The Korean nobi system, which is commonly associated with slavery and social hierarchy in premodern Korea, existed in various forms and degrees from its origins in antiquity, over 2,000 years ago, to its gradual abolition in the late Joseon period, beginning in the 18th century and culminating in 1894. The nature of the nobi system is widely debated, with scholars agreeing that it constituted slavery until at least the Goryeo period but disagreeing whether it constituted slavery, serfdom, or both during the Joseon period.[1] The Joseon dynasty was a stratified society dominated by the yangban, in which wealth was measured by ownership of land and nobi.[2] During this period, the nobi of the majority "non-resident" group owned land,[3] and some even owned nobi.[4]

Slavery was not widespread during the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods.[5] Slaves comprised no more than 10 percent of the population before the Joseon period.[6] The nobi system was a major institution during the Joseon period and an important part of the economy. The nobi system peaked between the 15th and 17th centuries and then declined in the 18th and 19th centuries.[7] The nobi comprised at least 30 percent of the population between the 15th and 17th centuries.[8] They were much more numerous in the southern half of the country, where their population possibly reached 40 percent, and much less numerous in the northern half of the country, where their status was not hereditary.[9] The nobi population was substantial in the capital, Seoul, where 1729 out of 2374, or 73 percent, were registered as nobi in a hojeok from 1663.[10][11] The term meoseum, or "hired servant", was used instead of the term nobi in the northern half of the country.[12] The Joseon dynasty undermined the nobi system in 1731, 1744, 1783, and 1801.[13] The nobi population declined to 1.5% by 1858.[4] The nobi system was officially abolished in 1894 but vestiges of it remained until the mid-20th century.[14]

In modern South Korea, slavery, or more generally referred to as human trafficking, is illegal, although it is estimated that as of 2018 there are about 99,000 slaves (about 0.195% of the population) in existence, according to the Global Slavery Index.[15] In North Korea, slavery is still practiced by the country's regime.[16][17][18] According to the Global Slavery Index, an estimated 10.4% of the North Korean population is effectively enslaved as of 2018.[19]


The term nobi is often translated as "slave", "serf" or "servant" into English.[20] However, it is debated what translation is most appropriate due to historical facts and because existing English words are loaded with Western connotations that come with implications for comparative history.[21] It appears that most scholars prefer no translation at all and just use the term nobi.[21][22][23][improper synthesis?] According to Kichung Kim: "Among Korean scholars of the nobi there is yet no consensus as to the English word most equivalent to the Korean word nobi."[24]


Slavery in Korea existed since before the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, approximately 2,000 years ago.[25] The earliest record of slavery in Korea is the Eight Prohibitions of Old Joseon, recorded in the Records of the Three Kingdoms.[26] 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".[27] According to Korean Studies scholar Mark A. Peterson of Brigham Young University, Korea has the longest unbroken chain of slavery of any society in history (spanning about 1,500 years),[28][29] which he attributes to a long history of peaceful transitions and stable societies in Korea.[30] Peterson cites this as "[a] proof that Korean history has been remarkably peaceful and stable until the 20th century".[30]

Slavery fully developed during the Three Kingdoms of Korea period.[25] The institution of slavery likely weakened when Silla unified the Korean Peninsula.[25] Slaves were freed on a large scale in 956 by the Goryeo dynasty.[25] Gwangjong of Goryeo proclaimed the Slave and Land Act, an act that "deprived nobles of much of their manpower in the form of slaves and purged the old nobility, the meritorious subjects and their offspring and military lineages in great numbers".[31] Information about slavery in the middle Goryeo period is nonexistent.[25] Yi Ui-min was a slave who became the most powerful man in Korea.[32] Slavery intensified and many slave rebellions occurred at the end of the Goryeo dynasty.[25]

Early Joseon period

Joseon class system
Class Hangul Hanja Status
Yangban 양반 兩班 noble class
Jungin 중인 中人 intermediate class
Sangmin 상민 常民 common people
Cheonmin 천민 賤民 lowborn people (nobi, baekjeong, mudang, gisaeng, etc.)

Slaves were freed on a large scale at the beginning of the Joseon dynasty.[25] 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.[33] Hence, some scholars argue that it is inappropriate to call them "slaves",[33] while some scholars describe them as serfs.[1][34] The Korean word for a slave in the Western sense is noye, not nobi.[34] Some nobi owned their own nobi.[4] According to Bok Rae Kim: "In summary, on the economic, judicial and socio-cultural levels, it is evident that the nobis of the [Joseon] era were not 'socially dead' and that the nobi system at its zenith between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries may be defined as 'a serfdom developed under slavery'."[35]

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.[36][37] Out-resident nobi resided at a distance and were little different from tenant farmers or commoners.[36] They were registered officially as independent family units and possessed their own houses, families, land, and fortunes.[38] Out-resident nobi were far more numerous than household nobi.[37] 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.[36] 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.[25]

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.[39] 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."[40]

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.[41]

Japanese and Portuguese slave trade

See also: Slavery in Portugal § Asians, and Slavery in Japan § Portuguese slave trade in Japan

During the 1592–1598 Japanese invasions of Korea, Korean slaves were taken from Korea to Japan, with the first shipment being taken in October 1592.[42] The topic of Japan's role in Korean slavery is controversial, with scholars of both Japan and Korea accused of intentionally over or underestimating the number of slaves.[43] The number itself is thus uncertain, with figures ranging from tens of thousands to over 100,000.[44] 100,000 people was around 1% of the total population of Korea at the time.[45]

However, the taking of slaves was notably not done exclusively by Japan; Portuguese slave ships took slaves from Korea,[45] and Korean defectors and commoners also participated in the trade.[46] The Japanese city of Nagasaki became a hub for Korean slavery.[47] There became such an abundance of Korean slaves there that the prices of slaves dropped sharply.[42] The historian Lúcio De Sousa calculated that the average price of a Korean slave in 1897 was around 2.4 Florentine scudo or 2.4 Mexican pesos.[48] Around one to two thousand Korean slaves were sold to the Portuguese per year between 1592 and 1597.[49] However, their movements are poorly documented, possibly due to many of them being pressed into sexual slavery.[49]

Korea sent five diplomatic missions (Joseon Tongsinsa) to Japan, during which they asked to retrieve slaves. These missions happened in 1607, 1616, 1624, 1636, and 1643.[50] A number of slaves were returned or escaped on several occasions, with the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty recording the following figures:[51]

# Korean slaves who returned to Korea per year[51]
Year # repatriated slaves
1600 481
1601 251
1602 229
1603 199
1605 4390
1606 120
1607 1240
1608 6
1613 1
1617 346
1625 146
1630 9
1643 14

Some slaves were stranded in Japan, with the famous example of Korean samurai Wakita Naokata (Kim Yŏ-ch'ŏl).[52] Most worked as farmers, and some as craftsman, for Japanese masters.[53] Women were in high demand, and pressed into working in brothels.[54] In some rare cases, Korean slaves worked as interpreters, with an ethnic Korean interpretor of English named "Miguel" attested to in Hirado.[55] There are records of thousands of baptisms performed on them by the Portuguese,[56] with some going on to convert other Korean slaves. Some were made saints in the 17th-century (205 Martyrs of Japan).[57]

Some slaves were sent to other places, including to Portuguese Macau.[42] Correspondingly, there is a record of a slave Miguel Carvalho who was born to a Korean mother in Macau in 1593. He is possibly the first or among the first Macanese-Korean people.[42] A community of several thousand Korean slaves formed near the Church of Saint Paul.[58] Other slaves were sent to Manila in the Spanish Philippines,[59] at least one to Goa,[60] an António Corea was taken to Florence and Rome,[59] and likely one to Ambon Island, where he was killed in the 1623 Amboyna massacre.[61] Korean forced prostitutes were known to have been purchased and shipped abroad.[62] The Portuguese purchase of Korean slaves peaked in 1598, as their price was so cheap. They were forced into cramped ships, with many starving to death.[63]

The international trade of Korean slaves declined shortly after the end of the Japanese invasions due to a number of factors. The Nagasaki government protested slavery and the export of people from Japan in general, and the Catholic Church began excommunicating people who traded slaves in Japan. On January 26, 1607, King Philip II finally succeeded in compelling Goa to abide by restrictions on the slave trade. The international flow of slaves from Japan slowed to a near halt around this time, although slave labor continued to be used.[64]

Late Joseon period and decline

The nobi system declined in the 18th and 19th centuries.[65] 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.[66] King Yeongjo implemented a policy of gradual emancipation in 1775,[27] 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.[66] In addition, population growth,[27] numerous escaped slaves,[25] 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.[67] The hereditary nobi system was officially abolished around 1886 and 1887,[25][4] and the rest of the nobi system was abolished with the Gabo Reform of 1894.[25][68] However, the nobi system lingered in some parts of the country through the Japanese period from 1910 to 1945 until the Korean War in 1950.[69]

Modern slavery

During Japanese rule over Korea around World War II, some Koreans were used in forced labor by the Japanese, in conditions which have been compared to slavery.[25][70] These included women forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II, known as "comfort women".[25][70]

North Korea

See also: Human rights in North Korea and Kwalliso

With 1,100,000 people in modern slavery (via forced labor), North Korea is ranked highest in the world in terms of the percentage of population in modern slavery, with 10.4 percent enslaved according to the Walk Free Foundation's 2018 Global Slavery Index.[19][71] North Korea is the only country in the world that has not explicitly criminalized any form of modern slavery.[72] A United Nations report listed slavery among the crimes against humanity occurring in North Korea.[17] Revenues derived from North Korean slave labor also are diverted to fund and develop the country's nuclear weapons program.[73][better source needed]

South Korea

See also: Human trafficking in South Korea

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.[74][75]

In terms of people in modern slavery in absolute numbers South Korea ranked 137th in the 2018 Global Slavery Index, with some 99,000 people estimated to be enslaved.[76]

See also



  1. ^ a b Kim 2003, pp. 155–156.
  2. ^ Kim 2003, p. 155.
  3. ^ Kim 2003, pp. 156–157.
  4. ^ a b c d Kim 2003, p. 166.
  5. ^ Kye 2021, p. 295.
  6. ^ Kye 2021, pp. 296–297.
  7. ^ Kim 2003, pp. 159–160.
  8. ^ Kim, Sun Joo (2023), Pargas, Damian A.; Schiel, Juliane (eds.), "Slavery in Chosŏn Korea", The Palgrave Handbook of Global Slavery throughout History, Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 319–338, doi:10.1007/978-3-031-13260-5_18, ISBN 978-3-031-13260-5
  9. ^ Kye 2021, pp. 302–303.
  10. ^ 노주석 (21 December 2018). "노비로 지탱된 조선 봉건 양반제…퇴계도 367명 노비 문서 남겨". 서울& (in Korean). The Hankyoreh.
  11. ^ 조성관 (23 March 2018). "세종 재해석한 이영훈 전 서울대 교수". 주간조선 (in Korean). 조선뉴스프레스.
  12. ^ Kye 2021, p. 303.
  13. ^ Kim 2003, p. 165.
  14. ^ Kim 2004, p. 60.
  15. ^ "Global Slavery Index". Walk Free. Retrieved 2024-02-06.
  16. ^ "Korea ranks 49th in Global Slavery Index". The Korea Herald. 2014-11-20.
  17. ^ a b "UN uncovers torture, rape and slavery in North Korea". The Times. 15 February 2014.
  18. ^ Smith, Nicola (July 19, 2018). "North Korea has most modern-day slaves in the world, report reveals, as rights abuses laid bare". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2018-07-19.
  19. ^ a b "Maps | Global Slavery Index". Retrieved 10 November 2023.
  20. ^ "Korean slavery - The Korea Times". 2023-12-26. Archived from the original on 2023-12-26. Retrieved 2024-02-06.
  21. ^ a b Rhee & Yang 2010.
  22. ^ Kim, K. (2003). Unheard Voices: The Life of the Nobi in O Hwi-mun’s Swaemirok. Korean Studies, 27(1), 108–137. doi:10.1353/ks.2005.0009 
  23. ^ Seung B. Kye: Confucian Perspectives on Egalitarian Thought in Traditional Korea. International Journal of Korean History, Vol. 12, Aug. 2008.
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  28. ^ Peterson, Mark A.; Margulies, Phillip (2010). A Brief History of Korea. Infobase Publishing. p. 47. ISBN 9781438127385. Retrieved 22 August 2020. Despite the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and the Japanese in the 16th century, there was never sufficient social upheaval to unseat the slaveholding system. Rather, hereditary slaveholding through several dynasties became part of the longest unbroken chain of slavery of any country on Earth.
  29. ^ "하버드 한국학자가 말하는 한국은 평화로운 역사를 가진 나라?! 소개편 Peaceful Korea - Introduction". YouTube.
  30. ^ a b Peterson, Mark A. (10 May 2020). "Korean slavery". The Korea Times. South Korea. Archived from the original on 2020-08-22. Retrieved 22 August 2020. And that is the first clue ― although in my list it's number nine ― that Korea had something going on in regard to peaceful transitions, stable societies and that was the case for centuries.
  31. ^ Breuker, Remco E. (2010). Establishing a Pluralist Society in Medieval Korea, 918-1170: History, Ideology and Identity in the Koryŏ Dynasty. BRILL. p. 150. ISBN 978-90-04-18325-4.
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  34. ^ a b Palais, James B. (1998). 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.
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  39. ^ Kim, Youngmin; Pettid, Michael J. (November 2011). Women and Confucianism in Choson Korea: New Perspectives. SUNY Press. p. 140. ISBN 9781438437774. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
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  41. ^ Yi, Pae-yong (2008). Women in Korean History 한국 역사 속의 여성들. Ewha Womans University Press. p. 267. ISBN 9788973007721. Retrieved 18 August 2018.
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  45. ^ a b 손, 호철 (2019-11-19). "포르투갈에 끌려온 조선인 노예를 생각하다". Pressian (in Korean). Retrieved 2024-02-26.
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  65. ^ Kim 2003, p. 160.
  66. ^ a b Kim, Youngmin; Pettid, Michael J. (November 2011). Women and Confucianism in Choson Korea: New Perspectives. SUNY Press. pp. 140–141. ISBN 9781438437774. Retrieved 14 February 2017.
  67. ^ Kim 2003, pp. 165–166.
  68. ^ Korean History: Discovery of Its Characteristics and Developments. Hollym. 1 January 2004. p. 14. ISBN 978-1-56591-177-2.
  69. ^ Kim 2004, p. 48.
  70. ^ a b Helen Tierney (1 January 1999). Women's Studies Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-313-31071-3.
  71. ^ "North Korea". Walk Free Foundation. 2023. Retrieved 10 November 2023.
  72. ^ "Asia-Pacific". Global Slavery Index 2016. The Minderoo Foundation. 2016. Archived from the original on 2017-09-28. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  73. ^ Kim, Joseph (16 August 2020). "Why the horrors I saw in a N Korean prison camp matter to America". The Dallas Morning News. Texas. Retrieved 17 August 2020. '[R]evenues from slave labor camps fund Kim Jong-un's nuclear program.'
  74. ^ "Former South Korean Salt Slave Describes 'Living Hell' He Endured Before His Escape". Business Insider. 2 January 2015.
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Further reading