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

Yet some refused to leave the salt farms because they had nowhere else to go.

Several disabled former slaves told reporters that they would return to salt farming because they believe that even the farms are better than life on the streets or in crowded shelters.

In some cases, relatives refused to take disabled people back into their homes, or sent salt farmers letters confirming that they did not need to pay the workers.

Kim’s former boss, Hong Jeong-gi, did not respond to multiple requests for comment through his lawyer, but said in court that he did not confine the two men.

Hong was set to appear in court recently to appeal a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

Other villagers, including paid salt workers, say farmers do the best they can, despite little help from the government, and add that only a few bad farm owners abuse workers.

Farmers describe themselves as providing oases for disabled and homeless people.

“These are people who are neglected and mistreated, people who have nowhere to go,” said Hong Chi-guk, a 64-year-old salt farmer in Sinui. “What alternative does our society have for them?”

On the night of July 4, 2012, a stranger approached Kim in a Seoul train station where he was trying to sleep; Kim had been homeless since fleeing creditors a decade earlier. The man offered him lodging for the night and promised him food, cigarettes and a “good job” in the morning.

Hours later, Kim stood in the muck of a salt farm owned by Hong, who had paid an illegal job agent the equivalent of about US$700 for his new worker, court records showed.

Kim, visually disabled and described in court documents as having the social awareness of a 12-year-old, had no money, no cellphone and only the vaguest idea of where he was.

The afternoon of his first full day on the farm, Hong erupted as Kim struggled with the backbreaking work, according to the prosecutors’ indictment used by a judge to determine Hong’s sentence.

The owner grabbed him from behind and flipped him onto the ground, screaming: “You moron. If I knew you would be so bad at this, I would not have brought you here.”

In the next weeks, Hong punched Kim in the face for improperly cleaning floors. Hong beat Kim on the buttocks with a wooden plank for raking the salt the wrong way.

“Each time I tried to ask him something, his punch came first,” Kim told reporters. “He told me to use my mouth only for eating and smoking. He said I should not question things and should be thankful because he fed me and gave me lodging and work.”

It was just as bad for the other slave, Chae Min-sik, a tiny man whose disabilities are so severe that he struggles even with basic words.

Only a week after his first capture, Kim began to plan another escape.

“Angel Islands” is what the regional tourist board calls the 1,004 islands clustered in the sun-sparkling waters off South Korea’s southwestern tip, because the Korean word for “1,004” sounds like the word for “angel.”

Local media outlets call them “Slave Islands.”

Parts of the region have been shut out from the nation’s recent meteoric development. On many of the 72 inhabited islands, salt propels the economic engine, thanks to clean water, wide-open farmland and strong sunlight.

Sinan County has more than 850 salt farms that produce two-thirds of South Korea’s sea salt. However, to make money, farmers need labor — lots of it and cheap.

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