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Forgotten Korean Victims

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) Japan is the only officially recognized country to have been subject to bombings with nuclear weapons. However, the victims of those bombings were not just the Japanese. There were some Allied Forces who were prisoners of war in both cities at the time, along with many Chinese and Koreans from Japanese-occupied countries who were also victims. In fact, nearly 10 percent of the total victims were immigrant Koreans.

Yuri Kitaoka


Korean workers had begun immigrating to Japan since the Japanese occupation of their country in 1910, many forcibly taken away from their lands and jobs in their homeland. After World War II broke out, the Japanese government coerced Korean and Chinese people into working in factories or mining in Japan. By 1945 the numbers of Koreans living there had increased to more than two million, which was almost 10% of the whole Korean population. And when the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and on Nagasaki on 9 August, those two cities had grown into the main munitions supply cities in Japan, so many were concentrated into those areas.

A citizens group for Korean victims estimates the number of Korean victims at Hiroshima to have been seventy thousand, of whom thirty-five thousand died. At Nagasaki there were thirty thousand victims with fifteen thousand dead. Although everybody faced equal risks at the time the bombs dropped, most Koreans found the aftermath much harder than the Japanese. For example, many of them had no place to evacuate to without any relatives to go to, thus they had to return to the contaminated and devastated cities. Even people who had evacuated were forced back to the cities to help with the cleaning up there. If medical teams found that a patient was Korean, he or she had to stand at the end of the lines of people seeking help.

On 15 August 1945, Korea finally became independent and Korean people in Japan were free. But they lost everything in Japan as well as their homeland. After they returned to Korea, they had to start their lives all over again from nothing. To add to the losses and the agonies of radiation disease, poverty and discrimination, the Korean War broke out soon afterwards. Some of those arriving in Korea had been born in Japan or lived so long a time there and spoke little Korean. Many of them had no opportunity or access to education and training for a good job so that they could only get jobs subjecting them to terrible physical conditions. One side-effect of the Korean War was that the diseases and after-effects caused by the radiation were hardly known in Korean until the 1960's. If a victim had money to go hospital, doctors put the name of disease as something else. One man whose fingers and toes swelled abnormally was thought to have leprosy and he had to leave his village with his family.

The answers to a questionnaire by the citizens group for Korean victims in 1979 shows that 80% of them are suffering from various illnesses, though just 19% of them can afford to go hospital. One third of have no jobs and 80% live in poverty.

The Japanese Government's Attitude

After the hydrogen bomb tests on Bikini Island by the USA, Japanese citizens began to organize groups against nuclear weapons and to support victims of the bombs. In 1957 and 1968 two bills to benefit the victims were passed. Far from satisfactory, they at least enabled victims to obtain the right to free medical treatment, though living expenses were not included. Non-Japanese victims were not covered under these bills at all.

In 1965 the South Korean and Japanese governments concluded a treaty giving compensation to Koreans suffering under the occupation. Nothing, however was mentioned about compensation to Korean nuclear victims. This made them very angry and stimulated the organizing of a group to push for their right to compensation from the Japanese government. In 1970 Son Jan To, one of the victims living at that time back in South Korea, entered Japan illegally and made a direct appeal to the government for free medical treatment. The government rejected this appeal because of the 1965 treaty. Supported by Japanese citizens groups, Son Jan To went to court in 1972. He went before the Supreme Court in 1978, where he won his case.

Victims and supporters began voicing their demands more strongly. To avoid dealing with them, in 1980 the government started a project under which the Korean victims could have access to free medical treatment. This sounds nice, but the project has strict conditions such as:

  1. medical costs are paid by Japan, but travel costs to Japan must be paid by the Korean government;
  2. only fifty people per year are accepted;
  3. the treatment period is only two months, with exceptional cases lasting six months maximum;
  4. excluded completely are serious cases and patients of advanced age;
  5. only hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki can participate in this program.

There are some 23 thousand victims now in South Korea, but just 351 people have made use of this program. Even though South Korea has no hospital and doctors specialized and experienced in treating radiation diseases, the South Korean government felt so humiliated with this situation that it refused to continue with the program after 1987.

The Korean victims' organization started to make their demands clear. Based on compensation paid to out Japanese victims up to 1987, the group calculated that US$ 23 hundred million was owed to Korean victims and claimed this amount from the Japanese government.

Ignoring the claim, in 1970 the Japanese government decided one-sidedly to give 400 million Yen (approximately $US 3.16 million) for medical support. In the name of "humanitarian aid" the government intended to finish the discussion over compensation. Li Men Hi, a victim, had attempted suicide by taking in pesticide in front of the Japanese embassy at Seoul soon after she heard the decision. She had been desperate for help, have struggled so long a time in poverty with radiation disease of her own and her sick daughter. Now supported by a citizens group and individuals, Li Men Hi is now under treatment in a hospital in Japan, though a severe life is still waiting after her return to Seoul.



In the article, "Forgotten Korean Victims" a mistake has been discovered by the author. [after printing] The article mentions a Korean woman, Li Men Hi, who was said to have committed suicide in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In fact, she was rescued after having tried to commit suicide and it is she, not her daughter, who is now in care at a hospital in Japan.

Most of the victims are aging and dying every year in suffering various disease and in poverty. At least they have been able to have free medical services since 1989. Some are too poor and weak, however, to reach the nearest hospital and have difficulties in completing the paper work necessary for the bureaucracy without help. They are also greatly in need of living expenses.

North Korea seems to have two thousands victims, but nothing further about their situation is known.

The Monument of Korea Victims in the Peace Park

When a monument for Korean victims was built in 1970, Hiroshima city refused to allow it to be located in the Peace Park where the center of the bombing occurred and is commemorated by a monument for the atomic bomb victims. The reason the city authorities gave was that "the Park is too crowded." Angry victims and supporting groups have for years been demanding that the Korean monument be relocated, but Hiroshima city ignored their voices.

In 1990, for the first time, a Korea victims delegation made an official visit to Japan. When the delegates saw the monument standing outside of the Peace Park, beside a busy street, some of them could not stand it and cried out, "Why should we still discriminated even after death!?". Major media publicized this scene widely, so that finally Hiroshima city agreed to relocate the monument inside the Park. More than two years since the decision was made, the monument still stands on the same place because of no consensus on how to move it. Twice now, too, the paper cranes which are left at the monument as a symbol of peace and dedicated to the victims have been set on fire.

Contact: The Citizens Group for Supporting the Korean Victims, c/o Ms. Matsui, 3-36-5 Momoyama-dai Suita-shi Ohsaka, Japan, tel: +81-6-871-3446.