Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hansen's Disease on the Korean Peninsula

Joji Wilson Kohjima, Fulbright researcher with interests in medical anthropology and medical practice, is the great grandson of Robert Manton Wilson, an American missionary who worked as a doctor for Hansen's disease in Korea from 1907 to 1941. Joji's research is on a topic shunned and of a people ostracized.
"Hansen's disease in Korea historically existed at endemic levels until effective drugs became available in the 1930s to 1950s. [The disease] has been referenced in Korean literature for centuries even including some Chosun era mask dances. In the 20th century, Hansen's disease patients became what professor Jeong Keun-Shik of Seoul National University refers to as 'the most significant social other' in ethnically homogeneous Korean society. They have alternately been used as symbols of national shame, Christian salvation, Japanese imperial benevolence, and finally Korea's national "han" or sorrow.

Joji Kohjima's research deals with the efforts of Hansen's disease patients to tell their own story, and to seek restitution for their treatment under Japanese colonialism and post-colonial Korean governments. He has been researching ... Aeyangwon hospital in Yeosu and Sorokdo National Leprosy Hospital in Sorok Island, Jeollanamdo. This forum will explore leprosy in Korean society as a phenomenon originating at the microscopic level of bacteria but extending to the level of social constructs in the discrimination, otherization and isolation faced by leprosy patients. Largely originating in Japanese colonial policy, patients have historically faced quarantine, forced labor, and forced sterilization as they were caught in the triangle of Japanese colonial government, missionaries, and an often hostile Korean population."

Hansen's Disease in Korea

Basically, Hansen's disease or leprosy is caused by a bacteria that attacks the nervous system, both the autonomic nerves and sensory nerves, which results in a widespread variety of symptoms ultimately resulting in deformities, caused by a build-up of bacteria, in the extremities and working its way to the body core.

Historically, lepers in Korea were forced to live a life separated by the "civilized" or healthy peoples. They were not allowed to enter cities and were stoned if attempting to do so, they were the objects of many wild and nefarious tales that furthered ostracization within the society, and because there was no known cure or treatment, lepers were greatly feared. Fear breeds anger, hatred, violence, torture and lack of understanding or compassion, and therefore lepers were the marginalized "social others". Korea is a culture predominantly of one ethnicity and leprosy sufferers were considered almost as if they were another race, and many tales of boogie-man caliber existed to keep them ostracised or "other-ized", such as lepers feast on healthy children's liver [suggesting that healthy young livers could be powerful antidotes to the leper's unhealthy state ...]

In 1904, Scottish Missionary Wiley Forsythe arrived in Korea and he became very symbolic as a Christian to value the lives of Korean people [he was attacked in 1906, left Korea for treatment but adamantly returned again the next year] and the life of lepers, namely a leprous woman in 1909. Though many versions of the tale exist, the apocryphal account is of Wiley Forsythe in some stories as seeing a leper woman being stoned by some villagers, so he put her on his own horse [in Korea at that time, dignitaries always rode and were led around by someone calling out their status - if they had a horse, they would not walk] and, leading the horse, took her to a mission hospital where she could get help. Before leaving her at the hospital where of course she could not be admitted in, he even made sure she had a place of shelter, a brick kiln, where she could stay while being treated.

In 1907 Robert Manton Wilson came to Korea as a medical missionary for the Southern Presbyterian Church. Dismayed at the lepers begging and wandering the countryside, he establish a leprosarium in Kwangju, and around 1920 the patient population peaked with over 1,100 patients, making it the largest leprosarium in Korea. With its continued growth and the growing fear of the "contagion" in and around Kwangju, the leprosarium was relocated between 1926 and 1928 to the Yeosu peninsula ... [how appropriate to marginalize the already marginalized at the margins of the nation]. He remained for decades administering to the Koreas, but when WWII broke out, he departed although he did return for a brief 3 months in 1947 at the behest of General McArthur as many leper patients had wandered away from their registered leprosarium. Missionary Wilson was regarded with great respect by the lepers, and, in another lecture I heard, when a memorial stone was constructed in Kwangju to commemorate his great efforts in Korea, a group of lepers broke out of the Yeosu colonies and traveled in the secrecy of many nights to "steal" the stone and take it with them back to Yeosu, such was their respect for the missionary doctor who did so much for them!

In the early days of the leprosariums, there were no known drugs for leprosy, but the missionaries had various levels of treatment. For the physical ravages of the disease they injected an Ayurvedic oil called Chalmoogra Oil [it didn't help]; for spiritual help those wanting treatment were required to join the church; for supporting themselves they were taken from the life of beggary and given vocational training; and finally, for their socialization genders were segregated to prevent the procreation of more "outcasts". Some marriages between lepers were allowed, but men were persuaded to get vasectomies [for missionaries this seemed to be the solution to controlling the population of lepers but later vasectomies were a political mandate of the Japanese colonial rule] and married lepers could adopt leper children who were brought into the leper colony.

The Rise of State-model Leprosy Colony on Sorokdo

In 1916 the Sorokdo leprosy colony was established, by whom I don't know, but in 1933 Suho Masasue, a Japanese doctor and sanitary officer, took over as director, and expanding on the role of the "national leprosarium" in Korea that would control this pestilential disease under the more effective Japanese colonialism, Sorokdo became know as one of the important national leprosariums, with population peaking during WWI with around 6,000 patients. To put this large number for one colony into perspective, the total number of lepers in the 1940s and 1950s is estimated around 100,000~150,000.

It seems that under Japanese colonialism, lepers were not allowed to marry as in the Yeosu peninsula the men were housed in simple houses on the western side and women on the eastern. Control was intended to be absolute and people who were known to establish any similar political interests were separated and relocated to various villages on the peninsula. The leprosarium on Sorokdo was for political activists, rascals and criminals, and to be sent there was to be sent to the harshest environs for "controlling" the disease as well as controlling any political unrest. One such person sent to Sorokdo was leper inmate Lee Sung-San who assassinated the Japanese doctor Suho Masasue in 1942.

Leprosy in Korea Today

There are 14,200 registered cases of recovered leprosy patients living in Korea today. Of these, 10,900 are registered as disabled, and 332 are listed as "active" patients. The predominant number of people with the leprosy bacteria are over 40 years of age, and fewer that 10 "new cases" are registered each year. The majority of recovered leprosy patients live in agricultural settlements, approximately 5,000, and yes, there is still a stigma to marrying anyone, even a relative, of a leper so the "social other" still exists in Korea today. To illustrate, just three or four years ago three (healthy) children were reported to have disappeared and as the children's community was tangent to a leper community, rumors of the lepers stealing the children for recovery rituals were rampant. The children were found, no kidnapping had happened, but the dormant rumors and wild imaginings of the feared "other" have obviously never been put to sleep with modern medicine.


  1. Just found this, several weeks late. An interesting read, thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi Cheryl,

    Thank you for the write-up! Good luck on your journey.