A prison for lepers, and a traumatic scandal

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A prison for lepers, and a traumatic scandal

July 7, 1933
Sorok Island, off the South Sea, has long been a shelter for people suffering from leprosy. The Japanese colonial government, whose rule officially lasted from 1910 to 1945, chose this secluded island for that role; the construction of a village and a hospital on the island was completed on this date. It was Japanese policy to prevent the spread of the disease by isolating its sufferers.
Life on the island, however, was not easy in a time when prejudice against lepers prevailed. The island, which was supposed to be a shelter, turned out to be nothing more than a concentration camp, according to survivors. When a person became ill with the disease, Japanese police would come and take them to the island. The patients were told that their disease would be cured there, but the reality was quite different, survivors said. What ruled their daily lives were abuse, hunger and physical labor. Male patients were said to have been castrated if they wanted to marry a female patient. More than 6,000 patients were taken to the island.
After Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, conditions improved on the island, which came under the care of the Korean government through national hospitals. About 700 patients currently live on the island, with an average age of 78. The island’s reputation has improved over the decades; tour packages have even sprung up lately.
In Japan, the law that dictated that lepers be quarantined, which was established in 1907, wasn’t abolished until 1996. A group of Japanese lawyers raised the issue of the law’s inhumanity, saying it ran counter to the spirit of Japan’s constitution. They filed suit against the Japanese government and won the case in 2001. The same lawyers have been trying to raise the issue of Sorok Island patients under colonial rule, visiting the island to gather the accounts of survivors of the period.

July 8, 1967
The easiest way to ruin a socially important figure under the military regimes was to call him a pro-North Korean communist. For professors, artists and students in Europe, especially in Berlin, there was a higher possibility of suspicion, which led to one of the biggest political scandals of the times, called the East Berlin (also known as Dongbaekrim) North Korean Spy Incident. Back then, East Berlin was the place where South Koreans in Europe could get closest to North Korea.
On this date, South Korea’s intelligence agency announced that more than 300 South Koreans in Europe had been contacting Pyeongyang through the North Korean Embassy in East Berlin. Intelligence agents forced the accused from Europe, and more than 100 were arrested and tried.
The accused included artists like Ungno Lee, the acclaimed painter based in Paris, and the musician Yoon Yi-sang of Berlin. Not surprisingly, the scandal was a great shock to the nation. The intelligence agency claimed that the accused, especially in West Berlin, frequently visited East Berlin, and went on from there to visit Pyeongyang. To this day, this scandal remains a trauma in modern Korean history.
Back then, few dared to question whether the accusations were true or not, but the accused said later that the whole scheme was fabricated by the military regime. Ungno Lee, the painter, was one such victim. Living in Paris since 1957, Mr. Lee’s house was like a salon for Koreans based in Europe, including many government figures. One day in 1967, the Korean consul in Paris visited him and said that Mr. Lee, as a contributor to Korea’s reputation abroad, had been invited to meet the president. Escorted all the way to Seoul, Mr. Lee found himself in the last place he imagined he’d be ― the basement investigation room of the intelligence agency.
Mr. Lee said he was ordered by the agents to “speak the truth,” but that the truth wasn’t what they insisted it was. Mr. Lee had a son who had been taken to North Korea as a prisoner of war during the Korean War; the government suspected that this was reason enough for him to contact Pyeongyang.
Mr. Lee said he had happened to meet a North Korean embassy staffer, who had suggested that he could possibly give him a chance to meet his son, who was happily married in Pyeongyang. Mr. Lee, however, did not visit Pyeongyang, he said, which meant that the whole scandal was trumped up by the regime.


by Chun Su-jin
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