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|• 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.
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". 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.
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", while some scholars describe them as serfs. Furthermore, the Korean word for an actual slave, in the European and American meaning, is noye, not nobi. Some nobi owned their own nobi.
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. Out-resident nobi resided at a distance and were little different than tenant farmers or commoners. They were registered officially as independent family units and possessed their own houses, families, land, and fortunes. Out-resident nobi were far more numerous than household nobi. 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. 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.
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. 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."
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.
The nobi system declined beginning in the 18th century. 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. King Yeongjo implemented a policy of gradual emancipation in 1775, 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. In addition, population growth, numerous escaped slaves, 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. The hereditary nobi system was officially abolished around 1886–87, and the rest of the nobi system was abolished with the Gabo Reform of 1894. 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. These included women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II, known as "comfort women".
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. North Korea is the only country in the world that has not explicitly criminalized any form of modern slavery. A United Nations report listed slavery among the crimes against humanity occurring in North Korea.
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.
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.