Sorok Island: The last leper colony

Sorok Island is a tranquil spot, but its history is stained with the blood and tears of the thousands of lepers who were tortured, starved and confined here during the past 100 years. As a new bridge nears completion, Daniel Jeffreys looks at how what remains of this tragic community will react to its first-ever link with the mainland
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The Independent Online

A hot wind ruffled Park Sun-ji's thin hair as he stood near Sorok's Island's landing dock. Park is now 85 and his limbs are bent like the branches of an old tree that has stood for too long in the teeth of winter gales.

On a bench, under a pine tree, he holds his hands together. They look like a small bundle of charred firewood. Each of his fingers is slightly blackened and the knuckles have sunk, leaving a pitted indentation. His skin looks like parchment that's been left out in the rain, not for a day but a lifetime.

In Korean, the word for pain is tong and the character that represents it could be a diagram of Park's body, for they are both twisted in the same way.

Park shifts his weight and sighs. He is looking at the place where his ship came in, 67 years ago. A sign here used to warn visitors that they might encounter lepers. It has been replaced by an elegant stone pillar with the inscription: "Leprosy can be cured". "The day I arrived, I felt like one of the living dead," said Park. "I was with two dozen others, men and women. Everybody was scared." Park had been picked up for exile by soldiers from the Japanese occupying force. He had been working on his farm in South Jeolla when he fell ill. A neighbour reported him to the authorities.

"There was a party of doctors who arrived at the ferry for Sorok at same time as we did," he recalls. "They refused to get on the same boat. They had a big argument with the Japanese soldiers. In the end we sailed without them and the ferry had to make a second-trip." Park spent his first night on Sorok sleeping on a stone floor. The next day he was assigned toclean an operating theatre. There was blood everywhere.

"The operating tables had restraints," said Park. "When I saw them, I felt my knees buckle. I wondered why they needed to strap people down." Park looked toward the bridge that has recently sprung up between Sorok and the mainland. Workers toiled in the heat, scrambling to have the span finished by 25 September, when it is scheduled to be opened. It is one of four new bridges that will open in South Korea next month, but none is more symbolic than Sorok's.

The island has a tranquil beauty, with two long beaches and pine trees that are often shrouded in a soft mist, but its history is stained with blood and tears. Thousands of lepers were starved and tortured here, first by the Japanese, who ruled Korea from 1910 until 1945, and then by the Korean authorities, who continued to quarantine lepers on Sorok until 1963 and discourages them from leaving the island to this day.

The new bridge has thrown a spotlight on Sorok - which is about the size of Hyde Park, London, and lies off a remote corner of Korea's southwest coast - and helped to revive law suits that could cost the governments of Korea and Japan billions of pounds in compensation. Leprosy has been eradicated from Korea and none of the 646 former sufferers on Sorok are infectious. Nevertheless, they are not allowed to travel on the sole ferry boat that is currently the only means of leaving the island unless they have a permission slip from a doctor.

That will will no longer be a problem when Sorok's bridge opens. All the island's residents will then be free to come and go as they please, but some say they will never leave Sorok. They fear that prejudice against them on the mainland is still too great.

Chang Ki-jin was 21 when he was banished here and says he will not cross the new bridge. His legs were amputated when he was 24 and his nose collapsed, taking on the shape and colour of ginger root. Leprosy, caused by a bacterial infection, devours cartilage and scars skin tissue. The disease is not infectious, once it has been treated, but few of Sorok's inhabitants received effective medications.

"I just want to die now," said Chang, who lives in one of Sorok's seven remaining leper villages. "Maybe, after death, there will be no more pain or prejudice."

Song Ok-nam was 17 and pregnant when she was sent to Sorok. She was forced to have an abortion, followed by involuntary sterilisation. "You can't imagine how it felt to have my baby killed," she said. "I tried to kill myself, but I couldn't. It was too difficult."

Song, now 82, was left untreated for the first three years she was on Sorok. She believes she was used as part on an experiment by the Japanese, who wanted to study the speed of the disease's progression in human guinea pigs.

The Japanese ruled Sorok with brutal efficiency. They built a hospital for sufferers, which still stands and is now called the National Sorokdo Hospital, an institution that exists largely to treat the island's surviving lepers.

During its first 40 years, lepers were confined in the hospital's tiny rooms. At its peak, the island had over 6,000 sufferers and the hospital's busiest department was the operating theatres where the lepers were sterilised.

"People didn't even get peace after death," said Song. "The Japanese used to experiment on their corpses." Lepers who had been treated were forced to labour from dawn to dusk, harvesting pine resin for the Japanese war effort. These concentration camp conditions reached their peak in 1940 when Masato Suhi became the island's chief administrator.

He had a statue made of himself and forced the lepers to build a 25ft column on which it was placed. The lepers were made to bow before this edifice every morning, before they were allowed to eat. Suhi was stabbed to death by an inmate in 1942. His nemesis was publicly executed, hung from a scaffold next to Suhi's statue, which has since been torn down.

Park Sun-ji remembers Suhi's brutality. "I was forced to work. If anybody faltered, Masato would beat then with a bamboo cane." Park's most cherished memory is when Pope John Paul II visited Sorok in 1984. The late pontiff chose the occasion to deliver a sermon on pain and suffering. "For once I felt special," said Park. "The Pope told us our suffering had a purpose. I had never felt like I had a purpose before."

When the Japanese left, Park and his fellow inmates thought they might be allowed to return home. They had an unpleasant surprise in store. The new Korean government kept Japan's leper law - it remained in the books until 1991 - and continued to ship lepers to Sorok. "In some ways, the conditions got worse," said Park. "Our Korean masters were sadists as well. That's why I don't have any desire to cross the bridge. I feel like there's nothing for me in Korea, except hatred.

Under the new regime, men were required to have vasectomies before they were allowed to marry fellow sufferers and a 1.5-mile-long fence was erected between the lepers and the areas where the hospital staff lived.

The Korean administrator permitted a select few to have children, but the parents could only see their offspring once a month and the children had to leave Sorok after they reached school age.

"It was a heart-breaking moment," said Lee Sun-sik, 76, whose daughter was forced to leave the island 38 years ago. "First I lost my freedom, then my dignity, then my daughter. I felt like I was dirt." Lee also lives in one of the leper villages. Her simple house sits in a row that was built in a traditional style. She says she feels sorry for those who regard her as sub-human. Lee believes her time on Sorok has taught her that physical sickness is not always the worst kind.

"Sorok is so beautiful, and it makes me feel sorry for people who live in the city and only care about money and what they look like," she said. "The trees and the waves have shown me that being physically handicapped is nothing, compared to the spiritual handicaps that people suffer on the mainland."

Still, her street has the air of being abandoned by time and hope. Sorok lepers often spend entire days staring into space and many feel that Koreans on the mainland treat them with disdain. They are not wrong.

Although leprosy is not hereditary and cannot infect 95 per cent of the world's population because of natural immunity, more than half of Koreans surveyed by the government two years ago said that they would not go to a public bath house or barber shop if they knew it was0 frequented by former leprosy sufferers.

Eight-six percent said they would not want their children marrying the children of leprosy sufferers and 55 per cent said they would support the forced segregation of anybody who caught the disease in the future.

Guides who lead tours of the island - more than 100,000 curious tourists come every year - have to reassure visitors that they "don't need to be afraid of the lepers." The tours visit the operating theatres where the vasectomies and experimental autopsies took place. The operating rooms still seem to have an air of evil, if only because what took place here is an established fact. The screams may have been silenced but they are not unheard. With the opening of the Sorok bridge, some of the island's lepers have become emboldened and their demands for compensation have won an audience in Seoul.

Japan passed a law in 2001 that awarded compensation to leprosy sufferers who had been forcibly quarantined in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Just over 100 residents of Sorok have received £35,000 each, but over 600 are still waiting and the law expires in 2011. The Japanese stopped paying compensation in 2003 after a court in Tokyo ruled that it "did not apply to sanatoria built abroad by the colonial government". Lepers from Sorok have been fighting the case in the Japanese courts. More papers are due to be filed next week. One of the plaintiffs is Jang Gi-jin, who testified about the torture and religious persecution he suffered on Sorok.

"There was a Japanese shrine and I was forced to worship there on the first day of each month," said Jang. "I am a Christian and I refused to worship there so I was beaten with a club until I was unconscious. I was thrown into jail and then sterilised as punishment. I cannot express the full force of my resentment in words."

The Korean government has never admitted any liability or responsibility for the way Sorok's lepers were treated and has continually rejected calls for investigations into bloody incidents in 1948, 1957 and 1964 in which more than 150 lepers were killed. The association that represents Sorok's victims wants full compensation from the Korean government and a formal apology for the way they were treated. "Prejudice against us still exists, making us permanent aliens in this society" said Lim Doo-sung, the head of the association. "Our pain and bitterness cannot be cured by money alone."