The Cartel of Silence (on going project)
The year of 1987 was the year of redemption for South Korea. The June Democratic Uprising in 1987 dispelled the dark shadow casted by dictatorship and military government, and forced the ruling military government to hold democratic elections and to institute other democratic reforms. Amid the historic turmoil, however, the worst human rights abuse atrocity which was revealed to the whole country in the same year was put in the shade of obscurity. It all happened in a welfare center called “Hyungjae Bokjiwon” which means Brother Welfare Center.
Hyungjae Bokjiwon, established in 1975 in Busan, was the biggest welfare center for the homeless and the disabled in South Korea. At a glance, it was regarded as the most successful welfare center in the country, and had received huge amount of government subsidies for 12 years until its permanent shut down. However, no one ever noticed brutal human rights abuse in the center until 35 imprisoned people escaped from it and report the atrocities to the police in March 22, 1987. It was only a year before 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.
According to the survivors and the South Korean government, for 12 years, more than 15,000 people in total had been imprisoned in the center with capacity of 3,146. Illegal imprisonment, Forced labor, torture, rape and even murder were only the part of the abuses imaginable happened in the center. When the Prosecution Bureau investigated the center in 1987, they found 531 of dead bodies and even the record of selling dead bodies to hospitals as cadavers. However, an invisible cartel concealed the case without proper investigation nor prosecution, and 3,000 victims were just released from the center and scattered to other facilities or on the street without proper protection nor compensation from the government. On contrary, the owner of Hyungjae Bokjiwon and his family have never been accused of human rights abuse, and still run the same facility models with immense wealth of 100 billion dollars.
After 27 years of despair and estrangement, the survivors of Hyungjae Bokjiwon started to regain their voices for justice. Their claims are clear and determined. Prosecution of the owner family, and proper apology and compensation from the government. However, they are yet far from achieving their demands. This case has already been forgotten under the bubbles of Democratic triumph and Olympics, and the ruling party keeps holding off legislation of the special law to support the survivors and to prosecute those who are in charge of violations.
As a photojournalist and also as an indirect survivor of the atrocity, I want to add my voice on survivors and to spread their voices through my work. I suspect that the Hyungjae Bokjiwon atrocity is the root of human rights issues in South Korea. As the case hasn’t solved clearly yet, an invisible cartel who exploits lives of the poor still does exist and wield authority in my country. If we turn our faces away from the survivors, and just regard the case as finished, it’s nothing but to join the cartel of silence which puts our country into downward spiral. We must advocate those who survived.