Gov’t admits to abusive leprosy patient policies

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Gov’t admits to abusive leprosy patient policies

The Korean government yesterday wrapped up an investigation into its past abuses against people with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, concluding that it had violated the rights of thousands of patients with its policy of forcibly separating them from society.

A total of 10,038 patients applied for victim status between March 2009 until the end of April this year, and 6,462 have been recognized as such, according to the national committee investigating the issue and the Ministry of Welfare yesterday.

“The government’s recognition of its own abuses against people with the disease bears significance due to the fact that now the honor of those patients has been recovered,” said Na Sung-woong, director of the Welfare Ministry’s disease prevention policy team, during a press briefing yesterday. “It is an undeniable fact that there were cases of state-orchestrated violence and forced quarantine of people with the disease.”

He said that as a majority of patients are now in their 70s or 80s, obtaining their accounts of abuse was one of the most difficult tasks in the government probe.

“We will compensate some 4,000 surviving patients recognized as victims by offering them a 150,000 won ($134) monthly government subsidy,” said the ministry. Patients already on welfare will still be able to receive the additional payments.

The practice of forcibly quarantining Hansen’s patients was started by the Japanese during their 36 years of colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean government then continued it after independence in 1945. One of the best-known leper colonies, notorious for its isolation from the rest of the country, is a 4.42 square-kilometer (1.71 square-mile) island called Sorok in South Jeolla, about 500 kilometers south of Seoul.

Up until February 1963, leprosy sufferers were forcibly sent to such remote settlements and were often subjected to physical abuse at the hands of facility supervisors. Some were forced to undergo surgical sterilization.

Though the once-feared disease is now 100 percent curable, there is still a social stigma against those infected with it. Hansen’s can cause disfigurements such as shortened toes and fingers as the infection progresses.

There are currently 91 leper colonies remaining in Korea. A total of 12,323 people were suffering from the disease in the country as of 2012. Of those, about 4,100 live in remote settlements. Sorok Island has a population of 574.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joonang.co.kr]

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