Prime Minister Han Seung-soo offered a formal apology Saturday to sufferers of leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, living on Sorok Island where patients have maintained an isolated and repressive life for decades.
It was first time for a sitting prime minister to visit the remote island off the southwestern Jeolla coast and apologize.
Han said, ``It took so long for the nation's prime minister to meet people with leprosy. On behalf of the government, I offer deep apologies and condolences to the patients and their families who had unspeakable suffering amid social discrimination and prejudice.''
The prime minister made the remarks in a speech he delivered during a ceremony to mark the Day for Leprosy Patients at Sorok Hospital on the island.
The island---one of the places students at my schools visit each year for their spring picnic---in Goheung county gets written up in the local papers about once a year, and receives outside attention every so often. I collected a few recent articles in a post last July. Here's an excerpt from a 2005 article by James Card:
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."
Other articles show that the families of those quarantined on the island have been trying to get compensation from the Japanese government. An excerpt from a 2005 Korea Times article, available last July 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.
Some other atrocities have been recounted here, and there's another lengthy profile on the island and its inhabitants here. However, as in other issues that intersect with Japanese occupation, cruelty hasn't been the exclusive right of the Japanese. The Korea Times 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.
In 1984 Pope John Paul II visited the island and washed the feet of some of the inhabitants. The text of his remarks are here. And in 2007 a bridge from Sorok-do to the mainland was opened. Newspaper articles from the time made it seem as if the bridge would be metaphorical as well, connecting the rest of Korea to this painful history and perhaps expediating efforts at compensation and accountability; see the NYT and Joongang Ilbo articles for more, or take your pick from Google.
For those who don't know where Sorok-do is, here is a very unscientific look, via Google Maps.
As an aside, I just learned that part of the bridge collapsed in August, 2007, killing some of the workers.