Slavery thrives on rural islands off South Korea’s rugged southwest coast, nurtured by a long history of exploitation and the demands of trying to squeeze a living from the sea.
Two-thirds of South Korea’s sea salt is produced at 850 salt farms on dozens of islands in Sinan County, including Sinui island, where half the 2,200 residents work in the industry.
Five times during the last decade, revelations of slavery involving the disabled have emerged. Kim’s case prompted a government probe of thousands of farms and disabled facilities that found more than 100 workers who’d received no, or scant, pay.
Yet little has changed, according to a months-long investigation by the Associated Press based on court and police documents and interviews with freed slaves, farmers, and villagers.
Although 50 island farm owners and regional job brokers were indicted, no local police or officials will face punishment.
Soon after the national investigation, activists and police found another 63 unpaid or underpaid workers on the islands, three-quarters of whom were mentally disabled.
The number of people enslaved is difficult to determine because of the transient work, the remoteness of the farms, and the closeness – and often hostility – of the island communities.
Social workers believe many slaves have yet to be found, and that investigations have so far been inadequate. “If the recent investigation was done properly, then pretty much everyone on the island should’ve been taken to the police station and charged,” said Kim Kang-won, an activist who participated in the recent investigation on Sinui.
“The whole village knew about it.” Provincial police have vowed to inspect farms and interview workers regularly, but people familiar with the island confirm that slavery is rampant.