The Brothers Home


Hosting the Olympics can be a double-edged sword



There is a natural human inclination to put one’s best face forward. Those instincts are heightened during moments when one is the focal point of attention and many eyes are watching. So it’s no surprise that cities hosting major international events, be it the Olympic Games or the APEC summit, for at least a temporary period of time, bulldoze the slums or sweep the vagrants off the streets.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics hastened South Korea’s democratic transition.  Ironically, the groundbreaking for authoritarian rule’s grave had occurred in October 1979, when, during the closing days of the Park regime, Seoul Mayor and Park-appointee Chung Sang-chon announced that the city would enter the competition to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. With national prestige on the line and his own legitimacy in question, Chun could hardly back away from Park’s commitment. The organizing committee led by Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung proceeded to apply themselves to the task of winning the bid with a singlemindedness that would be a model for years to come. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted in September 1981, Seoul won.

The securing of the 1988 Olympic bid had two implications. First, as surely was foreseen in 1979, it necessitated a further upgrading of Seoul’s infrastructure, essentially raising it to developed country level. The second impact was perhaps more profound, and surely unforeseen: hosting the Olympics made it effectively impossible for Chun to use his usual repressive tactics to handle social discontent.  In 1987, with the Seoul Games only a little more than year away, rioting interrupted a number of sporting events. There was talk in the IOC of moving the games elsewhere.

Chun was already in trouble domestically. The world spotlight severely limited his options. His response was to call an election and introduce constitutional changes essentially to tilt the rules in favor of his long-time confidant and hand-picked successor, General Roh Tae-woo. The election of Roh would presumably reduce the building social pressures while allowing the highly unpopular Chun to live out his post-leadership life in relative peace. However, rather than acting as a safety valve, Roh’s 29 June 1987 democratization pledge, which signaled a shift toward more permissive government and revealed a reticence on the part of the authorities to crackdown due to international scrutiny associated with the upcoming Olympic Games, gave rise to an unprecedented upsurge in social mobilization. In December 1987, Roh prevailed in a three-way contest against two longtime dissident civilian politicians, the more conservative Kim Young-sam and the more liberal Kim Dae-jung, and assumed the presidency in time to host the Olympic Games. The IOC was no doubt pleased by these developments. The ultimate effect on South Korean society was undoubtedly positive.

But hosting the Seoul Games had unintended negative effects as well. As documented in an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism by Kim Tong-Hyung and Foster Klug, in 1975 Park had issued a directive to “purify” the streets of the unwanted: vagrants, the disabled, street kids, and the odd college student protestor. They ended up in a network of 36 facilities. Between 1981, when the 1988 Summer Games were awarded to Seoul, and 1986, the number of individuals held in these facilities jumped from 8,600 to 16,000. The largest and most infamous of these was the Brothers Home outside of Busan, which multiple eyewitnesses in the AP piece describe as a “concentration camp” of daily rapes, beatings, and death. The Brothers Home at its peak housed nearly 4,000 detainees who labored under virtual slave-like conditions for the financial benefit of the owner, Park In-keun.

Everyone except the detainees benefitted from the system. Local officials needed somewhere to stash their panhandlers, so they contracted with Brothers. The institution received government subsidies based on the number of people it housed, so it encouraged the police to round up more. They in turn often received promotions based on how many vagrants they picked up.

The exposure of Brothers began with an accidental encounter. A local prosecutor, Kim Yong-won, was out hunting and stumbled upon a work gang guarded by men with wooden bats and large dogs constructing a ranch for Park In-keun. Kim understood immediately that something was gravely wrong. He began to build a case, and in January 1987 led a police raid on the facility. He and his men found “battered and malnourished inmates locked in overcrowded dormitories.” Sadly, he also encountered resistance as he tried to move the case forward. Partly, the obstacles were the typical pushback from the well-connected that anyone upsetting the apple cart is bound to encounter. According to the article, Park Hee-tae, then Busan’s chief prosecutor and later South Korea’s justice minister, continually pushed to limit the investigation. Park, now a senior official in the ruling Saenuri Party, repeatedly refused AP interview requests.

But the resistance also reflected a tendency to repress embarrassing news in the run-up to the Seoul Games. The facility was quietly closed in 1988 and Park In-keun and a couple of subordinates received relatively light sentences for embezzlement and similar crimes in 1989. Management acknowledged 513 deaths at the facility, but the subsequent discovery of unmarked graves suggests that the real number was much higher. No one has ever been held accountable. 

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