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Atomic bomb survivors in South Korea still feel the wounds

Sent to Hiroshima as forced laborers during WWII, they returned home to face poverty, prejudice and loneliness. Now they're trying, one more time, for compensation from Japan.

March 07, 2009|John M. Glionna

HAPCHEON, SOUTH KOREA — Shin Jin-tae says he lives in the unluckiest town on Earth.

During World War II, when the Japanese occupied Korea, thousands of residents of this small farming community were shipped to Japan to work in munitions factories.

Their destination: Hiroshima.

Shin and his family were there on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when the U.S. military dropped the atomic bomb, leveling the city center and vaporizing many of those within a mile of the blast.

Along with Japanese civilians, thousands of people from Hapcheon died instantly. Others lived, only to face poverty, prejudice and loneliness, some of them marrying other survivors because no one else wanted them.

"Sometimes I ask God, 'Why Hapcheon?' " said Shin, now 65 and a rice farmer. "And why did we have to go there? There were so many other Japanese cities. Why did it have to be Hiroshima?"

Monday, Shin and about 300 other Hapcheon residents will join atomic bomb survivors in South Korea and other countries in filing suit against the Japanese government for wartime reparations.

The survivors, represented by a team of Japanese lawyers, were spurred on by a Japanese Supreme Court ruling that recognized their right to receive reparations for mental anguish.

Although lawsuits seeking medical benefits have been filed over the years, suits seeking compensation for emotional suffering are a new element in the legal battles between bomb survivors and the Japanese government.

"We're poor farmers and we are dying off," said Shin, director of a local chapter of the Korean Atomic Bomb Victims Assn. "For Japan to really repay us, the amount is uncountable."

An estimated 40,000 Koreans died and 30,000 were injured in the atomic blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For years, survivors lobbied for medical care.

Progress has been slow. Although Japan has paid for medical treatment for its own victims -- known as hibakusha, or "explosion-affected people" -- foreign survivors were ignored until November 2007, when the Supreme Court voided a 1974 government declaration that atomic bomb survivors living outside Japan could not receive benefits.

The ruling prompted the government to offer $10,000 in compensation to each overseas survivor recognized as an atomic bomb victim in lawsuits already lodged against the state.

Japanese officials say they have been responsive to the survivors.

"Let me emphasize that we take various health and medical measures for survivors living in and out of Japan," said Masato Kumaki, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. "And we will continue to pursue measures to support atomic bomb survivors under the law."

For Hapcheon residents, the trauma dates to before August 1945, to the forced exodus they say devastated a community. Their dislocation was one small chapter in Imperial Japan's colonialism of the era, which included annexing Korea in 1910 and invading China in 1937, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people.

"Japanese groups have donated money, reporters from Japan have come to tell our stories, but the Japanese government is useless," Shin said. "They have never admitted that they ruined the lives of thousands of people who lived here."

Across South Korea, 2,665 atomic bomb survivors could eventually file suit as a result of the Japanese court ruling.

But Shin said Japan wasn't the only country with much to answer for.

"I understand that the U.S. wanted to win the war and avenge Pearl Harbor," he said. "But their scientists knew they would cause terrible carnage. Why did they drop bombs on civilians?"

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Ryu Young-soo remembers the flash, like lightning during a storm. He was a 12-year-old schoolboy, standing at a trolley platform in Hiroshima, a mile from the spot now known as Zero Point.

"It was a magnesium white light," said Ryu, now 77, who lives in a welfare center for atomic bomb victims in Hapcheon. "It surprised me so much I immediately dove under the train."

The next time he looked, Hiroshima was gone.

At 8:15 a.m. that day, a silver U.S. B-29 -- called the Enola Gay after the pilot's mother -- dropped a uranium bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" on the Japanese military hub.

More than 130,000 soldiers and civilians are believed to have died instantly or in fires that swept through the city. Thousands more would die later of radiation sickness.

Ryu remembers how the dust took forever to settle. His eyes stung and he could hear voices calling for help.

He wasn't injured in the blast: The train shielded him. His older brother wasn't so lucky. He worked at the Hiroshima railroad yards, near Zero Point. He was badly burned and died a few years later.

Ryu's mother and father were outside the city with his three younger brothers. They rushed back to Hiroshima and spent two days searching for their two oldest boys.

Ryu's mother contracted a mysterious illness, he said, and died two months later. The family returned to Hapcheon in December 1945, with an urn containing her ashes.

The images of the devastation have never left Ryu.

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