The 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul are viewed as a turning point for the establishment of accountable government in South Korea. But revelations of abductions, forced labor and lethal beatings tell a different story.
A stolen piece of bread would change Choi Seung-woo's life. A policeman found the bread in the 14-year-old boy's book bag in 1982, and holding a burning lighter near his genitals, demanded a confession. He was later dragged off to an institution in the mountainside called "Brothers," beginning a five-year nightmare similar to those experienced by hundreds of other "vagrants" in South Korea.
A month-long investigation by American news agency Associated Press (AP) has helped bring to light the scale of one of the worst abuses of human rights in South Korea's modern history - abuse which has been suppressed by the country's government to this day.
Interwoven with the scandal is a sports event that is engrained in South Korea's collective memory as a historical turning point for the country. The then military-led government used the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul to show the world that it was open and modern, an emergent economic power. Meanwhile, more than a million students took to the streets to successfully demand democracy.
'A concentration camp'
To burnish Seoul's image in the lead-up to the games, South Korea's dictator at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, initiated a massive "city beautification" project. Citizens were allowed to drive their cars only every other day, restaurants selling dog meat were temporarily closed, and over 720,000 residents were forced to relocate to former barracks.
Less known is that, at the same time, thousands of "vagabonds" were being abducted from the streets in systematic waves of imprisonment. The police targeted not only the homeless, the mentally ill and alcoholics, but to a large extent neglected youth as well. 4,000 of them were brought to the so-called "Brothers" home, the largest of dozens of institutions constructed for such "unwanted persons," in the city of Busan. A former lawyer recently compared these institutions to "concentration camps."
Nobody has been held accountable for the abuse, beatings and deaths that occurred at Brothers. AP wrote that the scale of the abuse stretches far beyond what had been previously known. It sought to reconstruct the true extent of the operations, with access to documents and interviews with former workers and inmates.
Profiting from the abuse
According to records kept by the home's leadership, 513 inmates died between 1975 and 1986, though the actual number is believed to be much higher. Medical documents mostly attributed the cause of the deaths to heart failure and "general weakness." A witness reported of a punishment enforcement room where every day inmates were beaten to death. Bodies are believed to have been buried in a nearby forest area, under the order of the home's director.
Investigations by the AP reveal how a number of government institutions profited from the abuse. Public authorities were happy that a place was found to stow away the vagrants, readily extending government contracts with the home and providing subsidies based on its number of inmates. Accordingly, the home's operators spurred the local police to chase down more vagrants, who in turn expected promotions.
Above all, Brothers was a profitable enterprise for its owner. 20 different factories stood on the home's property, where inmates worked from dawn to dusk without pay. Shirts and shoes manufactured there were exported all the way to Europe.
The bulk of the inmates at these institutions were locked away as soon as foreign observers visited. The healthiest ones were left in place to prove that these were well-functioning chartable organizations.
A grim past long forgotten
Brothers was finally closed at the end of the 1980s, following a raid ordered by a local prosecutor investigating the home. His superior then demanded that the investigation be closed into the home, and now serves today as an advisor to South Korea's ruling conservative party. Thanks to direct intervention by then-President Chun Doo-hwan, the home's director avoided all charges of abuse, and was given less than three years in prison for the embezzlement of government funds. Until 2013, his family continued to run other education and charity institutions.
Is a reappraisal of the country's past possible alongside the enthusiasm for the 2018 Olympics?
As South Korea prepares to host the Olympics again in 2018, the former inmates have received neither financial reparations nor an official apology. Attempts by representatives of the opposition to review the case have been continually rejected by the government, on the grounds that too much time has passed. "To focus only on a single human rights incident would burden the government financially and set a negative precedent," an official with the interior ministry told AP.
South Korea's former military dictator Park Chung-hee first gave police the order in 1975 to "purify" Seoul's streets of vagrants. Park is the father of South Korea's current president, Park Geun-hye.
Brothers was demolished long ago, and an apartment complex has since gone up on the property. In the 1990s construction workers discovered hundreds of bone fragments wrapped in blue tarp as they dug in the area.