Slavery and Disability in Korea

Welcome back (to me! You probably didn’t go anywhere). For the forseeable future, my blog posts will generally be of the shorter variety. I’m trying to get a few tens of thousands of words into my book manuscript. As soon as I have news (like, say, a publisher sale), I will tell you much more about it. The short version is – disability and police violence.

 Here’s a story that’s been upsetting a lot of people, including me.

 The AP reports on slaves in salt farms in S. Korea, many of whom are disabled.

Slavery thrives on this chain of 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.
Five times during the last decade, revelations of slavery involving the disabled have emerged, each time generating national shame and outrage. Kim’s case prompted a nationwide government probe over the course of several months last year. Officials searched more than 38,000 salt, fish and agricultural farms and disabled facilities and found more than 100 workers who had received no — or only scant — pay, and more than 100 who had been reported missing by their families.
Yet little has changed on the islands, according to a months-long investigation by the AP based on court and police documents and dozens of interviews with freed slaves, salt farmers, villagers and officials.

Here’s a telling paragraph [my emphasis]:

Soon after the national government’s investigation, activists and police found another 63 unpaid or underpaid workers on the islands, three-quarters of whom were mentally disabled.
Yet some refused to leave the salt farms because they had nowhere else to go. Several freed disabled slaves told the AP they will return because they believe that even the salt farms are better than life on the streets or in crowded shelters. In some cases, relatives refused to take the disabled back or sent salt farmers letters confirming that they didn’t need to pay the workers.

Two points:

1. If you participate in the global economy, you participate in slavery. All of us. Without exception. Some more, some less. But you participate and perpetuate slavery. The disability angle makes it more acute for me, but let’s remember the boys in the bunkhouse in Iowa. Too much of the coverage of this has been “how horrific!” without thinking about the ways in which we are all implicated.

2. While the conditions of the slavery in S. Korea is horrific, the section I highlighted points to a bigger problem about the position of and options for people with disabilities in Korean society. That’s not a subject I know a lot about, and I don’t want to pretend that somehow we’re perfect and they are barbaric. However, my reading and conversations with Koreans and people more familiar with Korean society and disability suggests that there are significant taboos against disability in mainstream Korean culture.

Here’s an essay by a Korean with cerebral palsy on being invisible.
Here’s a piece on the ways in which the Korean government “grades” disability and assigns benefits.

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