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South Korea abolished its anti-leprosy segregation policy in 1963, but rights abuses on the island continued for decades. Recent government investigations confirmed a 1948 slaughter of 84 leprosy patients by hospital workers and security officers over a management dispute.
Kang was 7 years old and did not have leprosy when he was quarantined here in 1946 with his mother, who had the disease and was housed in a separate compound. He lived with about 10 boys in a single room that had no heating for much of winter. They were infested with lice and many of them suffered from malnutrition. A few years later, he developed leprosy himself.
“We were nothing but skin and bones,” he said. “We only had rice, kimchee and watery soups.”
During once-a-month meetings between children and parents, he wasn’t allowed to touch his mother through a wire fence that separated them. Everyone was crying, he said. Parents “cried after seeing how their children looked, and children cried because they missed their parents so much. It’s beyond description,” he said.
He fled the island 16 years later, in 1962.
“It was like being sent to hell and escaping … a hell on earth,” Kang said from his small home on the island. “I returned in 2010 and found things have changed completely and bias has disappeared a lot.”
Kang, who lost much of his eyebrows to the disease, has faced less discrimination than those with more serious physical deformities. But even after he was cured, he said, he was the victim of fear of the disease, and was required to be sterilized before he could marry another former leprosy sufferer in the late 1950s.