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Sorokdo: Hope and History at Land's End
Travel writer James Card takes a day trip to Sorok Island, a former leper colony off Korea's coast
James Card (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-03-03 12:06 (KST)   
On the far southwest coast of Korea, the Goheung Peninsula doesn't get much attention. The small mountains don't receive interest from hikers or climbers since they셱e just hills. In the valleys are broad stretches of farmland and orchards of citron oranges.

Most people driving through would call it sleepy countryside. If they follow Highway 27 to the land's end fishing port of Nokdong, across the water they would see Korea's once infamous leper colony.

Japanese colonists selected this island in 1916 as a place for the quarantining of people with Hansen's disease.
©2005 James Card
One kilometer from the mainland is Sorok Island. Japanese colonists selected this island in 1916 as a place for the quarantining of people with Hansen's disease. During this period in Korea, infected people were rounded up and from its beginning of 73 patients, the island population spiked to 6,136 in 1940.

The ferry ride over to the island is less than 10 minutes and the cost is a reasonable 1,000 won per person, or 5,000 won per car. During the winter, the ferry was nearly empty of travelers but a deckhand confirmed that summer is their busiest time of year.

At the main entrance there is a reception building and an attendant requests your driver's license to log into a visitor's book. He returns your license with a map printed with rules to observe on the island. The first thing that a visitor must realize is that the entire island is considered a hospital community and like an ordinary hospital, some parts are open to the public, while other areas are restricted.

There is a noticeable feel of stepping into another time. Something is missing, and that is the lack of signs. Other than road markers and direction arrows, absent are garish signboards and colored lights.

Buildings are tucked among the pine trees and the only supermarket on the island doesn't need to advertise because you'll find it if you need to.

Open to the public is a operating room where Japanese doctors performed experimental autopsies and they forced vasectomies on the male patients in order to "cull" the island's population.
©2005 James Card
Coming from the mainland and being used to the grayish cement buildings of modern Korea, seeing the old red brick and mortar buildings on the island is a subtle pleasure. Weathered and rustic with tiled roofs, they are a kind of construction of bygone days.

One of the buildings open to the public is the grim place where Japanese doctors performed experimental autopsies and they forced vasectomies on the male patients in order to "cull" the island's population. In the drab operation room, a bare light bulb dangles above a stone cutting table and on the wall hangs a poem by a former patient, mourning his fate and the fact he will never have children.

This is a sharp contrast to the nearby hospital. Organized like most modern hospitals across the country, the patients are getting the treatment that they deserve. Currently there are 750 patients on the island; some are active while others are hospitalized. Patients are free to leave the island with doctor's approval.

As for people coming to the island, a nurse said, "Ten years ago it was impossible to come to the island but now with increased awareness about Hansen's disease, the island is open to visitors."

She said she liked living on the island, although she missed seeing any kind of cultural events. Such is the sacrifice and dedication of the nurses on the island, and they are recognized for it. Members of the nursing staff have been awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal by the International Red Cross. Their work has been honored by Pope John Paul when he visited in 1984, and by First Lady Lee Hwe Ho, wife of former president Kim Dae Jung.

The Japanese commandant of the colony elevated himself to a god-like status.
©2005 James Card
Past the hospital, visitors are directed to two red brick buildings renovated as museums. One covers medical advances in understanding the pathology of Hansen's disease and its treatment. The second museum exhibits modified utensils that patients used in their everyday lives, along with photo collages that tell about the islands history.

There are griping tales of separated families and terrible living conditions. One is of a Japanese commandant, having total authority over the island; he elevated himself to a god-like status. Patients were made to bow before a statue of him and he created a holiday in his name. In 1942, he was assassinated by one of the patients.

In between the chapters of the islands history of human misery, a garden park of tasteful beauty was cultivated. Between the well-kept groves of cypress, rhododendron and windmill palms are monuments to people who served on the island.

To insure that the privacy of the patients is respected, roughly half of the island is off-limits to visitors. The far end of the park marks this boundary into the residential area, but ignoring the sign and following a dirt trail past a bamboo grove and over a knoll, you'll gaze over an eerie abandoned village nestled against the hillside and overlooking the sea.

Back in the eerie ghost town of the colony
©2005 James Card
The empty houses mark the island's steep population decline in the last two decades. People passed away, recovered enough to move off the island, or moved into the island's modern housing as it was built. Gazing into the old homes with collapsed roofs and cracked plaster, it's difficult not to feel the dirty instinct of a voyeur looking into people's past lives.

In an open doorway, strewn music cassettes litter the floor, partially covered by yellowed, windblown newspapers. A woman's coat hangs on the wall and in a torn letter left on a dresser, dated 1995; the writer apologizes for causing a drunken ruckus at a raw fish restaurant in Nokdong.

Walking past the rows of decrepit houses, and looking down the lanes, there's the feeling of rarity in this experience. In South Korea, where land and living space is so valuable, and where buildings are torn down only for another to be built up, a bona fide ghost town is a surreal sight, and not just any ghost town, but one that sits on a good-looking beach. Flotsam and jetsam have accumulated along the tide line edge over the years, giving it a grungy beachcomber's dream come true.

It's a surreal sight to see not just any ghost town, but one that sits on a good-looking beach.
©2005 James Card
It's not the only beach on the island. On the east side of Sorok Island is the main beach open to visitors. Backed by a stand of mature pine trees, the rough-grained sand beach stretches for about two kilometers.

Behind the grove of pine trees is a restaurant that doubles as a cafe and mom-and-pop store. Absent are the steel frame remnants of vendor stalls that locals set up as tents in the peak season and then leave standing in the off-months. Considering the location, you could surmise that this is the place to go in the summer when all of the other beaches in Korea are mobbed hard with tourists.

Sorok Island is a day trip since there is no accommodation on the island. The ferry runs every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and places to stay can be found in Nokdong, with some of the hotels having good views overlooking the harbor.
James Card is a freelance writer living in South Korea and has been exploring Korean backcountry for the past seven years.
©2005 OhmyNews

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