World in View: Korea’s labor camps

September 25, 2022

From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters

by Eugene Walker

From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, South Korea’s military dictators carried out a policy to “cleanse the street of vagrants.” Those rounded up were put in “welfare centers,” which were in fact run more like concentration camps. In the city of Busan, Brothers Home held 38,000 people during its dozen years of operating, as many as 4,355 at a time, even though it was built for 500.

People who were homeless or had disabilities, but also those found drunk or without proper identification, were put in the Brothers Home. Unattended children were taken and put in the center, designating them as orphans.

“I was playing alone in my neighborhood in Busan when the men snatched me, tossing me like garbage onto a freezer, truck-like vehicle,” said Lee Dong-jin, 57, who was sent to Brothers Home at the age of 10 and spent seven years there.

The facility was supposed to feed and teach what the government called vagrants—many of them minors—and train them for jobs. Instead, they were incarcerated within tall walls and doors locked from the outside. “Training” meant working long hours in factories that produced clothing, shoes, fishing gear and more. The Brothers Home took more than half of their wages and sometimes paid them nothing.

Every week “people’s trials” were held. Those who broke the rules, including people trying to escape, were severely punished in front of thousands. Military intelligence officials ranked Brothers Home above prisons in its ability “to control and discipline.”

Although the story of the Brothers Home has been known, at least partially, for decades, most of its abuses were covered up. Only now has South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission been reconvened to look into the abuses, finally concluding it was a “grave human rights violation by the state.”

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