Slavery in Korea

Joseon Caste System
Class Hangul Hanja Meaning
Yangban 양반 兩班 aristocrats
Jung-in 중인 中人 middle people
Sangmin 상민 常民 commoners
Cheonmin 천민 賤民 vulgar commoners
 • Baekjeong 백정 白丁 untouchables
 • Nobi 노비 奴婢 slaves or serfs

Slavery in Korea existed since antiquity. The practice of slavery in South Korea is illegal, though forms of modern slavery such as human trafficking still exist. In North Korea, slavery is still practiced by the country's regime.[1][2][3]


Slavery in Korea existed since before the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, approximately 2,000 years ago.[4]

Slavery has been described as "very important in medieval Korea, probably more important than in any other East Asian country, but by the 16th century, population growth was making [it] unnecessary".[5] Slavery went into decline around the 10th century, but came back in the late Goryeo period when Korea also experienced a number of slave rebellions.[4]

In the Joseon period, members of the slave class were known as nobi. The nobi were socially indistinct from freemen (i.e., the middle and common classes) other than the ruling yangban class, and some possessed property rights, legal entities and civil rights. Hence, some scholars argue that it's inappropriate to call them "slaves",[6] while some scholars describe them as serfs.[7][8] Furthermore, the Korean word for an actual slave, in the European and American meaning, is noye, not nobi.[8] Some nobi owned their own nobi.[9]

Household nobi served as personal retainers and domestic servants, and most received a monthly salary that could be supplemented by earnings gained outside regular working hours.[10][11] Out-resident nobi resided at a distance and were little different than tenant farmers or commoners.[10] They were registered officially as independent family units and possessed their own houses, families, land, and fortunes.[11] Out-resident nobi were far more numerous than household nobi.[12] In the chakkae system, nobi were assigned two pieces of agricultural land, with the resulting produce from the first land paid to the master, and the produce from the second land kept by the nobi to consume or sell. In order to gain freedom, nobi could purchase it, earn it through military service, or receive it as a favor from the government.[10] The nobi population could fluctuate up to about one-third of the population, but on average the nobi made up about 10% of the total population.[4]

The hierarchical relationship between yangban master and nobi was believed to be equivalent to the Confucian hierarchical relationship between ruler and subject, or father and son.[13] Nobi were considered an extension of the master's own body, and an ideology based on patronage and mutual obligation developed. The Annals of King Taejong stated: "The nobi is also a human being like us; therefore, it is reasonable to treat him generously" and "In our country, we love our nobis like a part of our body."[14]

In 1426, Sejong the Great enacted a law that granted government nobi women 100 days of maternity leave after childbirth, which, in 1430, was lengthened by one month before childbirth. In 1434, Sejong also granted the husbands 30 days of paternity leave.[15]

The nobi system declined beginning in the 18th century.[16] Since the outset of the Joseon dynasty and especially beginning in the 17th century, there was harsh criticism among prominent thinkers in Korea about the nobi system. Even within the Joseon government, there were indications of a shift in attitude toward the nobi.[17] King Yeongjo implemented a policy of gradual emancipation in 1775,[5] and he and his successor King Jeongjo made many proposals and developments that lessened the burden on nobi, which led to the emancipation of the vast majority of government nobi in 1801.[17] In addition, population growth,[5] numerous escaped slaves,[4] growing commercialization of agriculture, and the rise of the independent small farmer class contributed to the decline in the number of nobi to about 1.5% of the total population by 1858.[9] The hereditary nobi system was officially abolished around 1886–87,[4][9] and the rest of the nobi system was abolished with the Gabo Reform of 1894.[4][18] However, slavery did not completely disappear in Korea until 1930, during Imperial Japanese rule.

During the Imperial Japanese occupation of Korea around World War II, some Koreans were used in forced labor by the Imperial Japanese, in conditions which have been compared to slavery.[4][19] These included women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II, known as "comfort women".[4][19]

Modern slavery[edit]

South Korea[edit]

In media reports from 2015, the abuse and exploitation of people with disabilities on rural island salt farms in Sinan County has been described as slavery.[20][21]

In terms of people in modern slavery in absolute numbers South Korea ranked 128th in the 2014 Global Slavery Index, with some 93,700 people estimated to be enslaved.[1]

North Korea[edit]

With 1,100,000 people in modern slavery (via forced labor), North Korea is ranked world number one in terms of the percentage of population in modern slavery, 4.373 percent, in The Walk Free Foundation's 2016 Global Slavery Index.[22] North Korea is the only country in the world that has not explicitly criminalized any form of modern slavery.[23] A United Nations report listed slavery among the crimes against humanity occurring in North Korea.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Korea ranks 49th in Global Slavery Index". Korea Herald. 2014-11-20.
  2. ^ a b "UN uncovers torture, rape and slavery in North Korea". The Times. 15 February 2014.
  3. ^ "North Korea". 29 January 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Junius P. Rodriguez (1 January 1997). The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. ABC-CLIO. pp. 392–393. ISBN 978-0-87436-885-7.
  5. ^ a b c Martin A. Klein (4 September 2014). Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-8108-7528-9.
  6. ^ Rhee, Young-hoon; Yang, Donghyu. "Korean Nobi in American Mirror: Yi Dynasty Coerced Labor in Comparison to the Slavery in the Antebellum Southern United States". Working Paper Series. Institute of Economic Research, Seoul National University.
  7. ^ Bok Rae Kim (23 November 2004). "Nobi: A Korean System of Slavery". In Gwyn Campbell (ed.). Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. pp. 153–157. ISBN 978-1-135-75917-9.
  8. ^ a b Palais, James B. Views on Korean social history. Institute for Modern Korean Studies, Yonsei University. p. 50. ISBN 9788971414415. Retrieved 15 February 2017. Another target of his critique is the insistence that slaves (nobi) in Korea, especially in Choson dynasty, were closer to serfs (nongno) than true slaves (noye) in Europe and America, enjoying more freedom and independence than what a slave would normally be allowed.
  9. ^ a b c Bok Rae Kim (23 November 2004). "Nobi: A Korean System of Slavery". In Gwyn Campbell (ed.). Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. pp. 162–163. ISBN 978-1-135-75917-9.
  10. ^ a b c Seth, Michael J. A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 168. ISBN 9780742567177. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  11. ^ a b Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 155. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  12. ^ Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 154. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017. The serfdom thesis is based largely on the work of the North Korean scholar, Kim Sok-hyong, who divided nobis into 'resident' and 'non-resident' groups. The former lived under the same roof as their masters, for whom they performed domestic and the greater part of agricultural labour. The latter dwelt far from their masters' houses, cultivating land for which they paid rent to their masters, and possessed their own personal property. In reality, their situation was similar to that of tenant farmers. Kim therefore considered 'resident' nobis to be slaves, and 'non-resident' nobis to be serfs. As the latter group were far more numerous, he concluded that serfdom characterized Chosun society.
  13. ^ Kim, Youngmin; Pettid, Michael J. Women and Confucianism in Choson Korea: New Perspectives. SUNY Press. p. 140. ISBN 9781438437774. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  14. ^ Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 156. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  15. ^ Yi, Pae-yong (2008). Women in Korean History 한국 역사 속의 여성들. Ewha Womans University Press. p. 267. ISBN 9788973007721. Retrieved 18 August 2018.
  16. ^ Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 157. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  17. ^ a b Kim, Youngmin; Pettid, Michael J. Women and Confucianism in Choson Korea: New Perspectives. SUNY Press. pp. 140–141. ISBN 9781438437774. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  18. ^ Korean History: Discovery of Its Characteristics and Developments. Hollym. 1 January 2004. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-56591-177-2.
  19. ^ a b Helen Tierney (1 January 1999). Women's Studies Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-313-31071-3.
  20. ^ "Former South Korean Salt Slave Describes 'Living Hell' He Endured Before His Escape". Business Insider. 2 January 2015.
  21. ^ ""A living hell" for slaves on remote South Korean island salt farms". 2 January 2015.
  22. ^ "North Korea". The Global Slavery Index. Walk Free Foundation. 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  23. ^ "Asia-Pacific". Global Slavery Index 2016. The Minderoo Foundation. 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-12.

Further reading[edit]

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