Sorok Island lepers get a shot at justice
It was August 1945, Nam’s fourth year on this island leper colony, which was created by the Japanese in 1916. Just a few days before, Korea had been liberated from Japanese colonial rule.
Hiding behind a thick pine tree near the massacre site, Nam was stunned to see the Korean staff of the island’s hospital shooting and burning the victims.
Nam was already no stranger to abuse and murder. After he was hauled here against his will, Nam was held in a room where there were jars containing severed heads, body organs and a fetus preserved in alcohol.
The remains were of lepers who had been killed during medical experiments conducted by the Japanese hospital staff, Nam said.
However, the massacre was far more horrifying because it was Koreans killing Koreans.
Nam, now 79, is one of 640 people still living on Sorok, some of them leprosy patients at the national hospital here, others family members or cured patients with nowhere else to go, victims of a disease that once horrified society and led to the isolation of sufferers. Now they are free to come and go, but this is home.
The massacre still pains Nam. He recalled that most of the 84 victims were leaders of the leper community, whom he described as an obstacle for the Korean staff attempting to take control of the hospital following the departure of the Japanese.
“Some of the victims were buried and burned while they were still breathing,” he said. “Something must be done to soothe their souls.”
Presented by legislator Kim Choon-jin of the United New Democratic Party in 2005, the bill passed the health and welfare committee of the National Assembly last week and has now reached the judiciary committee.
It is expected to be passed by this committee today.
The bill will then be presented to the plenary session of the National Assembly for an immediate vote, Kim said. The 84-person massacre is included in the list of abuses cited in the bill, along with several other incidents that took place after the colonial period ended.
Even so, Nam is tired of waiting.
“The Korean government and politicians have just been talking and making gestures, not acting,” he complained. Pointing to the site of the massacre, he said, “I still hang my head low whenever I pass this place. I shudder at the memory of the murders.”
In the background beyond the site of the massacre there is a change in the landscape that pleases Nam ― a new bridge that will link the island and the mainland for the first time. The 640 residents on Sorok, mostly former leprosy patients, represent just over 4 percent of the 16,000 lepers in Korea, but their symbolic significance exceeds their number.
Before the bridge, islanders had to rely on a ferry that sails between Nokdong Port and Sorok. The ferry only takes five minutes but the last one leaves at 5:30 p.m.
The new 1,160-meter bridge will be opened tomorrow to celebrate the Chuseok holiday but it will be restricted to pedestrian use. Next June it is to be opened for vehicular traffic as well, according to Kim Hong-seon of the South Jeolla provincial office.
“The opening of the bridge is like a revolution,” said Lee Nam-chul, a former leprosy patient who came to the island in 1966. “It’s a symbol that the island is now connected to the rest of the country, overcoming decades of segregation and prejudice.”
Kim Chung-hang, the leader of the former leprosy patients on the island, is planning to cross the bridge when it opens, together with dozens of his fellow islanders.
The opening of the bridge is sad news for Jeon Seung-min, who has run the Sorok Island ferry since 1962.
However, Jeon has decided to shrug off the loss of his business. “Islanders have been waiting for the bridge for decades,” he said. “So I decided to share their joy and celebrate with them.”
Despite the shiny new bridge, Nam is still reluctant to visit the Nokdong Port area because of the discrimination he had suffered in the past.
Koreans used to call leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, a “punishment from heaven,” and fear and ignorance of the disease led to social stigma and prejudice that afflicted lepers for decades.
Nam knows this sentiment does not die easily. As recently as 2004, Nam was kicked out of a barbershop in Nokdong Port because he was a leprosy victim.
“Some shopkeepers there are unwilling to take our money, so they will hold just a tiny corner of our bills and throw the change at us,” Nam said. Kwon Soon-ja, 60, who has run a motel and a bar in the area for years, echoed this, saying, “Some shopkeepers in the past sterilized the bills they took from the lepers. Many of them still avoid contact with the Sorok people.”
“Many tend to believe that the persecution of lepers ended with the Japanese colonial period, but that is not true,” Nam roared. “The prejudice and persecution continued for several more decades. And that’s why the Korean government must offer an apology and compensation.”
Kim, the island’s leader, supports Nam, saying, “The hardest thing was the discrimination we suffered from our fellow Koreans.”
The continued discrimination after liberation from colonial rule resulted in injuries and deaths. The massacre of the 84 was not the only mass killing inflicted on the Korean lepers. In 2005 the National Human Rights Commission investigated Sorok for the first time and produced a list of 10 cases in which lepers were massacred during the World War II and, most recently, in 1957.
Aside from massacres, patients also suffered other forms of abuse, including forced vasectomies. Nam said that he was forced to have the operation in 1954 and claimed that the practice continued until the mid-1970s. “I was completely finished as a man back then,” he recalled, biting his lip. “I was nothing more than an animal with no human rights.”
The island has retained the red brick buildings from the Japanese colonial era and the one where the vasectomies took place still stands and can be viewed by visitors. Next to the operating room are the cells where patients were detained.
The island has a scenic landscape, rich in pine trees and beaches, but the most important tourist attraction is a park that was built with the forced labor of the lepers.
Many lepers were forced into isolation on Sorok during the Japanese colonial era and were compelled to do heavy physical labor with little medical treatment or nutrition.
Jang Gi-jin, 86, vividly remembers the painful years of Japanese colonial rule, which he described as the hardest time of his life.
He was forced to go to the island by a Japanese police officer who told him that three years on Sorok would cure his disease.
However, what awaited him on the island was heavy labor from dawn to dusk combined with inadequate food and frequent beatings.
“From scratching resin out of pine trees for gunpowder to road construction to building a park, I could never rest,” Jang said. His disease got worse and he lost both his hands and legs after arriving on the island.
Once a month the lepers were forced to worship at the Japanese Shinto shrine on the island, Jang recalled. Disobedience meant confinement in a detention cell, usually followed by a vasectomy. “Many lepers back then tried to escape the island by swimming away, only to drown,” Jang said.
However, under pressure from protests by the Sorok islanders and Japanese activists, Japan’s health ministry changed course and offered compensation up to 8 million yen ($69,000).
Jang, a devout Christian, gave some of the money to his church, paid the cost of the trial and sent money to a relative with gastric cancer who needed an operation.
“For me the compensation money was a symbol that Japan felt remorse and wanted to apologize” Jang said.
“What we want is a simple fact-finding investigation,” said Nam. “Then we want proper punishment of the perpetrators and compensation for the victims.”
Apart from the massacres, there are issues on Sorok Island that require government-level investigation. A reclamation project on Oma Island is one such case, said Kim, the leader of the Sorok Island community.
In 1962, the islanders went to a small, uninhabited island near Sorok and reclaimed the land hoping to use it for rice paddies.
However, when the reclamation work was completed, the South Jeolla provincial government took away the leper’s right of ownership. Kim, who worked on the reclamation, still gets angry when he thinks about the incident. He is pinning his hope on the special bill that has finally emerged from a two-year impasse.
The bill, however, is facing criticism even before it passes. The Sorok Island lepers say that the bill only refers to a few incidents and only offers “a subsidy for medical and living expenses,” instead of compensation. Kim, the legislator, admitted that the bill is “not up to par” with the level of attention the issue deserves.
“We have to note that it took two years for this kind of minimal level of legislation to pass the health committee,” he said. He claimed the addition of the compensation issue would have complicated the bill and reduced its chances of being passed. “What matters most now is that we are about to have this bill at the threshold of the plenary session,” Kim said. “We can discuss revision of the bill later, once it has been passed and signed into law.”
Lee Bal-rae, an official at the National Human Rights Commission who was in charge of the 2005 Sorok Island investigation, said that Kim’s bill does not get an A-grade, but it could serve as a foundation for the future.
Lee is “heart-broken” that there has been “no visible progress” on the compensation issue since 2005.
“The ministry seems to think we should let bygones be bygones,” he said. “But the infringement on the lepers’ human rights is not something that can be easily forgotten. When it comes to compensation it is better late than never.”
Kim, the legislator, concurred about the lack of support from the government and society over the compensation issue.
“Korean society, not to mention the government and National Assembly, seems to be indifferent about this issue,” Kim said. “It is very regretful that the Korean government is reluctant to recognize and deal with the atrocities of the past.” He then added that there has been a “double standard” in Korean society over the compensation of lepers.
“When the Japanese court turned down the compensation suit in 2005, Koreans criticized Japan,” Kim said. “But, ironically, we are not doing anything to correct our own share of past misdeeds against lepers.”
It is this indifferent attitude that mortifies Nam the most. And lately he has grown more nervous, watching his fellow former patients die. Nam is puzzled and outraged by the fact that none of the killers have ever been identified or punished. “What on earth is the Korean government doing?” he pleaded.
“At least I am lucky because I have lived long enough to see the bridge and the special legislation,” he said. “But the government and the assembly should keep in mind that time is ticking away fast,” he added, noting that he has lost two of his fellow islanders last week.
“Something has to be done quickly,” he said. “Before all of us are dead.”
However, all he can do for now is to get ready to walk across the new bridge and to hope it will help promote a bill that will provide justice for the victims of the 1945 massacre who still haunt his dreams.
By Chun Su jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]