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Sufferings still linger for Korean A-bomb survivors

HAPCHEON, South Gyeongsang Province ― On Friday, all the media attention was being paid to the 65th memorial ceremony of the world’s first atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

Representatives from 75 countries, including the U.S. for the first time, attended the annual event along with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the first U.N. chief to take part in the event.

On the same day, Hapcheon, this small village in the southern part of Korea was also holding a ritual offering consolation to the spirits of Korean A-bomb victims.

Some 200,000 people were killed or died within three months when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs in Japan, first in Hiroshima and three days later in Nagasaki. Of them, about 40,000 were Koreans.

During the Korean ceremony, however, no high-profile guests or government officials were seen in attendance.

The brief event, held out of the nation’s only sanatorium for the survivors, was sometimes interrupted by rainfall, with the attendants, mostly the victims’ relatives and villagers, dashing under trees for cover.

Korean A-bomb victims and their children in this village still suffer from the decades-old neglect.

A Hiroshima in Korea

According to the Korea Atomic Bomb Casualties Association, some 2,600 people are currently registered as A-bomb survivors and more than 60 percent of them are from Hapcheon.

The Japanese colonial rule devastated the economy of this small town where most of the villagers were engaged in farming. While many were conscripted for the Japanese work force or military, some went to Japan voluntarily to find employment.

“Many Hapcheon residents used to live together in Hiroshima. That’s why there were many victims from here,” said Monk Haejin, who is running the “House for Peace,” a shelter for the second-generation A-bomb victims here.

Right after Korea’s independence from Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, the Korean survivors in Hiroshima were expelled to their hometown. Of the village’s 53,000 residents, some 650 are A-bomb survivors, the highest concentration across the nation.

Depending on their extent of radiation exposure, many A-bomb survivors became infertile. If they have children, their sickness sometimes caused health problems with their offspring.

Han Jeong-soon, 52, has suffered from pains in her hip since she was 15. Her two brothers are suffering from heart disease and two sisters have a skin disease and muscular pains in their legs.

“We had no idea about the cause of our long pains. Because my family was struggling financially, I couldn’t think of receiving a further medical checkups,” she said.

It was a few years ago that she thought her pain could be related to her mother’s exposure to the radiation in Hiroshima while watching a TV program about the second generation victims of atomic bombings.

Her mother is currently staying at the sanatorium in Hapcheon, built in 1990 as part of an agreement between the Korean and Japanese governments.

“I told my mother about the possible connection between her radiation exposure and my pain. I was just trying to know the exact situation. But my mother got angry, saying, ‘It’s not my fault,’” she said.

“I don’t blame my mother. It was not her fault.”

Children come out

Kim Bong-de, 74, and Lee Kkok-ji, 71, who live in Busan, have attended the Hapcheon memorial every year since their son Hyeong-ryul died in 2005.

“Even though my son has gone, I continue his work for other victims. I believe that’s my son’s wish,” Kim said.

Lee, whose hometown is also Hapcheon, was exposed to the radiation in Hiroshima when she was 6. Even though she has suffered no specific symptoms, the mother’s exposure affected the health of her four children.

Hyeong-ryul suffered immunoglobulin deficiency syndrome from 20 days after birth, while his twin brother died when he was 18 months old.

After finding that his illness could be related to his mother’s stay in Hiroshima, he publicly revealed himself as a second-generation A-bomb victim and urged the government to conduct a survey on the issue. 

Many A-bomb survivors refuse to come forward, fearing discrimination against themselves and their children.

The association of first-generation A-bomb victims still does not approve of the second generation association, which was established by Kim in 2002. The second-generation association has only 560 members across the nation. 

The memorial tablets of Korean A-bomb victims are enshrined at an altar in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province.                                                       Lee Ji-yoon/Tha Korea Herald
The memorial tablets of Korean A-bomb victims are enshrined at an altar in Hapcheon, South Gyeongsang Province.                                                       Lee Ji-yoon/Tha Korea Herald

Thanks to Kim’s efforts, the Association of Physicians for Humanism, supported by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, conducted the nation’s first health study on 2,800 first- and second-generation A-bomb victims in 2004.

In male second-generation victims, the study found, the prevalence rate of anemia was 88 times higher than in other same-age men. Heart disease (81 times), depression (65 times) and asthma (26 times) were much more common as well.

The study also said that 7.3 percent of the second generation had already died and more than half the deaths occurred before the age of 10.

However, the issue lost momentum when Kim died in 2005 at the age of 34. The Korean government has done nothing over the past five years following the study result.

“Today’s medical technique has a clear limitation in verifying the genetic consequences, especially when a small amount of radioactive substance is left in a body,” said Ju Young-su, professor of Hallym University and co-president of the humanism doctors’ group, who led the 2005 study.

But Ju made it clear that the issue is more of a problem of willingness, saying, “Many researchers worldwide agree that there is enough of a possibility of genetic connectivity.”

In Hiroshima last year, Ju read a “weird report” published by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a cooperative Japan-U.S. research organization. The report, based on a survey between 2001 and 2007, said that the disease prevalence rate among second-generation victims was lower than those who were not exposed to radiation.

“The report analyzed the health conditions of the second generation people who were less affected by radiation exposure. Any expert would point out that the report has made a serious mistake in selecting the samples,” he said.

Considering the situation in Japan, the issue in Korea seems much more difficult to improve, he said.

“In order to know the exact situation here, more sample cases should be collected. For that, more survivors and their children ned to come out to make their voices heard,” he said.

Rep. Cho Jin-lae of the ruling Grand National Party submitted a related bill to the National Assembly in 2008. However, parliamentary discussion about the issue has not yet begun.

Fight going on

After a long fight against the Japanese government, a first-generation victim is supported with a monthly allowance of 450,000 won ($386) and medical expense within 1.94 million won ($1,668) per year under the Japanese relief law.

But the second-generation victims both in Korea and Japan are not benefiting from any support.

On the sideline of the Friday’s memorial in Hapcheon, an agreement was signed between the association of the second-generation victims and Koryeo Hospital, a local clinic in the region, for free medical services.

“It is a small but meaningful step,” said Monk Haejin. “The agreement will affect similar talks with other hospitals so that the benefits could be shared by more people,” he said.

Earlier in March, the monk also set up the shelter for the second-generation victims with his own money. Even though it is a rented house with three rooms and one kitchen, it has become a place where the victims share their pains and receive consultation from the activists.

Han still feels difficulty in walking even after four hip surgeries and her financial situation worsened after divorce. But she is now leading the association of second-generation victims while working as a freelancer care assistant.

“As in the issue of sex slavery during the Japanese colonial rule, both governments may be waiting for all the victims to die without getting enough compensation. And the related bill’s passage at the National Assembly would take a long time,” Han said.

“However, I know the sufferings of the victims more than any others. So, I can’t stop the fight. I will never give up.”

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