SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s parliament on Wednesday passed a law allowing new investigations into the country’s past human rights atrocities, rewarding a years-long struggle for redemption by survivors of Brothers Home, a state-funded vagrants’ facility where thousands were enslaved and abused in the 1970s and 1980s.
The law calls for a relaunch of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which between 2006 and 2010 investigated various cases of human rights horrors, including civilian massacres during the 1950-53 Korean War. It was modeled after a South African group established in the 1990s to expose apartheid-era injustices.
The new nine-member commission will get four years to handle cases that occurred between the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II and its brutal military dictatorships from the 1960s to 1980s.
Brothers Home, which wasn’t investigated by the first commission despite cases of extreme violence and hundreds of deaths there, will likely be prioritized. The commission could also look into wartime civilian killings and other abuse of vagrants, including at a similar facility on an island off Incheon, a city near Seoul, that held thousand for four decades until the 1980s. It also could investigate the forced mobilization of thousands of ex-convicts, former prostitutes and orphans in land and road projects during the 1960s and 1970s.
The commission could be launched sometime around December if the government promulgates the law this month or in early June. The law was passed among dozens of other bills as the National Assembly wrapped up its 20th term.
So far, no one has been held accountable for hundreds of deaths, rapes and beatings at Brothers Home that were documented by an Associated Press report in 2016. The report was based on hundreds of exclusive documents and dozens of interviews with officials and former detainees, which showed that the abuse at Brothers was much more vicious and widespread than previously known.
In a follow-up report in 2019, the AP described how Brothers also shipped children overseas for adoption as part of a massive profit-seeking enterprise.
Former Brothers inmates have received no compensation. They had been calling for a new investigation to establish the government’s responsibility more clearly and create a basis for compensation. Two of them, Choi Seung-woo and Han Jong-sun, have been camping out in front of the National Assembly’s gate for nearly three years pressuring lawmakers to pass the law, which was opposed for years by conservative parties.
The conservatives, currently the opposition, only agreed to pass the law after the ruling liberals accepted their demands to remove a clause from the bill that required the state to compensate the victims. Victims will still be able to use the findings of the commission to sue the government for damages, according to the Seoul-based Lawyers for a Democratic Society.
“I fought for what I wanted and finally achieved it,” said an emotional Choi, who was planning a small ceremony on Thursday while clearing the tent he shared with Han in front of the parliament. “But this is also just the beginning. I hope that both the ruling and opposition parties in the new National Assembly will be united in their support of victims of state violence.”
The passing of the law came weeks after South Korea’s Supreme Court reopened a case on Brothers owner Park In-keun, who was acquitted in 1989 of charges linked to the illegal confinement of inmates in a widely criticized decision. Park, who served a short prison term for embezzlement and other relatively minor charges, died in 2016.
Prosecutors had requested an “exceptional appeal” on Park’s case in November 2018. Under South Korean law, an exceptional appeal allows the court to correct grave mistakes in interpretation of law, though it cannot impose new punishment on a defendant. A ruling that the government failed to protect the constitutional rights of former inmates could boost their push for compensation.
From the 1960s to 1980s, South Korean military dictators ordered roundups 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 that as children, they were brought to the facility after police officers kidnapped them, and that their parents had no idea of their whereabouts.
The drive intensified as South Korea began preparing to bid for and host the 1988 Summer Olympics. Brothers, a mountainside compound in the southern port city of Busan, 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, told the AP that 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.
Death tallies compiled by the facility claimed 513 people died between 1975 and 1986, but the actual toll is likely higher.
Kim said he wasn’t able to indict Park or anyone else for widespread abuses at the facility due to pressure from higher-ups and was left to pursue much narrower charges linked to embezzlement and construction law violations and confinement at a construction site in the southeastern city of Ulsan, where inmates were forced to work.
Seoul’s previous conservative government had refused to revisit the case, saying the evidence was too old and expressing concerns over financial burdens.