Wed, Jan 07, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Slaves endure ‘living hell’ on remote South Korean islands

Disabled people are forced to toil 18 hours a day for little or no pay on salt farms on South Korea’s isolated ‘Angel Islands,’ with entire communities, including the police, colluding in their slavery

By Foster Klug  /  AP, SINUI ISLAND, South Korea

Illustration: Mountain People

He ran the first chance he got. The summer sun beat down on the shallow, sea-fed fields where Kim Seong-baek was forced to work without pay, day after 18-hour day mining the big salt crystals that blossomed in the mud around him.

Half-blind and in rags, Kim grabbed another slave, and the two men — both disabled — headed for the coast.

Far from Seoul, the glittering steel and glass capital of one of Asia’s richest nations, they were now hunted men on this tiny, remote island where the enslavement of disabled salt-farm workers is an open secret.

“It was a living hell,” Kim said. “I thought my life was over.”

Lost, they wandered past asphalt-black salt fields sparkling with a patina of thin white crust. They could feel the islanders they passed watching them. Everyone knew who belonged and who did not.

Near a grocery store, the store owner’s son came out and asked what they were doing. Kim broke down, begged for help, saying that he had been held against his will. The man offered to take them to the police to file a report.

Instead, he called their boss, who beat Kim with a rake — and it was back to the salt fields.

“I could not fight back,” Kim said in a recent series of interviews.

The details he shared have been corroborated by court records and by lawyers, police and government officials.

“The islanders are too organized, too connected,” Kim added.

Slavery thrives on this chain of rural islands off South Korea’s rugged southwest coast, nurtured by a long history of exploitation and the demands of trying to squeeze a living from the sea.

Five times during the past decade, revelations of slavery involving disabled people have emerged, each time generating national shame and outrage. Kim’s case prompted a nationwide South Korean government probe over the course of several months in 2013. Officials searched more than 38,000 salt, fish and agricultural farms and disabled facilities and found more than 100 workers who had received no — or only scant — pay, and more than 100 who had been reported missing by their families.

Yet little has changed on the islands, according to a months-long investigation by reporters based on court and police documents and dozens of interviews with former slaves, salt farmers, villagers and officials.

Although 50 island farm owners and regional job brokers were indicted, no local police officers or officials have faced punishment, and national police officials say none will, despite multiple interviews showing that some knew about the slaves and even stopped escape attempts.

PERVASIVE SLAVERY

Slavery has been so pervasive that regional judges have shown leniency toward several perpetrators.

In suspending the prison sentences of two farmers, a court said that “such criminal activities were tolerated as common practice by a large number of salt farms nearby.”

The investigation’s findings shine a spotlight on the underbelly of an Asian success story. After decades of war, poverty and dictatorship, most South Koreans now enjoy a vibrant democracy and media landscape, as well as an entertainment industry that is the envy of the region. However, amid the nation’s growing wealth and power, disabled people often do not fit in.

Soon after the national government’s investigation, activists and police found another 63 unpaid or underpaid workers on the islands, three-quarters of whom were developmentally disabled.

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