SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s Supreme Court has upheld a controversial 1989 ruling that acquitted the owner of a massive institution that housed vagrants, children and the disabled of serious charges despite the enslavement and abuse of thousands of those trapped there in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Thursday’s decision was a setback for survivors who have been seeking justice for their plight as well as compensation. No one yet has been held accountable for the deaths, rapes, beatings and forced work that took place at the state-funded Brothers Home in Busan, abuses that were documented by an Associated Press report in 2016.
Despite refusing to renounce its ruling on the case 32 years ago, the court acknowledged that the cruelty at Brothers deprived those housed there of the “highest constitutional value, which is their dignity as humans.”
The court expressed hope that survivors could find redemption through a new government committee launched in December to investigate the country’s past human-rights atrocities.
From the 1960s to the late 1980s thousands of children and adults that authorities deemed “vagrants” were rounded up and kept at Brothers. As the AP investigation showed, many were enslaved, raped and, in hundreds of cases, beaten to death or left to die, their bodies dumped like trash in the woods. A separate AP investigation in 2019 also showed how Brothers shipped children overseas for adoption as part of a massive profit-seeking enterprise.
Spending years covering up and ignoring the abuse at Brothers, the government didn’t formally express remorse until November 2018, when then-Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il requested an “exceptional appeal” of the case of late Brothers owner Park In-keun.
Park was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1989 of charges linked to illegal confinement of inmates in a widely criticized ruling. Park, who served a short prison term for embezzlement and other relatively minor charges, died in 2016.
Under South Korean law, an exceptional appeal allows the court to correct grave mistakes in past rulings, though it cannot impose new punishment on the defendant.
In Thursday’s decision, the Supreme Court said it rejected the exceptional appeal on Park’s case because it found no obvious errors regarding the application of law in court procedures that led to the 1989 ruling.
While it’s possible that Park’s acquittal on serious charges was based on factual misunderstandings, the court said the granting of exceptional appeals should be strictly limited to cases with clear-cut mistakes or procedural wrongdoings to prevent confusion in the country’s legal system.
“The inmates of Brothers Home had no way to fight back when they were assaulted or even got killed … and lived isolated lives while being stigmatized as vagrants. The core of the problem is not just about their liberties being infringed, but them being deprived of the highest constitutional value, which is their dignity as humans,” the court said.
“However, the matter of whether or not to approve an exceptional appeal on the original ruling should be dealt separately with how the essence of the case is perceived and the need for survivors to be compensated for their damages,” it said.
The court’s decision left some Brothers survivors weeping in disappointment. Han Jong-sun, who leads a group of former inmates, told reporters at the court that the survivors will continue to push for deeper inquiries into the horrors at Brothers to create a base for compensation.
Lawmakers last year passed a law for South Korea to relaunch its 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. Brothers, which wasn’t investigated by the first commission, is seen as a priority for the new nine-member commission launched in December.
Military dictators in the 1960s to 1980s ordered roundups of vagrants to beautify the streets, sending thousands of homeless and disabled people and children to facilities where they were detained and forced to work.
The drive intensified as South Korea began preparing to bid for and host the 1988 Olympic Games. Brothers was the largest of these facilities and had around 4,000 inmates when its horrors were exposed in early 1987.
Death tallies compiled by the facility claimed 513 people died between 1975 and 1986, but investigators said the real toll was almost certainly higher.