Known as the Angel Islands, the 1,025 islands located off the southwestern tip of South Korea in Sinan County are something of a tourist destination due to the sparking waters and picturesque countryside. One of 72 inhabited islands even went viral for its “borahaefication” when the island turned purple to encourage tourism.
Though the county was named one of the “Best Tourism Villages” in 2021 by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a darker side exists in the modern-day slavery found on the many salt farms that make up a large bulk of the economy of the region.
Korean sea salt is produced in a very particular fashion that is said to come from the indigenous knowledge of the locals. It consists of five parts, a reservoir from which the water comes, an evaporating pond, a crystallizing pond, a haeju or brine tank, and a storage warehouse. While large farms in other places only harvest once or twice a year, these farms work year-round.
As one can imagine, there is a great deal of physical labor involved in the production and as a result, some farmers in the Sinan county of South Korea turned to human trafficking to support their farms. This human rights issue was brought to light in 2014 when two men were able to escape from one of these farms and shared the terrible conditions they were made to work under.
Kim Seong Baek told reporters that a stranger approached him in Seoul at a train station where he was trying to sleep in 2012. Kim was homeless and was offered somewhere to stay along with food and a good job. Instead, Kim found himself at a salt farm owned by a man identified as Hong who had allegedly paid the stranger around $900 USD.
Kim did not take to his new “employment” well and was repeatedly punished by the farm owner, who would punch and beat him with a wooden plank.
Each time I tried to ask him something, his punch came first. He told me to use my mouth only for eating and smoking. He said I shouldn’t question things and should be thankful because he fed me and gave me lodging and work.
— Kim Seong Baek in an interview with The Alternative Press (also known as AP).
Another “employee” Chae Min Sik was subjected to work under conditions just as bad. Both men were described in court documents as disabled, with Chae struggling “even with basic words,” while Kim is visually impaired as well. Many of the people enslaved at these farms suffer from some sort of disability, leaving them at a greater risk.
Kim’s first attempt took place not long after he arrived. He and Chae escaped from the fields and began walking to try to find a way out. As they walked past a grocery store, the owner’s son allegedly spotted them and asked what they were doing. They shared that they were being held as slaves and the man originally offered to take them to the police for help. Instead, he called the farm’s owner who reportedly beat the two of them and sent them back to work.
The next two escapes went similarly: Hong was an influential man and there were villagers that even volunteered to scout for runaway slaves. Kim was so defeated by his capture and fearful of the death threats he received that he did not attempt another escape for nearly a year. Kim’s last-ditch effort at escape happened when he was able to sneak to the post office and send off a letter to his mother that detailed his mistreatment along with directions to the farm.
His mother took the letter to Seoul police who then hatched a plan to free the slaves. After traveling to the village, and waiting for Hong to leave, the Seoul police told the farmer’s wife they were there to rescue Kim. When they arrived, they found Kim and other slaves sitting on a dirty mattress in the back of a storage building that had no heat or water.
Kim was reunited with his mother in Seoul while Chae was matched to a missing person report from 2008 and was sent to live in assisted housing. Hong, the grocery store owner’s son, and the illegal job recruiters were all taken to court and sentenced, with Hong and the job recruiters earning prison time.
While Kim’s story had a happy ending, there are more than likely hundreds of enslaved workers still working the more than 800 salt farms in the region.
The police chief would tell me that I’d eventually come to understand that this was how things on the island worked. For decades they’d exploited workers in this way, so they couldn’t understand that this was abuse.
— A doctor who worked on the island where Kim was trafficked.
Of the 60+ people rescued from farms, a large number of them have considered returning as they have very few work prospects after being enslaved for upwards of 20 years. Conditions in smaller villages, slums, and shanty towns around the country have created many situations like this that are hard to resolve in the long run, though legislation has been introduced to prevent modern-day slavery.