[HISTORY IN THIS WEEK]A poet’s love of country; leprosy sufferers

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[HISTORY IN THIS WEEK]A poet’s love of country; leprosy sufferers

July 6, 1974
Poems by Shin Seok-jeong are peaceful, pastoral pieces about desires to live in paradise and his love toward his dear mother.
But his lyrics are ironic, as the time when he lived was not peaceful but rather sorrowful.
His life as a poet was in full bloom in 1930s, also the time when the Japanese colonization was at its peak. At the time, teaching the Korean language or history in schools was banned, and all Koreans had to adopt Japanese names. Naturally, many patriotic activists and even scholars were arrested and detained for not following Japanese policies.
In contrast to the brutal era, the late poet wrote of the beauty of the wild roses, quiet lakes and deer running about freely in his well-known poem, “Did you really know of that faraway land?”
In the poem, he tells his mother he wishes to live in such a land.
Literature experts say the faraway land in his poem means a liberated state and that his mother actually represents that country. He was among a few poets during that time who refused to be pro-Japanese.
He is remembered as a modest school teacher. In an interview with a Seoul paper, Huh So-ra, professor emeritus of Kunsan University, said he was a type of a classical scholar. But he was also tall and handsome and enjoyed smoking pipes.
He taught in secondary school until he quietly passed away on this day when he was 67 years old.

July 7, 1933
A village for leprosy sufferers was completed on this day on a small island called Sorokdo, off the coast of South Jeolla province.
Although the island was a mere five minutes by boat from the nearest mainland town, leprosy sufferers on the island were strictly prohibited from leaving once they entered the so-called “village of divine punishment.”
Most leprosy sufferers had been led away to the island during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century over incorrect fears that leprosy was highly contagious and to be forced to work.
It was not until the 1960s ― long after the country was liberated from the Japanese ― that the island was transformed from a prison into a place that gives medical treatment for leprosy, also called Hansen’s Disease, (named after a Norwegian doctor who discovered its cause).
The tragic history of the island began in 1916 when Japanese colonizers built a clinic to treat the patients. But the place soon turned into a place of confinement for leprosy sufferers detected across the nation.
The number of people there who were confined reached a peak in 1947 when 6,254 people lived there.
There were numerous stories and testimony about how the confined people were mistreated in the past. They were beaten, forced to work and sterilized.
According to a recent investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, the stories turned out to be mostly true. It is said such confinement continued until the early 1980s.
Separately, the investigation found that in 1945, 84 leprosy sufferers involved in a fight with medical officials suddenly died mysteriously.
Also in 1962, the leprosy sufferers were forced to work for two years on a reclamation project on a nearby island. Survivors say that they were promised freedom and a place to live outside the island as compensation for their labor, but none had been carried out.
It was not until 1963 that the South Korean government allowed new leprosy sufferers to stay home instead of quarantining them.
Some say the only reason was because the government lacked the money to treat them.
Japan stopped quarantining leprosy sufferers in 1996. The Japanese government paid up to 14 million yen ($126,000) as compensation to its victims.
About 100,000 Japanese nationals received the benefits.
But the Japanese government said they had no reason to compensate the Korean people who live on Sorokdo island, because the island is not part of its territory.
The South Korean government is still discussing how they should compensate the victims.


by Lee Min-a

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