A Look at Slavery throughout Korean History

Considering that Jang Hyuk has now made two dramas in which the slave society is quite prominent – Chuno where he was a slave hunter and TWDR in which he originated from a slave and somehow earned/faked his way into free society- I thought I might take a dive into what’s written about this group of people. Of course this is but an amateur look into it and not an overly in-depth investigation so please anyone who has more information please share!

Slavery was not uncommon in East Asia and there is evidence of slavery as early as the Three Kingdoms Period(  BCE 221-207) But before we look into the slave class, we must first establish that there was a hierarchical system throughout  Korean history.

The basic/standard interpretation of the Korean social hierarchy: yangban, chungin, sangmin and chônmin. The highest status is held by the yangban, from this class emerged the government official and thus are part of the ruling class. Chungin, was primarily the class to which the illegitimate children of the yangban were placed, they were lower level officials. The sangmin were composed of farmers, merchants and artisans. The chonmin were nobi(slaves) that belonged to the yangban.  This is merely the bare bones description of the social structure since every group were actually composed of different levels.

The group that I’ll mostly be talking about the nobi were the lowest of all. As slaves the weren’t considered ordinary citizens they did not serve in the military nor did they pay taxes. Their tasks were varied. They ranged from assisting their owner isn various campaigns against enemies be it other clans or invaders; they helped prepare tributary material, or helped out in agricultural production though it wasn’t until late Joseon that they occupied a huge role in that sphere of work.

There were many different reasons that a person might become a slave and they changed over time.  One of the first reasons was that they were prisoners of war ( kind of like what happened to General Song Tae Ha whose status changed from military general to slave- Chuno reference) . Then it began to be used as a way to punish criminals (remember how Daegil was demoted to slave after he failed to capture Tae Ha). Free Commoners could become slaves if they were too much in debt. Also, parents sometimes sold their children into slavery.  There were also a few landholders that would catch drifters and illegally make them slaves. Though uncommon there were instances in which slaves could buy their way out of slavery.

Most Korean citizens could trace their lineage back 5 or more generations on both mother and father lines, however this didn’t apply to slaves.  In household register only one generation each of paternal and maternal lines were recorded for the nobi. And often there were no paternal lines recorded (my speculation being that they were probably the illegitimate children of the male lords with a slave woman)

One of the earliest laws regarding slavery, the Jongcho law, stated that the slave’s children would remain slaves eveen if one of the parents was a non=slave.  However in 1397 the Jongyang law was established and it stated that if the mother was common then the child was common thereby reducing the number of slaves and increasing the number of tax-paying citizens.  But like all things, this law was itself reversed in 1430 so that the landowners could have more field hands.  Thus the number of slaves rose steadily from 1430-1700s. As was the trend worldwide in the late 19th century the Gabo Reforms were enacted and slavery was abolished.

At first all the slaves were publicly owned slaves but around BCE 206- CE 8 the government began to slaves as gifts to the noble class. During CE960-1279 the government bestowed the right to procure slaves for themselves to the noble class. However it is to be noted that there was no actual organized slave trade during this period.  The slave trade became systematized with the introduction of coin money in 1689.

There are several accounts that mentioned the percentages of free vs. slave population during the Joseon dynasty. One such was the report from an official named Yi Sim Won dating circa BCE 1478 stated that out of 10 people 8 are privately owned slaves and the remaining are people of free status – ranging from yangban to sangmin. Though the picture this account paints may be exaggerated, it is not completely without basis since the Joseon government had an establishd census that took place every three years.

However much things rise they must fall and by 1786 there were records from different cities that denoted a very marked decrease in the amount of people who carried the status of nobi/slave. It was as low as 7.5%


  1. Bresiz, Elise S; Kim Hee Ho Was the Korean Slave market efficient? Bar-ilan University Kyungpook National University, 2009
  2. Chung Ku Bok: Reassessment of the Status System in 15th Century Chosôn The Academy of Korean Studies, Korea 2009
  3. Yoshida Mitsuo : Status and Social Groups in Early Modern Korea, the Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko, 65, 2007
  4. http://www.aasianst.org/absts/2000abst/Korea/K-32.htm
  5. http://www.chinapowerhouse.com/korea/encyclopedia.htm

Discussion on the Nobi:



7 thoughts on “A Look at Slavery throughout Korean History

    • Min says:

      No problem, I’m glad you found it interesting!
      I enjoyed reading up on it and writing it, though I do wish I could really understand korean (I can read Hangul it’s pretty simple as each symbol has a specific sound, but there’s this huge tremendous gap in word knowledge)- there are so many articles that I can’t make use of because of that limitation! gah!

  1. Super interesting! Especially about the ways they went about slavery. It’s so similar to other methods of rationalizing dehumanization. Please keep stuff like this up. LOVES IT!

  2. kevin considine says:

    the africans were slaves a short time compared to the koreans and the koreans i guess they learned this from thier masters the chinese,every culture seems to want a free ride off the back of some weaker people, the native americans did it ; the aztecs the incas, there is none that is righteous, no not one

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