Sorokdo is an island of stunning natural beauty
located in the southwest of Korea. However, the island is better known in Korea
for its agonizing past as a leper colony. In the first of a two-part special,… our
Moon Connyoung went to the island to see it for herself.
Let’s take a look. A six hour drive from Seoul… off the southwestern
coast of the Korean Peninsula is an island.
At first glance, the island deceptively beautiful… it looks like a wonderful vacation getaway.
Deceptive as this is Sorok-do Island, home to one of the largest leper colonies in the
world. “Sorokdo National Hospital is a national research
institute that specializes in Hansen’s disease. There are currently about 540 former leprosy
patients here… some bedridden at the main hospital, others living in one of seven small
villages.” Today, the island is one of few places in
Korea where former lepers receive free housing and medical services.
But, its history… stained with blood and tears.
The island’s association with leprosy dates back to the Japanese occupation of the Korean
Peninsula… when the authorities set up a leprosarium on Sorokdo in 1916.
Standing proofs of the era… are the remains of detention rooms and operating theaters
where vasectomies and experimental autopsies took place. But even after the end of Japanese colonial
rule, the segregation policy remained in place under Korean authorities. “Up until the 1960s, a wired fence stood here
dividing the island in two parts. Lodging for hospital staff and leprosy patients. This
is also where the families could come visit once a month to visit lepers just through
the wired fence. They could not touch each other and had to keep a distance. Hence, the
name… Sutanjang… or Place of Sadness.” Woo Jong-sun was forcefully taken from his
hometown and brought to Sorokdo when he was in his 30s. “I was shipped to the island in 1969. A year
later, I lost my eyesight. I was so young and I had suddenly turned blind. I didn’t
want to live any more. I tried to jump off a cliff and kill myself a couple of times.
Back then, life on Sorokdo was very difficult for us inmates. There were horrendous regulations
and we did not have freedom.” Human rights abuses continued after the segregation
policy was absolished in 1963. And, even after that… a social stigma ran
deep in and outside of the island. With the establishment of a bridge in 2009,
the once most isolated island in the nation is now just a few minutes drive from mainland.
It’s a proof in concrete steel of fading but not completely faded ancient prejudices. Moon Conn-young, Arirang News, Sorokdo.