Report: South Korea rounded up, abused vagrants before 1988 Games

Torch bearers prepare to light the Olympic flame as doves fly through the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Torch bearers prepare to light the Olympic flame as doves fly through the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Two years ahead of the 2018 Olympic Games slated for Pyeongchang, South Korea, a new Associated Press report charges that South Korea committed widespread human rights violations in the years prior to the 1988 Games in Seoul.

Seoul won the bid for the 1988 Games in 1981, beating out Nagoya, Japan. In the ensuing seven years, the AP report charges, the South Korean government oversaw a brutal, widespread program of "cleansing" that resulted in horrific human rights violations.

"Thousands — the homeless, the drunk, but mostly children and the disabled — [were] rounded up off the streets ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which the ruling dictators saw as international validation of South Korea's arrival as a modern country," reads the report. "An Associated Press investigation shows that the abuse of these so-called vagrants at Brothers [Home], the largest of dozens of such facilities, was much more vicious and widespread than previously known, based on hundreds of exclusive documents and dozens of interviews with officials and former inmates."

Human rights violations in nations seeking to host international competitions are both widespread and persist to this day, as Amnesty has charged in connection with 2022 World Cup preparation in Qatar. South Korea, then under authoritarian rule, had intended to use the Games for multiple political purposes: to demonstrate the nation's emerging economic strength, to cement relations with both Western and Eastern bloc nations, and to establish a measure of distance from the continually hostile North Korea. According to the AP report, South Korean leaders prepared for the Games, and generated economic benefits, in the most ruthlessly efficient way possible: by effectively kidnapping indigents and forcing them into the equivalent of slave labor for most of the 1980s.

"In 1975, dictator President Park Chung-hee, father of current President Park Geun-hye, issued a directive to police and local officials to 'purify' city streets of vagrants," the AP report notes. "Police officers, assisted by shop owners, rounded up panhandlers, small-time street merchants selling gum and trinkets, the disabled, lost or unattended children, and dissidents, including a college student who'd been holding anti-government leaflets. They ended up as prisoners at 36 nationwide facilities. By 1986, the number of inmates had jumped over five years from 8,600 to more than 16,000, according to government documents obtained by AP." Park was assassinated in 1979, and the country's next leader, Chun Doo-hwan, spearheaded the Olympic bid while keeping the "purification" efforts going.

Workers at facilities similar to Brothers Home were routinely abused and often beaten to death, their bodies buried in the hills outside the facility walls. Meanwhile, the government and the facility operators enriched themselves, often by simply not paying the workers a fair wage, or even any wage at all.

"[D]ocuments show that Brothers should have paid the current equivalent of $1.7 million to more than 1,000 inmates for their dawn-to-dusk work over an unspecified period," the AP report notes. "However, facility records and interviews with inmates at the time suggest that, instead, most of the nearly 4,000 people at Brothers were subject to forced labor without pay,"

Chun was forced from office following political protests in June 1987, and in advance of the Olympics, South Korea adopted a democratic form of government. However, South Korea's current government is not interested in reopening the story of Brothers Home: "Ahn Jeong-tae, an official from Seoul's Ministry of the Interior, said focusing on just one human rights incident would financially burden the government and set a bad precedent. The Brothers' victims, he said, should have submitted their case to a temporary truth-finding commission established in the mid-2000s to investigate past atrocities." In a line more damning than apparently intended, Ahn said, "We can't make separate laws for every incident and there have been so many incidents since the Korean War."

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.