“Salt Farm Slaves” Scandal Shocks Korea

Recently, a story about two men enslaved at a salt farm on an island in South Jeolla Province shocked the nation, including President Park Geun-hye. The two men were rescued by a police team from Seoul after one man managed to send a letter to his mother asking for help. This incident initiated a large-scale police search operation in remote places in South Jeolla Province. President Park has asked the prosecution and police to tighten measures and look into similar incidents. A similar labor exploitation issue emerged in 2006. In the wake of the recent investigation, anti-Jeolla sentiment has been visible online.

We think of slavery as a practice of the past, an image from Roman colonies or 18th-century American plantations, but the practice of enslaving human beings as property still exists. There are 29.8 million people living as slaves right now, according to a comprehensive new report issued by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.


Percentage of the enslaved population in each country according to Walk Free Global Slavery Index. Source: Washington Post

From SBS:

“Salt farm slaves” have just been rediscovered

One of the buzzwords in 2006 was “slavery.”

SBS’s “Emergency SOS 24” revealed a series of “modern slavery” incidents in 2006. On May 2nd, the program aired an episode entitled “Modern slave – An old man’s 50 years of oppression.” It was a story about 73-year-old man named Lee Hong-gyu who had lived like a slave for 50 years. The perpetrator was arrested on the charges of stealing Lee’s subsidies and violating the Elderly Welfare Act. The police could not prove the charges of assault or physical abuse. The incident led the government to examine the status of subsidies for the elderly living alone.

On June 26th, the program broadcast an episode about a young man who had lived like a slave for 10 years on an isolated island. 33-year-old mentally disabled Lee Hyang-gyun was trafficked to the island. The village leader stole his wages and subsidies. Over the course of 10 years, he was only able to save ₩22,000, which enraged many citizens who watched the program. Both the old man and young man worked at salt farms.

On July 4th, the program aired a story about an enslaved daughter-in-law. When she was 25 years old, mentally disabled Lee Jeong-hye married a man who is also mentally disabled. She endured physical abuse from her mother-in-law for 10 years. Her body was covered with scars. She was working from 4 A.M. to midnight. She even had to do laundry with her hands because her mother-in-law did not allow her to use the laundry machine. Her family finally rescued her.

Eight years have passed since then. “Slavery” is once again making headlines in 2014 because of the “salt farm slaves”.

In early February, a visually impaired man managed to send a letter to his parents calling for help. His parents had not been able to contact him for 14 years. The police rescued the man who worked at a salt farm for more than a year on a remote island in South Jeolla Province. They also rescued another mentally disabled man who worked alongside him and who had been exploited for over 5 years.

In the wake of these charges, even the President has called for tighter measures, and the police implemented a wide search operation in the region for two weeks, mainly targeting salt farms, seaweed farms and livestock pens. During the operation, they found 102 missing people or runaways, 27 people without family or relatives, 88 wanted criminals, and 7 illegal aliens. The total overdue wages for the 107 of them amount to ₩1.22 billion. 49 of them are disabled. 92 out of the 107 owed past wages worked at salt farms. 24 of them are disabled.

So how many “salt farm slaves” were found in this operation? It’s hard to give an exact figure, but going by the number of victims with overdue wages, 107 people were exploited for their labor. The police explained that there were only a few cases where a missing person was forcibly trafficked to places like salt farms, exploited for labor and even locked up. Then, was the “salt farm slave” incident from last February a very rare case?

The “young male slave” in June 2006 broadcast was also found on an island in Sinan County, South Jeolla Province. The Sinan County Office issued a statement about the incident on their Facebook page. Parts of the statement are shown below.

Sinan County has 72 inhabited islands and 932 uninhabited islands. Its area is 22 times the size of Seoul city. This large county still has no police station. There are only 15 police substations and 21 security centers. There are only 95 police officers in this entire county.

People have paid no attention to these culturally and socially alienated islands so far, but now because of the news, some netizens are blaming everything on Sinan County’s administrative staff. It’s regrettable.

It’s true. However, in 2006, the public became aware of the slave-like conditions of some workers. The issue has been going on for decades. When it gets news coverage, there is a surge of attention which eventually fades. The office’s statement is somewhat irresponsible. It is not completely their fault but it is wrong that they have not shown a willingness to put an end to the old problem.

Of course, it is a very complex issue to resolve, and is tied to the alienated environment of salt farms, low wages for menial labor, the slump in the salt industry, welfare for the disabled, illegal employment agencies, etc.

The police gave a two week advance notice before implementing a search targeting 998 salt farms in Sinan, Yeonggwang, Muan, Haenam, Boseong, Wando, etc. It’s hard to tell how many more “salt farm slaves” may exist. One farm owner was arrested on charges of confinement, assault and overdue wages. 18 owners are in custody for further investigation. Some of them are likely to be arrested. A dozen more owners are also being investigated, many of whom are likely to be arrested. This is far from enough. We expect follow-up measures.

Comments from Naver:

Jeolla-do. [Jeolla Province]

ohmy****: [Responding to above]

Ilbe bugs are having a party… They are only interested in fanning regionalism against Jeolla-do rather than resolving the issue of labor exploitation itself. [Ilbe has been known for strong anti-Jeolla sentiment. Ilbe netizens have reacted very strongly to this issue, leading to an outpour of posts. The link to this Naver article was also posted in Ilbe, which encouraged “firepower support” that can often determine the dominant voice in the comment section.]


The Democratic Party’s Sinan county councilor abused a salt farm slave. Many people seem to think it was a rumor just because the news wasn’t in the headlines. Yes, it may be hard to believe but it is true. So if the Democratic Party brings in Ahn Cheol-su and changes its name, does it suddenly become a brand new party?
Article: Sinan county councilor arrested for exploiting a “salt farm slave”….The county office is busy making excuses


We need large-scale investigations.


The Democratic Party is basically a communist party! Their municipal councilor committed a shocking crime at his own salt farm. They try to cover it up when they should kneel down with their head on the ground and apologize! The Democratic Party’s slogan for human rights is just lip service for elections! They elevate the North Korean regime to a legitimate nation but they talk down our own Republic of Korea. They are the true communist party!


Where are those human rights groups? Are they silent about this because the region is home to the Democratic Party? They should stop going on about fake democracy and human rights then. The Democratic Party’s municipal councilor was involved in exploiting slave labor. He should be specially prosecuted.


Maybe salt is salty because of the slaves’ tears….


The fact that the villagers were condoning it makes it more ridiculous. Investigate properly and punish them harshly.


Jeolla people are really ruthless. How can they do this with a human mask… There was a reason why they opposed it when my relative was marrying a man from Jeolla-do.


When I was little, I watched the program “Emergency SOS”. The slavery incidents were all from the southern coasts. Can you still call yourself a human when you exploit mentally disabled people?


Sinan county is spending ₩3.2 trillion to build bridges. Transfer some of that budget into eradicating island slavery! Set your priorities straight.


A Democratic Party councilor assaulted an island slave.


There are also slaves on shrimp boats from Sinan.


Now that the problems are all out in the open, they just complain that there are too many islands and the area is too large? It was already reported in 2006. Several years have passed since then. It is regrettable that Sinan county is getting flack? Sure, how regrettable! Why can’t they just say they are sorry? Just a few months ago, someone wrote an article that jealous people were trying to defame Sinan’s salt industry. What is that person doing now?


They always yap about the legitimate government while lecturing about democracy and equality. But they were the ones running a feudal slave system. Their own democracy only for themselves.


The Democratic Party’s political roots come from the salt farm slavery.


It seems Jeolla people care more about their personal interests than fixing their faults. When the news came out, the union leader was quick to ask people not to generalize. On the Sinan county office Facebook, they say it is because they lack police stations and it is unpleasant that they get so much blame, ke ke. This is not even a trivial issue, but they do not acknowledge how big of a deal this is and fail to examine their responsibility in this mess.


So there is no single village head, town hall or humane person on those islands? There are only salt farm owners? Why do they make so many excuses…. ㅜㅜ


“They have paid no attention to these culturally and socially alienated islands so far, but now because of the news, some netizens are blaming everything on Sinan County’s administrative staff. It’s regrettable.”

This tells you about the level of their awareness, ke. For them, everything is a conspiracy against Jeolla-do. Sinan’s governor’s parents run a salt farm and the arrested Sinan councilor belongs to the Democratic Party. But the freaking Democratic Party remains silent on this. Yet, they are the ones who market “new politics”, “democracy” and “human rights” the most. Their own democracy.


Such ridiculous incidents should never happen again…


Why are people like Kim Je-dong, Lee Hyori and Yoon Do-hyun silent about this shocking slavery? [Referring to the celebrities who make social comments regarded as leftist by conservative netizens.]

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