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Residents at South Korean facility for A-bomb survivors recall childhood in Japan

Kim Pan-gun looks at mortuary tablets for 1,055 Koreans from Hapcheon who became victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, at a welfare center in Hapcheon, South Korea, on Dec. 11, 2015. (Mainichi)
Residents at a welfare center for Korean A-bomb survivors smile as visiting local elementary school students sing and dance for them, in Hapcheon, South Korea, on Dec. 10, 2015. (Mainichi)
Yoon Su-gi, left, and Kim Pan-gun, in a shared room at a welfare center for Korean A-bomb survivors, talk about their memories of living in Japan, in Hapcheon, South Korea, on Dec. 10, 2015. (Mainichi)
Lee Su-ryong, who was exposed to the Hiroshima A-bomb at age 17 at a location about 1.5 kilometers from the blast hypocenter before returning to South Korea three months later, is seen in this photo taken in Hapcheon, South Korea, on Dec. 9, 2015. (Mainichi)
A weekly gymnastics program for residents is seen at a welfare center for Korean A-bomb survivors in Hapcheon, South Korea, on Dec. 9, 2015. (Mainichi)
A welfare center for Korean A-bomb survivors is seen in Hapcheon, South Korea, on Dec. 11, 2015. A plan has been proposed to construct an A-bomb museum in the foreground area. (Mainichi)

HAPCHEON, South Korea -- Located in the southern part of South Korea, this small town has come to be called the country's own "Hiroshima." Many Koreans under the Japanese colonial rule during World War II, either poor and seeking jobs or mobilized to work at Japanese military factories, moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where they fell victim to the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. Last year, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter visited a welfare center here for A-bomb survivors to hear their stories.

    "I know Hiroshima well. It brings back memories," said an elderly woman in smooth Japanese at a welfare center here for around 100 A-bomb survivors. The average age of the survivors living at this center is over 81 years. In South Korea, there is a strong view that the nuclear bomb brought about the end of the Japanese occupation, and there are few opportunities for public talks about A-bomb survivors. With even their existence little known, the welfare center provides a valuable place for the South Korean A-bomb survivors to share their pain with others like them. People who have an A-bomb survivor's certificate distributed by Japanese municipalities are allowed to use the facility for free.

    With both residential rooms and diagnosis and treatment rooms, the center is similar to a nursing home for the elderly in Japan. Some residents were watching TV in the lobby, others were playing table tennis or using exercise equipment. They also have access to painting and gymnastics classes. Everyone at the facility seemed to be enjoying their remaining years.

    Two 85-year-old residents, Kim Pan-gun and Yun Su-gi, both grew up in Hiroshima and were exposed to the atomic bomb when they were 15 years old. Kim was on a train platform at Hiroshima Station when the bomb fell, and became trapped under a fallen metal roof. After the war, he and his family returned to Hapcheon, but Kim couldn't speak Korean and his family lived in poverty there. Lee Su-ryong, another resident at the facility who returned to Korea after being exposed to the bomb in Hiroshima at age 17, similarly struggled due to being unable to speak Korean.

    Kim says, "Hiroshima is my home away from home. If it weren't for the A-bomb, my memories of it would all be good."

    "A single A-bomb broke apart my family," he says. His father died during the war in 1943 at age 43, and his remains were left in Hiroshima.

    Yun, meanwhile, suffered burns across his body from the A-bomb explosion and was bedridden for five months. He returned to South Korea with his family and attended night school for about three years as he learned how to speak his country's language. To support his family he joined the military during the middle of the Korean War. Of his current circumstances, he says, "Here (at the welfare center) I have companions at my side who are like family. It is very comfortable."

    While both Kim and Yun spoke Japanese during their interviews, they say only a few of the residents at the welfare center can still speak the language. Yun, who put on a favorite tape of his by the late Japanese diva Hibari Misora, said, "Japan was the place of my youth."

    He added, "The place I am supposed to be, it's not probably Japan but here, isn't it?" he said, seeming to reflect on how the events of history had affected his life.

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