An island leper colony established by Japanese colonialists 90 years ago will soon get its first bridge to the South Korean mainland -- sparking both hopes and fears among patients who once endured decades of isolation and maltreatment.
The 1,160m bridge from Sorok to the southwestern port of Nokdong is scheduled to open by the Korean Thanksgiving holiday on Sept. 25.
"I hope the bridge will help remove prejudices against Sorokdo [Sorok island] residents," National Sorokdo Hospital spokesman Kim Kwang-moon said.
Systematic abuses ended in the early 1960s and prejudices against lepers have largely disappeared.
"We used to keep the lepers away. Now I know they are not infectious, but I still feel uneasy about their ugly looks," said Jun Chun-rul, 58, owner of a five-story Nokdong motel overlooking the tranquil and beautiful island.
Leprosy or Hansen's disease is a bacterial disease which can be cured with a sustained course of antibiotics, but can cause deformations if untreated.
For the first five decades after its foundation in 1916, the island was a prison camp for victims forcibly ferried to it from all over Korea.
Kim Myong-ho, 58, leader of 645 surviving lepers in seven villages on the island, gave the bridge a cautious welcome.
"If our predecessors -- some of whom drowned trying to escape -- could hear about it, they would rejoice," said Kim, who has spent 14 years on the island.
"But on the other hand, we are concerned about a reckless influx of outsiders disturbing peace and order," Kim said.
Visitors who come by ferry are currently banned from staying overnight and their access to the seven villages is restricted.
"Hopefully such restrictions will remain intact even after the bridge opens," Kim said, adding residents and authorities are discussing how to preserve peace and the environment.
For Park In-suk, 84, who has lived on Sorok since 1936, the project is a cause for concern.
"What if thieves sneak in here across the bridge?" she said in an interview in her one-room house.
She is almost blind and has lost both hands and both legs below the knees.
"With my flesh perishing, I just believe in going to heaven here," she said.
Japanese police forced Park to leave her home at the age of 13 and come to Sorok. The day she arrived, she wept for her lost family.
Worse was to come -- decades of meager food, insufficient treatment and gruelling labor, with patients forced to make bricks, weave straw bags or labor in construction.
Jang In-sim, 69, a former patient and tour guide at the island's museum, said brutalities escalated in 1940 when Masasue Suo became hospital director.
She said Suo practised forced labor, beatings and torture and erected a statue of himself on a hill to which patients were forced to bow every morning.
His tyranny ended two years later when one outraged patient, Lee Chun-sang, stabbed him to death. Lee was executed.
In contrast Zenkichi Hanai, hospital director from 1921 to 1929, allowed religious freedom and improved welfare, Jang said.
Patients built a memorial to Hanai that still stands.
Chang Ki-jin, 87, who was brought to Sorok in 1942, recalled being forced to labor from dawn to dusk.
One of his most horrifying memories was a two-week stay in prison after he refused to visit a Japanese shrine.
"They stripped me and beat me until I was unconscious," he said. "Then they sprayed cold water on me and beat me again."
Confinement and maltreatment continued after Korea's liberation from Japan in 1945 and up until 1963, Chang said.
"We were treated worse than beasts," he said.
Chang was allowed to marry in 1972 only after being sterilized, as the South Korean government maintained the practices of the Japanese.
The Japanese forced pregnant patients to have abortions. Post-war South Korean governments allowed them to give birth but took the babies away.
Belying its brutal past, the island has beautiful beaches and pine forests where deer roam. Hundreds of colonial-era red brick buildings, all built by lepers, are well preserved and some are still in use.
Seriously ill patients stay in the hospital under intensive care while others live in individual houses. All medical services, food and other daily necessities are free and 190 permanent hospital staff are stationed at Sorok.
"We do not call them patients and instead use `grandma' or `grandpa' to refer to them," said Chang Ki-ok, a chief nurse.
Behind the hospital is Central Park, which attracts hundreds of tourists daily with its gorgeous landscaping and plants.
"Healthy people did not lift a finger to construct this park. It was done by ailing lepers," Jang said.
None of the 645 sufferers on the island are infectious, but Chang Ki-jin said restaurants in Nokdong still turn him away.
Kim Myong-ho said some laundries in the town refuse to serve the lepers.
But the prejudices are slowly dying, especially among the young.
"I am not afraid at all because they are just like fathers or mothers to me," said Kim Jeong-eun, a 19-year old hospital volunteer.
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