Survivors of horrific abuse at South Korea’s notorious Brothers Home welfare centre that operated from 1976 to 1987 have told Al Jazeera’s 101 East they want members of the family who ran it extradited from Australia to face questioning.
After decades of battling for justice, in May 2020, the Korean government passed a law allowing a new investigation into the Brothers Home case. This year a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began four years of hearings into human rights abuses committed during the country’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II and its brutal military dictatorships from the 1960s to the 1980s, including those that occurred at the Brothers Home.
Park Soon-hee, a 51-year-old abuse survivor, is waiting to be called to give evidence. Like many of the thousands of former inmates of Brothers Home, she alleges she was illegally confined, enslaved, raped and brutally beaten for the six years she was imprisoned at the home.
Crying, her hands shaking, Park Soon-hee waves a child’s undergarment in the air, as she tells 101 East: “Look at this … the Brother’s Home had imprinted its authority on our bones and in our memories.”
At the bottom, printed in black is an identification number given to her when she was forcibly taken to the welfare facility in 1980. She was just 10 years old.
“I had not committed a crime, but why was I given an identification number? This trauma and stigma will stay with me until I die.”
She puts the blame for what happened to her firmly on those who ran the home, now living in Australia.
“To ensure the wealthy life of that family, tens of thousands of people are now in pain and suffering,” she sobs in the lounge room of the house she shares with her husband and grown children. “We were children with a bright future, but they threw it away. They trampled on our future.”
Watch our story as we track down those in Sydney, Australia, who are allegedly behind the atrocities committed at Brothers Home:
What was Brothers Home?
Brothers Home operated under a government ordinance to “purify the streets”, known as No.410. First implemented in 1975, the ordinance was ramped up in the 1980s under the authoritarian rule of now-disgraced President Chun Doo-hwan.
South Korea was gearing up to host the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Chun’s administration wanted to showcase the country as a modern, emerging economic power and wanted all “vagrants” removed from sight.
Based in the southern port city of Busan, Brothers Home was one of dozens of welfare facilities dotted across the country that were paid government subsidies to shelter homeless people.
The facilities were meant to provide inmates with skills-based training, before releasing them back into society after a year, better prepared to survive.
Brothers Home was the biggest of such facilities in the country. At its peak, it had nearly 3,500 inmates.
A 1981 Korean government film celebrated it as an exemplary social welfare centre for the homeless, but its high concrete walls hid the grotesque greed and criminality of its management. The more people they took in, the more subsidies they received from the government and the more money they pocketed for themselves.
Elected Busan City councillor, Park Min-seong, who backed the Council’s 2018 apology to survivors of Brothers Home abuse, told 101 East, people were ruthlessly kidnapped from the streets and incarcerated at the facility, “people just going about their daily lives, people who were simply drinking, just any ordinary person, including children”.
Fewer than 10 percent of those entrapped at Brothers Home were vagrants, according to a 1987 investigation by local Busan prosecutor, Kim Yong-won.
None of the nine survivors 101 East interviewed lived on the streets.
Former inmates say they were starved and shamelessly exploited.
In the early days of Brothers Home, inmates slept in tents as they were forced to build the massive concrete facility, terraced on the side of a steep hill.
The home ran more than a dozen factories that produced pencils, fishing equipment, cocktail umbrellas, clothing, shoes, woodwork, metalwork and much more. Most inmates received nothing for their labour and even children were enslaved.
Yeon Seng-mo, who was 15 years old when he was entrapped at the home for four years, tells 101 East inmates were punished if they failed to meet daily targets. “If we didn’t finish it, we were beaten with baseball bats,” he says in his tiny bedsit apartment on the outskirts of Seoul.
The factories were presented as training grounds for inmates to develop new skills for the outside world, but Park Min-seong said, in reality, they were nothing more than a source of large profits for management. “They pocketed money from the sale of these products, as well as benefitted from the free labour,” he explained.
A former military man and boxer, Park In-keun, headed up Brothers Home and by all accounts ruled with an iron fist. He established an army-like chain of command, promoting inmates into positions of power. “Their strategy was to have inmates abuse other inmates,” Park Min-seong explained.
Inside so-called “platoons” that housed up to 120 inmates in rows of bunk beds, violence reigned. Inmates were subjected to cruel collective punishment dished out by “platoon leaders” for as little as dropping food on the floor at dinner.
Choi Seung-woo remembers, “We were toys for platoon leaders to play with.”
Choi was 14 years old and living with his grandmother when he was forcibly taken to Brothers Home. Living alone in a bedsit not far from where the facility once was, he reluctantly recounts an occasion where an inmate was killed during a punishment session.
“The person had complained, ‘Why are we here? Why do we have to endure this torture? Send us all home!’ The leaders dragged him away, rolled him up in a blanket and viciously kicked him,” he says, stamping his feet on the ground before adding, solemnly, “He never returned to the platoon, which means he was dead.”
Officially, 551 people died at the facility, but it is widely believed the true number is far higher.
Brothers Home head, Park In-keun, surrounded himself with loyal family members. His wife, Lim Sung-soon, her brother Lim Young-soon and brother-in-law, Joo Chong-chan, were all directors of the home. All claimed to be devout Christians.
Using religion to justify violence
At the pinnacle of Brothers Home was an enormous church in which up to 3,500 could be seated. It too was built with inmates’ slave labour. Every morning at 5:30am, services from the church were blasted on loudspeakers into platoons, inmates in their royal blue tracksuits, standing to attention beside their beds as they listened to the sermon.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, inmates were made to march up the giant staircase leading to the church to attend services where they had to recite long verses from the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. But it was the so-called “people’s trials” conducted by Park in the church that still cause many of them trauma. Those who tried to escape were put on “trial”, chastised and savagely beaten in front of thousands of other inmates.
Survivors recount how at the end of the “trials”, Park’s brother-in-law and newly ordained pastor, Lim Young-soon, would take over.
“That’s when Pastor Lim would talk in the name of God and Jesus,” Choi Seung-woo says. “There was violence so they had to appear like they were consoling us. In that way, they could keep kidnapping and detaining a large number of people there.”
Choi and other survivors 101 East interviewed, accuse the two men of using religion to justify monstrous brutality and of profiting from their pain.
By 1986, rumours of people being held against their will and killings at the home had started to circulate through Busan. Acting on a tip-off, a local prosecutor, Kim Yong-won, made a surprise visit to one of Brothers Home’s construction sites where he photographed men with large sticks guarding workers.
Shortly afterwards the home was raided. Foreign currencies including US and Australian dollars, worth $5.5m in today’s value, were seized from the safe in the main office.
In January 1987, Park In-keun was arrested and charged with embezzlement and illegal confinement, but he was ultimately acquitted of the illegal confinement charge and never held to account for the human rights abuses at Brothers Home.
Prominent Korean human rights advocate, Park Lae-goon, and many others who have examined the Brothers Home case closely, pointed to Park In-keun’s powerful political allies as the reason. “There was the President Chun Doo-hwan administration, the Busan mayor – there were close connections between the parties,” he said, “Even when Park In-keun was arrested, the Busan mayor called and pushed for his release.”
Instead of being imprisoned for 15 years for embezzling millions of dollars worth of government subsidies across just a two-year period as recommended by the prosecutor, Park was sentenced to just two-and-a-half years in jail.
A new life in Australia
When Park was arrested, Lim Young-soon was thousands of kilometres away. He had left Korea in 1986 to set up a new life for the family in Australia.
With a shortage of Korean pastors, a Korean Presbyterian church in Sydney welcomed Lim’s arrival and happily agreed to sponsor him for a permanent resident’s visa.
Margaret Song and her husband, Peter Yoo, who was a church elder, tell 101 East they and others in the congregation at the time, were oblivious to Lim’s dark past and now deeply regret helping him settle in Australia.
“When he was preaching, he was really giving it his everything, just so he could get his permanent residency visa from the church. So we were duped,” Peter Yoo says, he and his wife’s discomfort at having to talk about Lim, palpable.
In 1989, when Park was released from prison, extraordinarily, he immediately went back into the social welfare business in Korea and despite his serious criminal conviction, Australia granted him visas to travel regularly to see his family.
In 1990, he and Lim established their own church in Sydney, Park funding it with embezzled money from the Brothers Home Foundation in Korea. Park Min-seong, said a 2020 Busan council investigation found money flowed to other churches in Australia, as well. “We suspect this was his way of broadening his connections there,” he says.
And it seems Lim Young-soon also benefitted from the connections. During the next few decades, the director and pastor of the infamous Brothers Home became a senior figure in the Korean Presbyterian Church in Australia.
In 1995, Park registered a family company, Job’s Town, in Australia. The directors were Park; his wife, Lim Sung-soon; her and pastor Lim’s sister, Lim In-soon, who is married to former Brothers Home director, Joo Chong-chan; and Park’s youngest daughter, Jee-hee’s then-new husband, Alex Min.
A few months later, the company bought a golf driving range and sports complex in Sydney’s outer suburb of Milperra for $1.4m. According to Park Min-seong, it was bought with money embezzled from Brothers Home. “This asset is the blood and sweat of the victims, and cost them their lives,” he said.
And it appears the family’s penchant for slave labour continued in Australia. Former Brothers Home inmate, Lim Bong-keun, was brought from Korea to Sydney on non-work visitor visas to work illegally for the family at the driving range. He tells 101 East he worked from before dawn until after midnight, six days a week, only to be beaten by Park when he visited.
“He used a golf club to ruthlessly beat me,” he says, “If I was in Korea, I would have just run away. But if I left this place, I had no money to go anywhere. Where would I go?”
The former worker claims he was promised he would be paid, but only ever received $160 for eight years of work.
In 2014, Park was once again charged, along with his son, Park Chun-kwang, for embezzling money from the now-abandoned family social welfare facility, known as Siloam, in Busan. His son was imprisoned for three years, but Park’s charges were suspended because he had dementia. Park died two years later.
With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings now under way, survivors want Lim Young-soon to be extradited to Korea to face questioning about the alleged atrocities at Brothers Home. His brother-in-law and fellow Brothers Home director, Joo Chong-chan, is in a care home in Sydney and likely unfit to give evidence.
The family’s assets are also in survivors’ sights, especially the golf driving range and sports complex. Still held under the family company, Job’s Town, Park’s youngest daughter, Jee Hee, and her husband, Alex Min, are now the sole directors of the company and, therefore, the sole owners of the asset. Listed for sale since 2019 for $11m, it brings them a rental income of more than $300,000 a year.
“The government needs to look at ways of seizing these assets and returning them to the country,” Busan Councillor, Park Min-seong demanded. “Of course, this money then needs to be spent on victims.”
‘How could they do this?’
For decades, survivors have fought for justice. Most struggle emotionally, physically and financially. Many like Choi Seung-woo’s younger brother, who was also incarcerated at the home, have taken their own lives.
Standing alone in front of the vault where his brother’s ashes are kept at the Busan Memorial Park, Choi begins to sob, “There were only two of us, and as the older sibling, I should have protected him. Even when he came to the Brother’s Home in 1985, I feel so guilty that I wasn’t able to look after him. When he took his life, when I saw him dead, I felt so much guilt for not being able to protect him.”
“The government, as well as those who ran the facility – Park In-keun, Pastor Lim Young-soon, they all need to be punished. How could they do this?” Choi asks, his voice breaking with grief and despair after decades of fighting for justice.
101 East put all allegations raised in the programme to Lim Young-soon; Lim Sung-soon; Lim In-soon and her husband, Joo Chong-chan; and Park Jee-hee and her husband, Alex Min, but received no response and requests for interviews were declined.