Freed South Korean salt farm slaves struggle to move on
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — One freed South Korean salt-farm slave appeared in court Wednesday to confront his former boss. Another, sick of life in a homeless shelter, has been considering his one-time owner’s request that he come back.
They are among dozens of disabled men liberated in the past year from salt farms on remote islands in southwestern South Korea where a months-long investigation by The Associated Press found that slavery still thrives. The men, in many cases, have mixed feelings about their freedom. Several say they would rather return to the farms, however brutal, than live in grim homeless shelters.
Here are a few of their stories:
Kim Seong-baek’s dramatic escape from slavery prompted outrage last year, but despite a massive government investigation and short-lived public anger, officials haven’t kept their promises to build a center for freed slaves and help them get jobs.
Kim, who was rescued after Seoul police staged an undercover mission on Sinui Island, testified Wednesday as his former boss and a job agent appeared in a Seoul court to appeal their prison sentences. Kim spoke about being lured to a salt farm from a Seoul train station in 2012, staring at one point at his boss and the agent.
Kim, who occasionally works construction in Seoul, has no desire to go back; he says even looking at salt disgusts him. He still struggles with nightmares, with constant pain from the beatings he endured as a slave and with feelings of unchecked rage at his former boss.
FREE BUT ‘TRAPPED’
Life as a salt-farm slave was so bad for Kim Jong-seok that he sometimes fantasized about killing the owner who beat him daily. Freedom, he says, has been worse.
In the year since police emancipated the severely mentally disabled man from the remote island farm where he had worked for eight years, Kim has lived in a homeless shelter, where he has been preyed upon and robbed by other residents. He has no friends, no job training prospects or counseling, and feels confined and deeply bored.
“I want to go back,” Kim, 41, said during a recent interview in the shelter near Mokpo, the southwestern mainland port that is the gateway to dozens of salt islands.
“I feel trapped here,” he said.
Kim says he’s considering an offer by his ex-owner, who is being investigated for abuse but hasn’t been arrested. The farmer recently visited the shelter and asked if Kim would work for him again for about $90 a month.
20 YEARS A SLAVE
Han Sang-deok was freed by police last year after 20 years working without pay on a Sinui island salt farm.
“I just worked. I was there on my own. I went to work, I slept. Like that,” the 64-year-old mentally disabled man said in an interview at a cafe in Mokpo.
Han moved back in with his family, who had gone years thinking he was dead. He pauses for a long time when asked about his future plans. He finally says, “I don’t know what I should do.”
ANGRY AND LOST
Lee Hyang-gyun was freed from slavery in 2006, but he still finds himself consumed by anger and resentment.
He was 15 when two men grabbed him at a train station in a port town in southern South Korea and sold him to a rice farmer on an island near Sinui. For the next 18 years he was slave, working 15 hours a day, beaten at times, and living in a hut with no heat.
“My mind and body were aching,” Lee, 41, said in an interview.
Lee expressed no desire to return to the farms, but he feels lost and neglected. He said no one will hire him because he is mentally disabled. He lives off a small government pension.
STEPPING TOWARD NEW LIFE
Heo Tae-yeong may be one of the lucky ones. He has a guardian who orchestrated his move from a Mokpo area homeless shelter to a residential facility for the mentally disabled in Gwangju.
Heo, who cannot read or count, worries that he will struggle in a new environment, but is excited about the idea of learning job skills in Gwangju. He hopes to one day work in a factory.
When asked what he’ll do with the money he earns, Heo takes a long drag off his cigarette.
He doesn’t know. “I’ve never had any money.”
Foster Klug is AP’s Seoul chief of bureau. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/apklug