Korean Leper Colony: Sorok Island (소록도)

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Sorokdo (소록도/小鹿島 lit. "small deer island", the island was thus named because of its shape) is a small island off the southwestern coast of Korea where the country's last leper colony has been standing for over a hundred years.

The island was first used by Protestant missionaries as a sanatorium in 1910, at the very end of the short-lived Imperial Era. But upon taking over the country, the Japanese colonizating forces turned the island into a leper colony in 1916. Lepers in Korea had for long suffered from the stigma associated with their disease. Widespread rumors depicted them as eating children. They had to live on the edge of society, could not hold a job and had to resort to begging to survive. The local populace who were afraid of infection often drove them out of their quarters with sticks.

Korean woman suffering from leprosis (early 20th century)

A Leper Colony in rural Korea (early 20th century)

Awareness about leprosy came from the West who established the first treatment center in 1909 in Pusan, and later others in Daegu and Gwangju. It did not take long however, for the Japanese occupant to take matter in their own hands. They felt that lepers walking around in the streets begging was a sight unworthy of a developed nation and therefore decided for a strategy of "containment" (similar laws for the segregation of lepers had been passed in Japan in 1907). Thus, in 1916, facilities were built on Sorokdo, an isolated island only connected to the Peninsula by a ferry. The colony first housed about 100 people. Doctors were brought in to treat them, but contemporary witnesses say that the doctors did not even want to be brought to the island on the same ferry as the patients.

Sorokdo during the Japanese colonial era

The colony grew steadily, housing at its peak about 6,000 patients. Patients were packed in small baracks had to follow a very strict discipline, and were forced into labour. They provided timber and pine resine for the Japanese Empire. They were strictly prohibited from ever leaving the island. A Japanese shrine was erected and everyone had to pray there, regardless of their religion. Many lepers had converted to christianity as Christian missionaries often provided lepers with donations and treatment and deeply resented having to worship the Shinto pantheon.

Lepers carrying timber. Forced labor was imposed upon all the patients of Sorokdo.

Barracks where patients were confined

Commemorative explanation plaque

The Japanese who ruled the island however did not only have their patients' well being at heart and engaged in a series of various experiments. One woman reports that she was left without treatment for more than 3 years after her arrival, because, she says, the Japanese wanted to study the progress of the disease. To avoid reproduction among patients, all the people suffering from leprosy were sterilized by force. Upon death, their bodies were systematically autopsized, studied and cremated.

The autopsy/sterilization room

The "anecdote of the 3 death" says that the patients at Sorokdo died three times
Once upon catching the disease, twice when their cadaver was autopsied right after their death
thrice when they were cremated

Autopsy table

Sterilization table, not that unlike the table used for autopsy this one has restraints
to prevent the patient from moving

On this plaque is the testimony of a patient relating her forced sterilization with
 a scalpel and no anaesthesia: "Hippocrates must be wailing in the underworld"

In 1940 a new administrator was appointed at the head of the Island. Masato Suho was one of the most prominent colonial bureaucrats in Korea at the time. He oversaw the prisoners' labor and would beat with a bamboo cane those that showed signs of feltering. He had prisoners erect a 25 feet high column on top of which he put a statue of himself. All the patients had to bow when passing next to the statue. Suho was eventually killed in 1942 by a 27 year old inmate named Lee Chun Sang who had served a one year term in prison for petty theft before coming to the island. The body of the murderer was left hanging next to the statue. 

Things did not improve for the patients when Korea regained independance. The laws passed by the Japanese administration remained in effect until the early 90's. Patients were still unable to leave the islands, male had to undergo a vasectomy before being allowed to marry any other sufferer on the islands and a fence was erected to separate the lepers from the lodgings of the staff. The few who were allowed to have children were separated from them when the kids reached school age. In incidents that still have to be investigated over a hundred lepers were killed in 1948, 1957 and 1964. Some patients have received compensations but many still wait for their sufferings to be acknowledged.

Pope John Paul II visited the island in 1984

The hospital on the island is still active today and houses several patients, most of them above the age of 60. A bridge linking the island to the mainland was built and inaugurated in 2009. Having suffered from discrimination and misdemeanor by both the Japanese and Korean staff, many patients do not feel like leaving the island. They still need a permission slip from their doctor to do so.



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