Seoul (AsiaNews) - He ran the first chance he got. The sun beat down on the shallow, sea-fed fields where Kim Seong-baek was forced to work without pay, day after 18-hour day mining the big salt crystals that blossomed in the mud around him. Half-blind and in rags, Kim grabbed another slave, and the two disabled men headed for the coast. Far from the glittering steel-and-glass capital of Seoul, they were now hunted men on this remote island where the enslavement of disabled salt farm workers is an open secret.
"It was a living hell," Kim said in a recent series of interviews with The Associated Press whose details are corroborated by court records and by lawyers, police and government officials. Lost, they wandered past asphalt-black salt fields sparkling with a patina of thin white crust. They could feel the islanders inspecting them. Everyone knew who belonged and who didn't. Near a grocery, the store owner's son rounded them up and called their boss, who beat Kim with a rake and sent him back to the salt fields.
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 more than 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. The work is simple but grueling. And the "scandal" caused by the complaints has always ended in a stalemate. Although 50 island farm owners and regional job brokers were indicted, national police say no local police or officials will face punishment. It is the general impression that no one will ever be punished seriously.
Kim's former boss, Hong Jeong-gi, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment through his lawyer. He's set to appeal a 3 year prison sentence and according to his lawyer he will succeed in having his sentence halved. The man was found guilty of trafficking in human beings; enslavement; non-payment of wages; mutilation; beatings.
investigation, and especially the eyewitness accounts of some
freed workers, show that behind
the production of salt there is a thriving slave market. The night of July 4, 2012, Kim, who'd been homeless for a decade, was
sleeping in a Seoul train station when a stranger offered him a place to stay
and a job in the morning.
Hours later, he stood on a Sinui island salt farm. Hong had paid an illegal job agent the equivalent of about 0 for his new worker, according to court records. The beatings began the first day on the farm for Kim, who's visually disabled and described in court documents as having the social awareness of a 12-year-old. This is why he could not escape.
After several months - of beatings and continuing
violence - he has simple but brilliant idea: write to his mother, as he did during
his life of homelessness. The woman is old but still self-sufficient, and lives in Seoul.
Kim manages to mail the letter during an hour of permit where, together with
the other slaves, he is brought by the owner in the town. He was given the
stamp by another worker, "sold on" to a new factory.
The mother receives the letter and shows it to an old friend, Seo Je-gong, then captain of the district police. Because Kim's letter noted collaboration between local police and salt farm owners, Seo and another Seoul officer went to the island posing as tourists who'd come to fish and buy salt. The blitz on the salt mine is a success and, by the time the local police realize what's going on, it's too late. Today Kim has returned to live with his mother and has received compensation that will allow him to live a dignified life. But at night he has nightmares and must take medication. He also gets flustered when he talks about salt, disgusted when he sees it. "Just thinking about it makes me grind my teeth."