Japanese leader of the action group pushing for the remains’ recovery, appeared on the screen.
“Inoue-san, hold on!” yelled Jeon, breaking into Japanese.
Back in Ube, Inoue told Reuters that the bodies at Chosei, if left untouched, would forever stand as a symbol of the two countries’ bitter pasts. But if they were salvaged, they would serve as a sign of unity.
“We have a great opportunity,” she said. “There is momentum now, and the Japanese and Korean governments are trying to settle their differences.”
“It also means uncovering historical problems. But since there are both Japanese and Koreans there, this could be a new avenue if both governments could work together.”
(Reporting by Sakura Murakami in Ube, Japan and Ju-min Park in Daegu, South Korea; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Robert Birsel)