In 1980, South Korean Kim Dong Yeun was stunned to find a letter had arrived from her husband, who 38 years earlier had boarded a ship for Sakhalin Island, now part of the Soviet Union. It was her first word from him since his departure.

Several other letters followed. He told her that he was living on a small Soviet pension, had a vegetable garden and hoped that he could return to Korea. The trip might be possible, he said, in one or two years.

"Both I and my mother, who is 88, want to see him again before he dies," a weeping Kim said at a press conference in Tokyo.

She and her husband, now 65, are entangled in one of the loose ends of World War II, in which politics and international bureaucracy have kept thousands of families divided between South Korea and Sakhalin.

But now there are signs that Moscow is easing travel restrictions. In recent months, several ethnic Koreans living on Sakhalin have visited Japan to see relatives.

Kim's husband was among about 45,000 Koreans who were shipped, often by force, to Sakhalin by Japan before and during the war to work in mines and factories. Korea and Sakhalin were both part of the Japanese empire at that time.

Following Japan's surrender in 1945, the island became part of the Soviet Union. The ethnic Japanese were sent home. But the Koreans, who during the war were considered to be Japanese citizens, were declared stateless persons and denied entry to Japan.

In ensuing years, most of the Koreans became Soviet citizens or moved to communist North Korea. But today, between 1,000 and 2,000 are believed to maintain their stateless status, apparently with the hope of returning one day to South Korea.

The Soviet Union does not recognize South Korea, however. Allowing people to move there could be seen as tacit recognition of the south and its government and may explain Moscow's refusal. Similarly, lack of diplomatic ties prevents relatives in South Korea from traveling to Sakhalin.

Over the years, Moscow and Tokyo have discussed a series of deals for repatriation, but each has fallen through. Relations with Japan, a close U.S. ally, never have been good. Japan is also pressing Moscow to return a group of islands that it captured in 1945.

Meanwhile, a small group of Japanese lawyers, politicians and social activists is campaigning for Japan to restore the Koreans' Japanese citizenship. That, they believe, would facilitate their exit.

"This is a question that Japan should solve, as the initiator or creator of the very issue," said Yasuaki Onuma, a professor of international law at Tokyo University who has been active on the Sakhalin issue.

Ten years ago, the group filed a lawsuit in a Tokyo court to force the government to grant citizenship. Last week, after a hiatus of two years, the court again began deliberating the issue. Japan maintains that it has no obligation to grant citizenship. A decision could be years away.

In July 1983, a Japanese legislator, Shyozo Kusakawa, visited Sakhalin and returned to say that the local government had agreed in principle to allow 10 families per year to visit Japan. But two months later, a Soviet fighter shot down a Korean Air Lines 747 near Sakhalin, and the plan was frozen.

Now there are new signs that the Soviets are easing up. Last month, two elderly ethnic Koreans, both of them Soviet citizens, came to Japan to see relatives. Both are scheduled to return to the Soviet Union.

Then four South Koreans with relatives in Sakhalin met with Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe to urge the Japanese government to act forcefully with the Soviet Union on the issue. Like Onuma, they argue that finding a solution is Japan's responsibility. Abe told them that Japan is raising it at every appropriate meeting with the Soviets, a ministry spokesman said, but that the Soviet Union has responded that there is nothing to discuss.

Emotions continue to run high on the Korean side.

"Our brothers and sisters who were left behind on Sakhalin pass away day by day," said a Korean with relatives there. Children and grandchildren are growing up speaking Russian, the Korean said.

At the subsequent press conference, a Korean man cried out, "Why did you take away my father and not let him return?" He then sliced open one of his forefingers. Using his blood as ink, he wrote out a protest poster demanding action by the Japanese government.