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(Yonhap Feature) Blockbuster movie rekindles S. Koreans' furor over Japan

2017/08/18 09:36

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By Kim Kwang-tae

DAEJEON, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) -- When Choi Jang-seop left for Japan more than seven decades ago, the 16-year-old did not know that the journey would change his life.

He was one of hundreds of Koreans who were conscripted into forced labor on Japan's Hashima Island as part of the country's mobilization of Koreans during World War II. Korea was under Japan's colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

Seen is a black-and-white photo of Choi Jang-seop when he was in sixth grade. This photo was provided by Choi's son. (Yonhap) Seen is a black-and-white photo of Choi Jang-seop when he was in sixth grade. This photo was provided by Choi's son. (Yonhap)

Choi -- wearing only underwear -- toiled eight hours in a hot, cramped undersea coal mine with the constant fear of death. Other survivors said they worked for 12 hours at a time as three eight-hour shifts gave way to two 12-hour shifts with the rising demand for coal during the war.

Choi Jang-seop, a former South Korean forced laborer at Japan's Hashima Island, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency at his apartment in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul, on Aug. 8, 2017. (Yonhap) Choi Jang-seop, a former South Korean forced laborer at Japan's Hashima Island, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency at his apartment in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul, on Aug. 8, 2017. (Yonhap)

What's worse is that forced laborers, mostly in their teens and 20s, were given food that was mostly remnants of beans after the vegetable oil had been extracted, a situation that led to malnutrition and starvation among some forced laborers.

"I was hungry all the time and life was miserable beyond description," Choi recalled of his days on the island between 1943 and 1945 in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency at his small apartment in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul.

"Whenever I went down into the coal mine, I was overwhelmed by the fear that I might not come back alive."

   The ordeal suffered by Choi and other Korean forced laborers has gained fresh public attention in South Korea following the release of "The Battleship Island," the nickname for Hashima Island due to its resemblance to a warship.

The shape of Hashima Island resembles a warship from a distance as shown in this photo taken by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab in July 2008. The photo was provided by Lee. (Yonhap) The shape of Hashima Island resembles a warship from a distance as shown in this photo taken by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab in July 2008. The photo was provided by Lee. (Yonhap)

The blockbuster film tells the tale of Koreans who were forced to work in the undersea coal mine in Hashima Island, one of the work sites for Koreans who were conscripted against their will during colonial rule.

Historians say millions of Korean men were forcibly drafted into the Japanese workforce during colonial rule, and more than 200,000 women from Korea and other Asian nations were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

The movie has brought back harrowing memories of forced labor and rekindled South Koreans' lingering resentment toward Japan over its brutal colonial rule.

A promotional poster for the South Korean movie "The Battleship Island." This photo was provided by South Korea's entertainment and media giant CJ E&M. A promotional poster for the South Korean movie "The Battleship Island." This photo was provided by South Korea's entertainment and media giant CJ E&M.

"The pain from forced mobilization during Japanese colonial rule still persists," President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday in a speech marking the 72nd anniversary of the country's liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

Moon said trust between Seoul and Tokyo "will go even deeper" when they properly settle the historical issue.

In a rare show of unity, a North Korean propaganda website, Meari, said earlier this month that anti-Japanese sentiment is still running strong in Korea, as Japan still has not offered an apology or reparations for its militaristic past.

Japan normalized relations with South Korea in 1965 but has no formal ties with North Korea.

The Korean Peninsula was divided into the capitalist South and the communist North after its liberation from Japanese colonial rule. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire agreement, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war.

Old scars do not disappear easily.

Choi, now 88, recalls that he and others could not stand upright while working in the cramped undersea coal mine for hours and, sometimes, rocks fell and seawater leaked into the mine, dismal working conditions that were blamed for the deaths of some forced laborers. Also, the coal seam they worked ran at a steep angle, increasing the danger.

The ruins of former living quarters for Korean laborers look out over the sea from Hashima Island in this photo taken by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab in July 2008. According to survivors, during rough weather, high waves would splash into the rooms in the lower stories of these buildings. This photo was provided by Lee. (Yonhap) The ruins of former living quarters for Korean laborers look out over the sea from Hashima Island in this photo taken by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab in July 2008. According to survivors, during rough weather, high waves would splash into the rooms in the lower stories of these buildings. This photo was provided by Lee. (Yonhap)

Living conditions were also dismal as the small rooms, mostly in the lower floors, were cramped and smelly with little sunlight and high humidity. In some rooms, water from larger waves on the sea would make it in.

"It's not once or twice that I woke up from a nightmare of working in the coal mine," Choi said, describing his life on the island as "hellish."

  

Rubble litters the street in front of the "Stairway to Hell" on Hashima Island in this photo taken in July 2008. This photo was provided by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab. (Yonhap) Rubble litters the street in front of the "Stairway to Hell" on Hashima Island in this photo taken in July 2008. This photo was provided by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab. (Yonhap)

He said he received medical treatment for about 20 days after being hit on the shoulder by a falling rock, but some people were not so lucky.

Another South Korean miner, identified by his family name Chang, said many people were killed due to frequent collapses in the coal mine. Many others were tortured by the Japanese after being caught in failed attempts to escape, according to the South Korean government's fact-finding report published in 2012.

Choi also said his back and other parts of his body were whipped with a rubber hose by the Japanese after being caught during his own escape attempt from "The Island of Hell" just three months after he arrived.

Rubble litters the street in front of former living quarters for Korean forced laborers on Hashima Island in this photo taken in July 2008. The photo was provided by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab. (Yonhap) Rubble litters the street in front of former living quarters for Korean forced laborers on Hashima Island in this photo taken in July 2008. The photo was provided by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab. (Yonhap)

The report said out of some 500 to 800 Korean laborers estimated to have been on the island between 1925 and 1945, 122 died, citing cremation records for Korean laborers found on the island by a Japanese civic group in the '80s.

The report said the causes of death included suffocation inside the coal mine, concussions, being crushed to death, drowning, and respiratory diseases.

Hashima Island -- about 18 kilometers off the coast of the western Japanese port of Nagasaki -- was once a symbol of Japanese industrialization. A four-story building was built on the island in 1916, the first concrete apartment complex in Japan, which was later expanded by three more stories.

Seen here are ruins of former apartment blocks for the Japanese on Hashima Island in this photo taken in July 2008. The photo was provided by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab. (Yonhap) Seen here are ruins of former apartment blocks for the Japanese on Hashima Island in this photo taken in July 2008. The photo was provided by South Korean photographer Lee Jae-gab. (Yonhap)

The population of the 16-acre island -- more than half the size of Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay -- reached 5,300 in its heyday in 1945, when Korea won independence following the Japanese surrender in the World War II.

For Korean laborers, independence and their return home came at a cost.

Choi was sent to Nagasaki to clean up the mess just days after the Japanese city was devastated by the second U.S. atomic bomb. "I gobbled up beans in a sack spilled there, as I was hungry," he said, an ill-fated act that apparently led to Choi being exposed to residual radiation.

Another survivor, identified by his family name Seo, said that he coughed up blood for about six months after being exposed to radiation at a Nagasaki shipyard, according to the South Korean government's fact-finding report.

The mine in Hashima Island closed down in 1974, as Japan turned to oil as a new source of energy. The island was abandoned for decades before 2009 when Japan allowed tourists to visit designated parts of it.

In 2015, the eerie island was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site as one of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution sites. The U.N. heritage body recommended Japan include the "full history" of Hashima Island.

At that time, Japan's Ambassador to UNESCO Kuni Sato said Japan is prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that "there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites."

   In July, Sato said that Japan has been earnestly continuing its best efforts to submit a progress report on the recommendations to the World Heritage Center by Dec. 1.

"We would like to reaffirm our commitment to preparing the interpretive strategy including appropriate measures such as the establishment of an information center," she said in a session of the World Heritage Committee in Poland.

Still, for Choi and other former laborers, Hashima Island remains "The Prison island" or "The Island of Hell."

   "I cannot forgive (Japan) in my heart," Choi said.

entropy@yna.co.kr

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