By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Nov. 25 (Yonhap) -- Twenty-one people of Korean descent who were taken to Russia's far eastern island of Sakhalin for forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule will return to their home country in coming weeks under a government support project, the foreign ministry said Thursday.
Under the inter-agency program, a total of 260 people, including the forced laborers and their immediate family members and relatives, will arrive in South Korea in phases from Saturday through Dec. 10, the ministry said.
In line with a special act to support the ethnic Koreans from Sakhalin, the program is designed to help them and their family members get permanent residency here or dual citizenship should they want it. They currently have Russian citizenship.
"We hope the return of Sakhalin Koreans and the support project would somewhat heal their wounds from the heart-wrenching history," the ministry said in a release.
About 43,000 Koreans are thought to have been forced into labor on Sakhalin Island in the early 1900s.
Many of them are known to have returned to their motherland after Seoul and Moscow forged diplomatic relations in 1990, but there are still ethnic Koreans living in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
The average age of the first-generation Sakhalin Koreans set to arrive here is now 88, according to ministry officials.
The ministry said the government will provide financial support for airfare, early settlement fees and public rental homes to them to help heal their pain from the dark history.