Key Issues Nuclear Weapons History Cold War Survivors Koream Atomic Bomb

Korean Atomic Bomb Survivors
Photographs and story by
Sinartus Sosrodjojo / Zuma Press

Within the mountainous region of the Kayasan National Forest, in the city of Hapchon, several heads gaze from the huge corridor windows toward the peaceful scenery outside. Scattered around the inside room are a handful of senior citizens. At first glance this looks like an ordinary seniors center. But outside, a small building sets this place apart. It shelters hundreds of

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wooden stakes that bear names in Chinese. They are the names of Korean survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, who later died after returning to their homeland. The senior citizens inside are some of the remaining Korean survivors living in South Korea. The Hapchon Welfare Center for Atomic Bomb Survivors operated by the Korean Red Cross currently houses 74 such Korean survivors. These survivors are some of the poorest in the nation and were hand picked by a committee to live in the Center and receive free medical treatment.

Others are not so lucky. Outside the city of P'yongt'aek, some 80km south of Seoul, 78-year-old Lee Byung Mok lies helpless. The pain in his back and other parts of his body prevent him from leaving his bed. Lee lives with his wife far from town, in a small house off a dusty road. Lee is not only an atomic bomb survivor but also a former conscripted worker for Mitsubishi Heavy Industry in Hiroshima, where he was taken in 1944. On August 6, 1945, the blast from the atomic bomb launched him from an upper level of the factory to a barbed-wire fence on the lower ground. Sharp wire and glass debris punctured his body, damaging his spine during the fall. When the war ended, Lee moved back to Korea where he worked as a farmer. But like many atomic bomb victims, Lee did not receive proper medical treatment for his injuries due to the country's poor economy. He worked the land until 1970, when he could no longer ignore the pain. When just ten years ago he finally received proper medical treatment, particles of glass and barbed-wired that caused the pain in his hands were discovered and finally removed. But with his back badly damaged, Lee will have to spend much of his life in bed.

There are an estimated 20,000 Hiroshima survivors living in South Korea today, a majority of whom worked as slave laborers in Japan. With no compensation from the Japanese government and little medical attention or financial assistance from the South Korean government, these survivors face a bleak future. Exposure to radiation has for many meant a lifetime of suffering. A study by the RERF (Radiation Effects Research Foundation) has shown that radiation-induced cancers still occur amongst atomic-bomb survivors. The excess risk of cancer and leukemia continues today and will likely persist throughout a survivor's lifetime.

The current availability of medical care and financial compensation differ greatly between the two countries. In Japan, the government, together with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Academy of Sciences, formed the RERF - one in Hiroshima and another in Nagasaki. Established in April 1975, the Foundation provides medical care to any survivors, including non-Japanese, from around the world. Survivors receive free medical treatment while the Foundation continues to research the effects of radiation on humans. Victims also receive a monthly government financial assistance in the amount of Yen 30,000(about US$250.00). But to be eligible for both medical attention and financial compensation, survivors must be in Japan and neither the Foundation nor the Japanese government provides travel money to those residing abroad. This causes great difficulties for survivors living in South Korea and other parts of the world, since few are able to travel to Japan due to financial and health reasons.

Built in 1996, the Hapchon Center is the only institution in South Korea providing care to atomic bomb survivors. There are no research centers equivalent to the RERF. To make matters worse, few survivors in South Korea are even aware of the Hapchon Center's existence and many cannot travel to the Center due to poor health and financial difficulties. The government donates about 500 million Won (about US$387,000) per year to support the Hapchon Center, which provides housing, medical support and physical therapy sessions to its residents. The government also grants independent survivors 100,000 Won (about US$77) per month, and half that amount to survivors living at the Hapchon Center. Unfortunately, for many living outside the Center the grant is not enough to live on. These survivors often depend on their children for support. If the children are unable to provide, survivors are at the mercy of donations from friends and town councils.

Oddly, the Korean government is not helping to create public awareness surrounding the post-war issues of atomic-bomb survivors, forced labor, or even comfort women. "It is because of the 1965 ROK-Japan Agreement," says Kim Eun Sik, Secretary-General of the Korean Council for Redress and Reparations for the Victims of World War II Atrocities, a non-profit government organization. The agreement included a Japanese government loan to South Korea of a much-needed US$300 million grant to help develop South Korea's devastated post-war economy. In return, the wrongs and suffering caused by the Japanese Empire were recognized and compensated for with the signing of the treaty. "When the South Korean government signed the Agreement, issues such as forced-labor and comfort women were not widely exposed." Kim Eun Sik believes the South Korean government may have put an end to the Japanese atrocities on a political level. He believes, however, that the South Korean government may now be afraid to admit their mistake in hastily signing the Agreement, and should bear the financial responsibility to war victims.

Pressure is building on the South Korean government, as recently a group of forced labor atomic bomb survivors have filed a lawsuit for unpaid wages against Mitsubishi, both in Japan and in South Korea. The government remains neutral on the issue and the survivors are left to fight on their own. The trial is slow and agonizing for the many who are too old or too sick to travel and attend the trial. Despite the recent failure by a group of comfort women to secure compensation from the Japanese government, spirits remain high amongst representatives of the survivors. Bongtae Choi, one of the attorneys representing the group, is not only prepared to take on the Mitsubishi giant but will soon file a lawsuit against the United States for dropping the bombs.

But for now, most Korean atomic bomb survivors are just holding on. Public awareness for their plight is insignificant. Most lie helpless, murmuring in pain between feeble- sounding breaths. For them, any help from their own government seems but a distant dream, and the struggle in a few courts against their former master is their only hope for justice.