South Korea: Salt farms accused of human trafficking, again

Human rights abuse.

Park Young-geun, a 53-year-old man who lives in Sinan County, South Jeolla Province, appeared at the Seodaemun Police Station in Seoul on October 28. Park, and alleged that he was forced to work at a salt farm without payment and was confined in his room against his will for the past seven years.  Park, who has borderline mental disorder, asked for help from the police, seeking justice.

Park’s boss, whose name is not revealed to the public, denied the accusation. However, Park’s revelation dominated the headlines of media outlets. Reports about Park’s situation cited previous cases of Sinan salt farms abusing their workers and reporters questioned why the county is embroiled in similar controversy once again.  The government promised to get to the bottom of Park’s case and to find and rescue others in similar circumstances. 

“Island of Angel”

Sinan, where two-thirds of salt in the country is produced, is often called “The Island of Angel” because the county includes 1,004 islands and the pronunciation of number 1,004 sounds the same as the word “angel (천사)” in Korean.  However, there are serious issues of human rights abuse in this “heavenly abode”.

In February 2014, a salt farm in Sinan was accused of kidnapping disabled, homeless men through an employment agency and forcing them to work about 14 hours per day without appropriate compensation. The owner of this salt farm also beat two men, surnamed Kim and Chae, if they failed to work hard enough.

To add salt to the injury, residents, including local police officers, ignored the farm’s illicit treatment of workers. Once, Kim and Chae tried to escape but they were soon caught by a local grocery store’s son and sent back to the farm. The inhumane level of mistreatment and violence increased since their attempted escape.

The two men were finally rescued, thanks to Kim’s mother, who received a letter from her son and reported the matter to the police station in Guro, Seoul, instead of Sinan. After a thorough investigation, the police found 63 unpaid victims, more than 70 percent of them were mentally disabled, working at salt farms in Sinan.

In August 2014, the salt farm’s owner who abused Kim and Chae was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. 

In plain sight

None of Sinan’s police officers were punished despite many residents’ testimonies saying that they were aware of human trafficking and forced labor at salt farms, or at least, should have been aware, given the steady stream of cases brought to the attention of the police throughout the years.

After the Kim and Chae case surfaced, three victims of forced labor in Sinan filed a suit against the government, claiming that local authorities closed their eyes to forced labor and human rights abuses. 

During their trial in 2016, a local policeman said that it is not “possible to intervene or investigate” the operation of salt farms when there is “no special occasion or contextual understanding on reports of crime”. He added that there is a limit on “knowing everything and taking preemptive measures” to protect alleged victims.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the victims and ordered the government to compensate for their loss. Kim Nam-hyun, then-Commissioner of the Jeolla Province Police Agency, made a public apology to the victims.

History repeating itself

Human rights activists doubted if the local police’s monitoring and prevention of human trafficking has improved since 2014. As of today, there are only about 90 police officers, hardly comprehensive enough to implement law enforcement to the thousand islands in Sinan.

The Jeolla Province Police Agency did not respond to Maritime Fairtrade’s requests for comments on human trafficking in salt farms and what kind of law enforcement are in place to prevent similar cases from happening again.

Regarding the latest allegation of forced labor at a Sinan salt farm, a Sinan County Office’s official said that they conducted investigations on illicit wage exploitation and infringement upon human rights at salt farms in July but could not find anything “problematic”. 

On October 28, human rights activists demanded that Park’s case be investigated by the National Police Agency rather than the Jeolla Province Police Agency. However, the National Police Agency turned down their request by saying that “officers who are well-aware of the local situations should be in charge for a better investigation”.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor, Jeolla Province Police Agency, and National Advocacy Agency for Persons with Disabilities have formed a joint task force to investigate the working conditions of 912 salt farms in Jeolla Province.  All cases of illegal activities will be reviewed and referred to prosecution by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, according to a statement issued on November 4 by the Sinan National Assembly.

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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