One of the buildings open to the public is the grim place where Japanese doctors performed experimental autopsies and they forced vasectomies on the male patients in order to "cull" the island's population. In the drab operation room, a bare light bulb dangles above a stone cutting table and on the wall hangs a poem by a former patient, mourning his fate and the fact he will never have children.
This is a sharp contrast to the nearby hospital. Organized like most modern hospitals across the country, the patients are getting the treatment that they deserve. Currently there are 750 patients on the island; some are active while others are hospitalized. Patients are free to leave the island with doctor's approval.
As for people coming to the island, a nurse said, "Ten years ago it was impossible to come to the island but now with increased awareness about Hansen's disease, the island is open to visitors."
The Korea Times had an article on the island back in 2005, on the topic of Japanese lawyers trying to get compensation for the patients exiled to the island during Occupation. An excerpt from the article, available today via Empas:
Under a court ruling in 2001 that concluded that the state wrongly maintained its isolation policy, the Japanese government was ordered to pay compensation to former Hansen's patients.
However, the Japanese government is maintaining that its compensation policy does not cover the people kept in sanitariums in Japan's former colonies.
According to Tokuda [the lawyer leading the fight], his Korean plaintiffs testified that they had been subjected to hard labor and forced to take sterilization operations, with Japanese authorities fearing their newborns may pass on the disease to others.
The Japanese lawyer criticized Tokyo’s stance of not recognizing former Hansen’s disease patients outside of Japan, saying it has little logical ground.
Japan’s compensation law does not limit the nationality or the current place of residence of the patients when they apply for compensation.
The article continues:
Activists such as Park and Chae are urging the government to set up a state-run panel to investigate the lives and experiences of Hansen’s disease patients and compensate for past human rights abuses.
In one of the better known incidents, 26 cured Hansen’s disease patients were killed by local residents of Bitori Island, South Kyongsang Province, in 1957 after they attempted to resettle there. However, the attackers received prison terms of less than three years or were released with a suspended sentence.
More recently in 1992, a resettlement village in Chilgok, North Kyongsang Province, was raided by police after a local newspaper wrongfully reported that Hansen’s disease patients kidnapped and murdered five Taegu school boys who were missing at that time.
Although the missing school boys were found dead and buried in a different location ten years later, neither the police or the media outlets that reported the incident issued an apology.
``The country’s 17,000 former Hansen’s disease patients and their 50,000 family members have suffered under various types of discrimination over the past years. It is time for the government to look beyond just the medical aspects of the issue and come up with comprehensive plans to improve the social conditions of these people,’’ said Chung Keun-shik, a sociology professor at Seoul National University.
The Dong-A Ilbo has the story from 2004:
Korean and Japanese legal circles have begun a full-scale legal motion regarding the compensation claim for the patients of leprosy or Hansen’s disease who suffered in Sorokdo concentration camps under the rule of Japanese imperialism.
The Korean Bar Association (KBA), led by President Park Jae-seung, and Japan’s Defense Counsel for State Reparation for Hansen’s Disease represented by Lawyer Tokuda Yasuyuki, announced on June 4 that the two organizations will jointly institute an action against the Japanese government to pay compensation for the Sorokdo patients with Hansen’s disease.
Other google news searches for the Japanese lawyer's name turn up articles from 2001, available with subscription, so this battle has apparently been going on for a while. In other stories, Pope John Paul II visited Sorok-do in 1984 and washed the feet of Hansen's Disease patients. You can find the text of his speech here. And, last fall a bridge opened up between the island and the mainland. An excerpt from a wire report on the opening:
Kim Myong-Ho, 58, leader of 645 surviving lepers in seven villages on the island, gave the bridge a cautious welcome.
"If our predecessors -- some of whom drowned trying to escape -- could hear about it, they would rejoice," said Kim, who has spent 14 years on the island.
"But on the other hand, we are concerned about a reckless influx of outsiders disturbing peace and order."
Visitors who come by ferry are currently banned from staying overnight and their access to the seven villages is restricted.
"Hopefully such restrictions will remain intact even after the bridge opens," Kim said, adding residents and authorities are discussing how to preserve peace and the environment.
For Park In-Suk, 84, who has lived on Sorok since 1936, the project is a cause for concern.
"What if thieves sneak in here across the bridge?" she told AFP in an interview in her one-room house.
She is almost blind and has lost both hands and both legs below the knees.
"With my flesh perishing, I just believe in going to heaven here," she said.
Japanese police forced Park to leave her home at the age of 13 and come to Sorok. The day she arrived, she wept for her lost family.
Worse was to come -- decades of meagre food, insufficient treatment and gruelling labour, with patients forced to make bricks, weave straw bags or labour in construction.
The New York Times had an article on the bridge and the island, too. Sorok-do seems worth a visit, in an educational not morbid way. Classes from my school and I imagine others take day trips to the island during their semester field trips. You can see a little more of the hospital via the official site, and can find some more pictures of the area via a Naver search.