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South Korea's former governments responsible for Brothers Home atrocities


South Korea's former military governments have been found responsible for atrocities at a state-funded welfare centre where thousands were enslaved and abused from the 1960s to 1980s.

A landmark report by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released on Wednesday comes 35 years after a prosecutor first exposed the horrors at Brothers Home, in the southern port city of Busan.

It reveals an attempt to cover-up incriminating evidence which would have confirmed a state-sponsored crime.

The commission's chair, Jung Geun Sik, urged South Korea's current government to issue a formal apology to survivors and explore ways to ease their suffering as he announced the initial results of the investigation, which included extreme cases of forced labour, violence and deaths.

The commission also called for the government to review the conditions at current welfare facilities around the country and swiftly ratify the UN convention against enforced disappearances.

The commission "confirmed that the direct and indirect exercise of government authority resulted in the forced confinement of people deemed as vagrants at Brothers Home and caused serious violations of human rights, including forced labour, physical assault, cruel treatment, deaths and disappearances," its chair said in a news conference at the commission's office in Seoul.

"The state has ignored pleas [by inmates] to correct the human rights violations at Brothers Home, had knowledge of the problems but did not act to resolve them, and attempted to distort and minimise the scale of the abuses after the Brothers Home incident became known in 1987, preventing proper legal handling [of the abuses] based on facts," the chair continued.

The commission examined documents from police, prosecutors and courts, and Brothers' own files, including intake documents and death certificates.

It also found records that suggest the facility abusively administered psychiatric drugs to control inmates.

The commission found evidence of at least 657 deaths, 144 more than the tally from 1975 and 1986 documented in the facility's records.

Children kidnapped by police

The commission also confirmed Busan police randomly seized people off the streets to send them to Brothers, regardless of whether they had easily identifiable homes or families.

They often allowed Brothers employees, who toured the city in trucks, to do the kidnapping themselves.

Brothers, run by late owner Park In-keun and his family, also embezzled the wages of thousands of inmates who were forced into slave labour.

This included construction work at Brothers and off-site and in factories making clothing, ballpoint pens and fishing hooks.

So far, no one has been held accountable for hundreds of deaths, rapes and beatings at Brothers.

The recommendations the commission makes to the government aren't binding but the chair said its findings could be used as evidence for survivors if they pursue lawsuits for damages against the government or any remaining Brothers stakeholders.

The commission did not directly recommend the pursuit of criminal charges.

The report was based on its investigation into the cases of 191 people, who were among 544 Brothers survivors who have so far filed applications.

It plans to release more reports as its investigation continues. 

Thousands snatched in bid to beautify streets 

From the 1960s to 1980s, South Korean military dictators ordered round-ups to beautify the streets.

Thousands — including homeless and disabled people, as well as children — were snatched off the streets and brought to facilities where they were detained and forced to work.

In interviews with dozens of former Brothers inmates, many said they were brought to the facility as children after police officers kidnapped them, and their parents had no idea where they had gone. 

Many inmates were enslaved, raped and, in hundreds of cases, beaten to death or left to die, their bodies dumped in the woods, according to dozens of interviews with survivors and a review of government and Brothers documents.

The commission said the facility's death records describe many victims as dead on arrival at hospital, which it said either indicates dismal health conditions or an attempt to conceal deaths caused by beatings and torture.

The commission said records show Brothers, which had a designated ward for inmates with mental health problems, bought abnormal volumes of psychiatric drugs.

It said inmates were likely forced to take drugs so they were easier to control. 

"Brothers Home arbitrarily administered drugs to inmates who struggled to adjust or were rebellious, and the psychiatric ward was used as a so-called disciplinary ward," the commission said in its report.

Reunited five decades after child disappears

The commission also highlighted an extreme case of a former Brothers inmate who reunited with his relatives nearly five decades after he landed at the facility.

The man, identified only by his surname Seol, was grabbed from a Busan train station and locked up at Brothers sometime around 1974 and 1975.

He was transferred years later to an orphanage which registered him as an orphan, soon after his family registered him as dead after years of searching. 

Seol reunited with his relatives in June last year after the commission tracked them down. 

Olympics push intensifies round-ups

The round-ups intensified as South Korea began its bid to host the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Brothers was the largest of these facilities and had around 4,000 inmates when its horrors were exposed in 1987.

Kim Yong Won, the former prosecutor who exposed Brothers, said high-ranking officials blocked his investigation under direction from the office of military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, who feared an embarrassing international incident on the eve of the Olympics.

After Kim's watered-down investigation and narrow indictments, Park, the Brothers' owner, was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1989 of charges linked to illegal confinement of inmates.

Park, who served a short prison term for embezzlement and other relatively minor charges, died in 2016.

The commission began investigating the Brothers abuse in May last year, after a years-long struggle for redemption by Brothers survivors, many of whom are struggling with financial and health problems.

2022 Aug 24