Described as a “living hell,” the chain of rural islands off South Korea’s rugged southwest coast have shallow sea-fed fields where slaves are forced to work 18 hour shifts without pay. Slaves are made to mine salt that collects after sea water evaporates from the fields.
What’s even more horrendous is that the slavery involves mostly disabled men and women who are too feeble or simply incapable of planning and executing their escape from these islands.
Appallingly, slavery has been so ubiquitous here that regional judges have shown leniency toward several of the perpetrators of the heinous crime. In suspending the prison sentences of two farmers, a court noted that “such criminal activities were tolerated as common practice by a large number of salt farms nearby.”
Five times during the last decade, revelations of slavery involving the disabled have surfaced, each time generating national shame and outrage. Based on the accounts of escapees, officials searched more than 38,000 salt, fish and agricultural farms and disabled facilities, but found no more than 100 workers who had received no — or only scant — pay. Moreover, only about 100 people had been reported missing by their families. Surprisingly, though 50 island farm owners and regional job brokers were indicted, no local police or officials have ever faced punishment, and according to the national police, no one involved with slavery will ever see a day in court or face incarceration.
However, the operations described by those who have managed to escape narrate a very different tale of torture and exploitation. Dozens of interviews with freed slaves, salt farmers, villagers and officials have routinely indicated that the scale of operations hasn’t changed, and in fact, appear to have grown with the demands of trying to squeeze a living from the sea rising continually.
There’s a sadistic reason why the disabled are the preferred choice of slaves. After decades of war, poverty and dictatorship, South Koreans now enjoy a vibrant democracy, high tech media, and an entertainment industry that’s the envy of the region. But amid the country’s growing wealth and power, the disabled often don’t fit in.
It is even more upsetting that two-thirds of the slaves are mental patients. Horrifically, many of the slaves were unwilling to leave the islands as they revealed they had nowhere else to go. Many of the free slaves secretly hoped to return to the islands because they believe that even the salt farms are better than life on the streets or in crowded shelters. Apparently, even in modern South Korea, the disabled are still the perfect rejects and the perfect candidates for slavery.
[Image Credit | Ahn Young-joon/AP]