Chung Young-chul takes a drag on his cigarette and watches as wild ducks fly across rice fields and land on a reservoir in this remote farming village. He’s among nearly 2,000 people — ex-gangsters, ex-convicts, former prostitutes, orphans — who were once held here, forced to work without pay for years and are now largely forgotten.
“Some died after they were beaten and got sick. Others died of malnutrition or in accidents,” said Chung, 74. “It was worse than a prison camp … We were starving slaves.”
They were victims of social engineering orchestrated in the 1960s by dictator Park Chung-hee, late father of just-ousted President Park Geun-hye. His 18-year rule was marked by both a dramatic economic rise and enormous human rights abuses.
He cleared city streets of so-called vagrants and put them to work on land and road projects as free labor to help rebuild the country after the 1950-53 Korean War. The victims say they’ve never received a proper investigation or compensation.
In Chung’s village in Seosan city, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Seoul, about 1,770 people were made to work without pay in land reclamation projects. They lived in army-style barracks. Some were ordered to marry female inmates, mostly ex-prostitutes sent from government-run shelters, in two rounds of mass weddings. Ex-workers say local officials told them repeatedly that they would be given some of the land they reclaimed, but that never happened.
Only about a dozen of the workers, mostly in their 70s, still live in this village; the rest left or have died. Those remaining pay rent to authorities to farm rice on the land they reclaimed. After repeated legal defeats, some have accepted a recent government proposal to buy the land at market prices in installments over 20 years, though they know they’ll probably die before they complete the payments.
They’ve always been poor and falling rice prices have made them poorer. Deeply in debt, Chung said he and others are pushing to file joint petitions with as many government offices as possible to appeal for help again.
“We have no money to hire lawyers,” he said. “We are the only ones abandoned by South Korea’s legal system.”
Past media reports during Park Chung-hee’s rule, which ended with his assassination in 1979, largely portrayed the people here as making a fresh start with government help. The true nature of their story has been shielded from the public; official records are limited and many workers won’t talk about what they believe were their dark past.
“Governments in South Korea have been very indifferent to them,” said Kim Aram at the Seoul-based Institute for Korean Historical Studies, one of the few experts on the issue. “Now, it’s important to let the people know about the truth of this story because it’s completely unknown to them.”
Chung was left alone at an early age. A North Korean bomb killed his mother in the Korean War, and he was separated from the rest of his family when he fell off the roof of a train carrying refugees.
He worked as a shoeshine boy with other orphans in the southeastern port city of Busan, then became a member of the “Apache” gang, collecting protection money from bars and teahouses.
“We felt strange when we spent a day without fighting” other gangsters, he said.
Chung’s life changed after Park seized power in a 1961 coup and attempted to “purify” society by rounding up people deemed vagrants and putting them to work.
In 1962, Chung said marines carrying rifles smashed down his shack door and took him to a rehabilitation center where hundreds were detained. They were told they were now members of the Republic of Korea Juvenile Pioneering Group.
Chung was sent to a land reclamation site in southern South Korea. About six months later, he volunteered to move to Seosan because he hoped he’d have a better chance to escape. But that was virtually impossible. His supervisors, senior inmates working under a civilian leader, stood guard every 30-50 meters (100-160 feet) and watched inmates even when they went to the toilet.
Each day they used shovels, pickaxes, carts and their bare hands to cultivate reclaimed land. They built waterways and a reservoir.
Most meals were only a bowl of rice and a thin soup made of dried Chinese cabbage leaves. They caught and ate frogs, snakes and rats. At night, they were often ordered to recite Park’s lengthy “revolution promises.” Those who stammered were beaten.
Chung likened his experience to the horrible accounts by escapees from North Korea’s notorious political prison camps. “Some don’t believe what they’ve testified but we trust their testimonies by 100 percent because that’s what we had endured, too,” he said.
Some of the South Korean inmates died, through illness, beatings or accidents, but there is no official data on fatalities. Local officials reached by The Associated Press said they have no information on the operations, and many of them acknowledged they have never heard about the ROK Juvenile Pioneering Group. But a handful of experts like Kim Aram and local villager Kim Tae-young, who works with remaining inmates on land disputes, said the suffering was tense.
By the time the pioneering group was dissolved — which came as Park’s government shifted to export-driven industrialization — control had loosened and many inmates had already left.
Ex-inmates said they had cultivated about 357 hectares (882 acres), but that it was too salty and uneven. Seosan officials “tentatively” distributed the land to the roughly 300 remaining inmates and other poor people in the village between 1968 and 1971, according to farmers and villagers in Seosan.
Some simply sold their parcels — for as little as a sack of potatoes, Chung says — but others cultivated the land. By the time ex-inmates began harvesting rice, the government imposed rent for using state-owned property, Chung and other villagers said. They staged a legal fight, but a local district court ruled against them in 2000 in a verdict upheld by higher-level courts.
In 2011, the state-run Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission recommended that the government lower the prices of the land to reflect ex-inmate’s previous labor but a ministry in charge of government-owned land used the market rates.
There are 278 families who farm the reclaimed land in Seosan, including about a dozen ex-inmates, including Chung and Sung Jae-yong.
“It’s really shameful … but I’m paying the installments with the help of my children,” said Sung, who lowered his head and wept. “I’ve been enduring it until now because I wanted my hard work to pay off. But things have become terrible.”
Chung called Park Chung-hee a “gangster” who ruined his life.
“He captured us and put us here. So he should have taken responsibility for our lives to the end,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks.