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

About half of Sinui Island’s 2,200 people work in salt farming, according to a county Web site and officials.

Even with pay, the work is hard.

Large farms in Europe can harvest salt once or twice a year with machines.

However, smaller South Korean farms rely on daily manpower to wring salt from seawater.

Workers manage a complex network of waterways, hoses and storage areas. When the salt forms, they drain the fields, rake the salt into mounds, clean it and bag it. The process typically takes 25 days.

Sinan salt, which costs about three times more than refined salt, is coveted in South Korea, where it is found in fancy department stores and given as wedding gifts.

“Everyone makes money from the farms,” said Choi Young-shim, the owner of a fish restaurant in Mokpo, a southern port city that is the gateway to the salt islands.

Not everyone.

The second time they ran, Kim and Chae again tried to find their way to the port. However, they had to pass the grocery store to get there, and again the store owner’s son — identified by officials only as Yoon — rounded them up and called Hong.

After another beating, it was back to work. The few hours that they were not in the fields, they slept in a concrete storage building filled with piles of junk and large orange sacks of rice.

Kim despaired of ever escaping. Hong was an influential man, a former village head. He was linked by regular social contact and family ties with other salt farmers and villagers, some of whom volunteered to patrol the island for escaped workers.

Although Kim lived only 3km from a police station, he never thought about asking for help. He believed that he would be ignored, or worse, returned.

Kim ran again at the end of the month. Hong quickly called members of the volunteer patrol, and, again, Yoon spotted the slaves as they tried to reach the port and bought them to Hong.

Furious, the owner issued an ultimatum: Run again, and you will get a knife in the stomach.

Hong beat Kim so badly that he broke Kim’s glasses, leaving him nearly blind.

He worked Kim so hard that the slave was too tired to think about escape, even if he had not been terrified to try.

“It just drove me deeper into despair,” Kim said. “I never had a chance.”

The exact number of people enslaved on the islands is difficult to determine for the same reasons that slavery lingers: the transient nature of the work, the remoteness of the farms and the closeness — and often hostility — of the island communities.

“It is like a game of hide-and-seek,” activist Park Su-in said. “What we are finding is just the tip of the iceberg. It is hard to comprehend how bad it is for the disabled people who are forced to work out on these isolated islands.”

Activists believe many slaves have yet to be found, as some salt-farm owners sent victims away or hid them from investigators.

They say that others coached disabled workers about what they should say in interviews.

While island police officers were moved to different posts on South Korea’s mainland as part of annual personnel changes, authorities found no collusion, according to a Mokpo police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules.

“If the recent investigation was done properly, then pretty much everyone on the island should have been taken to the police station and charged,” said Kim Kang-won, another activist who participated in the investigation on Sinui. “The whole village knew about it. The local government office and the police as well. It is clear negligence. And the problem has not been resolved yet.”

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