2013-08-10

Sorok Island, Colony of a Colony

This is my statement of Youth Forum in which I participated on 24 July, 2013
The Youth Forum was one of the programs of the 5th International History NGOs Conference(http://www.historyngo.org/), and seven international students gave presentations on the theme of Regional Cooperation and Historical Reconciliation in East Asia

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Sorok Island, Colony of a Colony[1]




South Korea is currently one of advanced countries in the world, but the history Korea has gone through was by no means ‘smooth sailing’. The Joseon Dynasty, the last dynasty of Korea, was officially annexed to the Japanese Empire in 1910, and Japanese ruling had lasted until it surrendered to the Allied Forces in 1945. However, despite the liberation, Korea was divided into two parts along with the international circumstance of the Cold War, which led to Korean War(1950-1953). In the end, two Koreas were respectively established in the North and the South, and have been following different social and economic systems.

Thus, Korean modern history is too complicated to be told as a single story, since many different interests are entangled in the Korean modern history. Even though, Korean media reports dealing with historical issues are generally emotional and nationalistic. In particular, they tend to emphasis on brutalities of the Japanese Empire. Such a provocative media report is appealing to most Koreans, and Korean people’s animosity towards Japan becomes more expanded. This situation is believed to become much stronger in our society which brief and instant information is preferred. In this regard, the following story of Sorok Island will give a deeper insight on Korean modern history.

▲ the island had been absolutely isolated before a bridge was built in 2009 


Sorok Island, literally meaning of ‘little deer island’, is off the southwestern coast of Korea, and it has been a prime example of a leper colony of Korea since the Japanese Empire established it in 1916. Leprosy, known as Hansen’s Disease to Koreans, is a chronic infection caused by bacteria Mycobacterium Leprae discovered by the Norwegian physician Hansen. For decades, however, leprosy had commonly been believed to be highly infectious, and lepers have also received disdainful treatment from the general public because of its disfigured appearance. 

▲ a scene from movie 'Benhur'(1959)
mother and sister of the main character suffered from leprosy

▲ a scene from Korean TV drama 'Heojun'
the two films' huge success perpetuated the stigma associated with leprosy

However, leprosy is neither a highly contagious disease nor a genetic disease and it can be also cured with a sustained course of antibiotics, yet the island had been isolated before the building of a bridge connecting the island and the mainland in 2009. On the island, several old buildings including the only one Japanese shrine left in the Korean peninsula are well preserved for the purpose of history education.


         Most Korean social media reports show narrative style as follows[2]; Sorok island started its history of a leper colony under the Japanese Empire. The patients were forcibly ferried to the island from all over the Korean Peninsula, and compelled to be confined and sterilized to prevent leprosy from spreading. The buildings like an autopsy room, a sterilization room and a detention barrack still remain on the island, and show visitors how miserable their lives were.

▲ autopsy and sterilization were conducted in this building

 In addition to this, patients also had to labor from dawn to dusk. As the Pacific war was intensified, exploitation was getting more vicious to the island. Patients provided timber and pine resin for the Japanese Empire. A Japanese shrine was also erected on the island, so everyone had to pray there, regardless of their religion. In particularly, Masasue Suo, the fourth hospital director, was notorious for cruelty like torture or beatings. He even erected a statue modeled after him on a hill to which patients were forced to bow every morning. In the end, his tyranny ended when an outraged patient stabbed him to death. 
▲ patients bowing to the statue of Suo

This is how Korean media tell a history. The information above is not altogether false, but such an approach would be dangerous, because readers may think that all problems were caused by Japanese. Above all, it is problematic that the story rules out the history after the liberation in 1945.

After the liberation, Japanese staff withdrew from the island and the patients started to demand autonomy. The Korean staff, struggling for power, called up nation’s police to put them down. It led to a slaughter of about one hundred patients. After that, the corpses were even burnt with pine resin that patients had collected during the Japanese ruling. This incident had been silent before it was officially memorialized when the remains were excavated in 2001. 
▲ The history concerning the slaughter of 1945 engraved on the monument is not lucid.

Except for this slaughter, more cases like the incident of Bitory island[3] and Oma island[4] have been reported but soon forgotten from people’s minds. The prejudice and misunderstanding against lepers are believed to be the main factor of a series of the persecution has happened to them.[5]

In East Asia, lepers were originally not the object of quarantine, and neither they were in Japan.[6] The idea of confining lepers to a specific space was introduced to the East Asia along with the trade with Western powers. Western people regarded leprosy as a nemesis of oneself based on a biblical worldview. The Japanese Empire, mimicking western powers running many colonies all around the world, accepted the new concept of ‘sanitation’ as a meaning of civilization and modernization. For these reasons, Japanese Empire legislated for domestic segregation of lepers in 1907, which had influenced on Japan until 1996. Additionally, Japanese policy towards leprosy patients was based on Eugenics which had broadly implemented in western countries from 1910s to 1930s. Eugenic saw the lepers as the object of eradication, therefore compulsory sterilization and abortion were justified. While the scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s, it became more brutal in Japan and its colonies. The reason must be World War II which was intensified throughout early 1940s, and it brought in the forced closure of hospitals that western missionaries had operated in Korea by Japan. Also, Sorok leper colony turned into kind of a penal colony where autonomously leave and escape was not allowed.

What is interesting is that prejudice and persecution against leprosy patients had lasted in Korea and Japan until quite recently, despite the recommendation of WHO proposing the outpatient treatment in the early 1960s. In Japan, the incriminate quarantine policy was abolished in 1996, and many patients sued the government for compensation and they won it in 2001. On the other hand, Korea abolished it in 1963 due to financial difficulties, but patients have not been compensated by the government. Act on Fact-Finding of Incidents Related to Patients of Hansen’s Disease and Support for Living of Victims was implemented in 2008, but actual compensation has not been conducted yet.

I shall finish with a recondite story of Zhenkichi Hanai who was the hospital director of Sorok island during the 1920s. He was admired for increasing autonomy of the patients by granting freedom of religion and living style and imposed reasonable amounts of labor on them. After he died, patients built a stone monument for him. During a period of eliminating the remnants of the Japanese imperialism, the patients hid the monument underground and later placed it in its original spot.
▲ the stone monument for Dr.Hanai






[1]Primary sources of this article are :
Junko Nakagawa, “The One Study of Hansen’s Disease in Japan” Kukmin University, 2009.
National Sorok island hospital, The 80 year-history of Sorok Island : 1916~1996, 1996.
Korean Leprosy Institute, The History of Leprosy in Korea, 1988.
[2]Wang-gu Lee, “The Japanese Empire’s Tyranny Left in a Prison Built by Forced Labor of Lepers”, HangukIlbo, March 29, 2010, Culture Section, Online edition, (http://news.hankooki.com/lpage/culture/201003/h2010032922404786330.htm);
Jong-chan Oh, “Confinement and Sterilization of the Patients of Hansen’s Disease…Learning Pains of Sorok Island”, Joonang Daily, November 14, 2012, Society Section, Online edition. (http://article.joins.com/news/article/article.asp?total_id=9879299&cloc=olink%7Carticle%7Cdefault)
[3] An incident that local residents slaughtered the patients who tried to cultivate Bitori Island in 1957. The exact number of victims has yet to be reported.
[4] Although patients of Sorok island reclaimed Oma island to build new settlements from 1962 to 1965, the government didn’t grant the land to the patients but to local residents.
[5] The false belief of the rumor that eating a child cures leprosy can be seen in the media reports of disappearance of five children in 1992.
[6] For example, according to historical documents, the Joseon Dynasty made every effort to cure lepers. Also, In Japan, it was not strange to see many lepers begging for money at temples and shrines or wherever people gathered.

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