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

‘TREATED LIKE DOGS’

Provincial police vowed to inspect farms and interview workers regularly.

Choi Byung-dai, a police officer on Sinui Island when Kim was freed, expressed regret about Kim’s treatment, but also mentioned the difficulty of monitoring so many salt farms and a flood of seasonal workers.

Salt farmers blame illegal job agencies in Mokpo, which they say see developmentally disabled workers as better bets because they are less likely to complain or run away.

“They are treated like dogs and pigs, but people in the community are used to it,” said Kim Kyung-lae, a Mokpo cab driver who regularly drives local employment agents and disabled workers to the ferry port to meet with farm owners.

Others familiar with the island confirm that slavery is rampant.

A doctor who worked at the Sinui Island Public Health Center from 2006 to 2007 said that most of the workers he treated were abused or exploited.

“The police chief would tell me that I would eventually come to understand that this was how things on the island worked,” Cho Yong-su said. “For decades, they had exploited workers in this way, so they could not understand that this was abuse.”

An outsider might cringe at what is happening on the island, said Han Bong-cheol, a pastor in Mokpo who lived on Sinui for 19 years until June last year.

“However, when you live there, many of these problems feel inevitable,” he said.

He sympathized with farmers forced to deal with disabled, incompetent workers whom he described as dirty and lazy.

“They spend their leisure time eating snacks, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. They are taken once or twice a year to Mokpo so they can buy sex. It is a painful reality, but it is a pain the island has long shared as a community,” Han said.

After a year-and-a-half as a slave, Kim made one last bid for freedom.

He wrote a letter to his mother in Seoul that he never expected to be able to send, calling himself her “foolish” son.

He got a break when Hong’s wife let him go alone for a haircut. Walking slowly without his glasses, he ducked into the post office and mailed the letter, which gave directions to the farm.

Kim’s mother was stunned. She brought the letter to Seo Je-gong, a police captain for Seoul’s Guro District.

“A vanished person had suddenly reappeared,” Seo, now retired, told reporters.

Seo then hatched an extraordinary plan.

Because Kim’s letter mentioned collaboration between local police officials and salt-farm owners, Seo and another Seoul officer ran a clandestine operation without telling local officials.

Carrying fishing rods, they walked around like tourists who had come to fish and buy salt, and surreptitiously took photographs of Hong’s house and farm. After they watched Hong board a boat, they told Hong’s wife that they were Seoul police who had come to free Kim.

The officers found the slaves sitting on a mattress in the back room of a storage building with no heat or hot water. Kim wore thin, dirty clothes, slippers and socks with big holes.

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