This is how an absolutely terrifying story from AP about mass killings in South Korea during the long run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics begins:
The 14-year-old boy in the black school jacket stared at his sneakers, his heart pounding, as the policeman accused him of stealing a piece of bread.
Even now, more than 30 years later, Choi Seung-woo weeps when he describes all that happened next. The policeman yanked down the boy’s pants and sparked a cigarette lighter near Choi’s genitals until he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. Then two men with clubs came and dragged Choi off to the Brothers Home, a mountainside institution where some of the worst human rights atrocities in modern South Korean history took place.
A guard in Choi’s dormitory raped him that night in 1982 — and the next, and the next. So began five hellish years of slave labor and near-daily assaults, years in which Choi saw men and women beaten to death, their bodies carted away like garbage.
Though it seems impossible, the story gets even worse from there. It details scores of atrocities committed at Brothers Home, ostensibly a sort of home/work program for the homeless, but in actuality a slave labor camp where inmates, including children, were regularly raped, beaten, and left to die. Between 1975 and 1986, the official tally marks 513 people who were killed at the Brothers compound. The true number is almost assuredly hundreds, if not thousands, of people higher.
From the 1960s through 1990s, South Korea was one of the Asian Tigers, so named because their economy grew at a phenomenal rate each year. The growth is usually credited to neoliberal economic policies, but in South Korea those policies are inseparable from the U.S.-backed military dictatorships that ran the country from the end of the Korean War in 1953 until 1988. What are euphemistically called human rights abuses weren’t just an unfortunate byproduct of the economic boom, but, as the AP’s story about the Brothers Home demonstrates, an active component of it.
Choi Seung-woo and tens of thousands of others were swept into these concentration camps to “purify” cities:
In 1975, dictator President Park Chung-hee, father of current President Park Geun-hye, issued a directive to police and local officials to “purify” city streets of vagrants. Police officers, assisted by shop owners, rounded up panhandlers, small-time street merchants selling gum and trinkets, the disabled, lost or unattended children, and dissidents, including a college student who’d been holding anti-government leaflets.
They ended up as prisoners at 36 nationwide facilities. By 1986, the number of inmates had jumped over five years from 8,600 to more than 16,000, according to government documents obtained by AP.
Nearly 4,000 were at Brothers. But about 90 percent of them didn’t even meet the government’s definition of “vagrant” and therefore shouldn’t have been confined there, former prosecutor Kim Yong Won told the AP, based on Brothers’ records and interviews compiled before government officials ended his investigation.
Those who toiled in the camps were supposed to be paid a nominal wage for their work—which was utilized by huge Korean companies who sold products worldwide—but few if any were, unless you count beatings and rape as acceptable payment for work.
These specific camps were shut down in 1987, when the aforementioned Kim Yong Won became the prosecutor in the city of Ulsan. He had the camps raided and pursued a vigorous investigation, but his attempts at getting some measure of justice for the former inmates was stymied at every turn by high-ranking South Korean officials. They didn’t want the country to look bad, as the world’s eyes turned more fully to the country and the upcoming Olympics:
At every turn, Kim said, high-ranking officials blocked his investigation, in part out of fear of an embarrassing international incident on the eve of the Olympics. President Chun Doo-hwan, who took power in a coup after Park Chung-hee was assassinated, didn’t need another scandal as he tried to fend off huge pro-democracy protests.
Internal prosecution records reveal several instances where Kim noted intense pressure from Chun’s office to curb his probe and push for lighter punishment for the owner. Kim had to reassure presidential officials directly and regularly that his investigation wouldn’t expand.
The Olympics tells many lies about itself. It tells the lie that exploited amateurs are somehow nobler than properly compensated professionals, though that’s mostly gone away in recent iterations. It tells the lie that the Olympics is a boon for the host city, when in actuality it costs the host city billions of dollars. But the biggest lie the Olympics tells about itself is that it is an agent in spurring democratic change.
This last lie is the most insulting of all not just because the Olympics is just a big dumb sporting event, but because it is, blatantly, the opposite of what the Olympics actually does.
What actually happens is that dictatorships and otherwise authoritarian governments crave the legitimacy that large, multinational sporting events—including the World Cup—convey upon them. They crave being groveled to by otherwise powerful media executives and sporting superstars. They crave spending three weeks in the spotlight for something other than human rights abuses.
We can go back at least as far as the Nazis hosting the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but they’re far from alone. The Mexican government (with Pentagon and CIA assistance) massacred student protesters on the eve of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Argentina used the 1978 World Cup to distract the world from the tens of thousands of desaparecidos. Thousands of migrant workers—whose passports are confiscated by their employer—are dying in Qatar while building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
South Korea in the 1980s was no different. Winning the 1981 bidding to host the Olympics was part and parcel of the same strategy that resulted in Choi Seung-woo and tens of thousands of others experiencing about as close as you can get to hell on this earth. Shuttling “vagrants” off into concentration camps purified cities the same way that hosting the Olympics purified South Korea’s international reputation. The only thing the Olympics coming to South Korea spurred was even worse dictatorial excess.
This pattern, in perhaps more modern forms, continues today. Tens of thousands of migrant workers were exploited while building the venues for the 2008 Beijing Olympics that China would use to show off to the world. Migrant workers are dying in Qatar. Russia attempted to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi—and will attempt to use the upcoming 2018 World Cup—to sanitize its image. Brazil raided favelas to oust “drug gangs” prior to the 2014 World Cup, and are continuing the raids ahead of this summer’s Rio Olympics.
The story of South Korea’s Brothers Home is absolutely stomach churning—if you don’t have a negative physical reaction to reading it, something’s gone wrong. But the saddest thing is that it’s not an aberration; it’s a very real manifestation of the Olympic ideal.