South Korea's Abysmal Record of Disability Rights Despite Economic Prosperity

 Salt works on the west coast, Jeollabuk-do Province, Korea, Photo by Bruce Stainsby

Salt works on the west coast, Jeollabuk-do Province, Korea, Photo by Bruce Stainsby

SINAN COUNTY, South Korea – Though South Korea’s record of human rights abuse is not as heinous as its neighbor North Korea, it still grapples with abuse of the weakest members of its society. Prior to the latest exposé, there have been several studies and reports on the targeting of poor women and runaways who are approached by brokers with offers of domestic work, only to find themselves forced to work in the commercial sex trade.

Recently, it was reported by a number of news outlets that salt farmers have been using disabled men to perform the arduous work in the salt farming industry. These men are treated inhumanly and most are physically abused by their ‘employers.’ These men work to produce an estimated "two-thirds of South Korea’s sea salt on 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. (Source: National Post)

According to The U.S. National Library of Medicine, the “latest National Survey on Persons with Disabilities estimated 2,683,400 persons with disabilities in South Korea, of whom 58% were men and 42% were women. People with physical disability represent approximately 50% of the entire population with disability. Disability-related policies and services to improve the participation of persons with disabilities have been expanded in the last decades, guided by 5-yr plans.” (Source: Pubmed.gov)

In 2009, the Asia Pacific Forum (APF) published a report that stated that The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (‘NHRCK’) issued a number of “key decisions on protecting the rights of people with disabilities.” (Source: APF) Yet, 5-years later the issue of wage inequality and equal protection under the law is still problematic. Until the 2014 expose by the Associated Press (AP) the issue of enslavement of the disabled on salt farms, which had previously been reported on, had slipped quietly from the public’s eye.

Though South Koreans and the rest of the world were outraged by these abuses, like many atrocities that don’t directly affect us, these concerns became “those peoples’ problems,” and we assuaged our conscience with the belief that some organization has now intervened to correct the problem. However, as with many human rights abuses in the Asian manufacturing sector, we as beneficiaries turn a blind eye because of the affordability of the items that are produced. Many of us cannot afford to boycott low cost items sold by Walmart and other megastores because it has a direct impact on our budgets. But, these savings come at the cost of enslavement or barely subsistence level wages paid to the people who spend long, back-breaking days producing the products we use.

With a population of 50.22 million, of which 632,000 are international residents, and the ubiquity with which salt is used in cooking and other processes, a great number of people are benefiting from the enslavement of disabled South Koreans who unfortunately find themselves caught up in this industry. AP and other news outlets published extensive interviews with people who were beaten, tortured, starved, and otherwise abused but knew there were no viable alternatives available to them.

Those who were brave enough to report the abuse by the salt farmers routinely discovered that their complaints were not taken seriously, and in fact, the legal system (police and courts) routinely disregarded or dismissed these allegations. When a plaintiff was successful in getting their case to court, most salt farmers were given a small fine which they quickly paid. This tacit approval of these human rights abuses only serves to reinforce the farmer’s heinous behavior, while demonstrating to the ‘salt farm slaves’ that their plight will go unchanged.

Thus, many of the enslaved disabled eventually returned to the salt farms and greater abuse because they were unable to support themselves otherwise. Salt farm owners refuted the claims of abuse and slavery with the assertion that able bodied people don’t want these jobs and if they didn’t provide employment to people with disabilities then these individuals would become a burden on society and would likely die from starvation. This argument is specious and self-serving, our outrage then complacency is deplorable, but the real culprit is the South Korean government.

Many reported on this story at the beginning of this month, and just as many have claimed that the government has investigated and brought the slavers to justice. The arrest of a few or the scapegoating of more does not address a systemic problem of the abuse of the disabled. South Korea must face the fact that it benefits from its position as a rising global economy and the political echelon would do well to remember that “...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped." ~ Hubert H. Humphrey

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