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Korean Nobi in American Mirror: Yi Dynasty Coerced Labor in Comparison to the Slavery in the Antebellum Southern United States


  • Young-hoon Rhee


  • Donghyu Yang



The purpose of this article is to critically respond to the recent research trends in the United States which define the nobi in the Korean history as slaves and Koryo and Choson as slave societies. Our comparative study of the nobi system in the 15-17th century Choson and the black slavery in the American South has found several common features in the two institutions: both nobi and slaves comprised one third of the respective population; both were personal property of their masters and subjects of purchase, sale, and inheritance; most black slaves and some nobi were worked, fed, and clothed by their masters. We also found major differences. Although the average size of nobi-holding by the Choson yangban(ruling class) was smaller than that of slave-holding by American planters, there were cases of ultra-large-scale ownership by royal families and bureaucrats, very rare in the Unites States. The bigger the ownership size, the larger the share of independent peasant nobi, who were in possession of property rights, legal entities and civil rights. We also see critical differences between the two groups in cultural aspects. Black slaves remained isolated from the free people to the last, both because of their 'intrusive' origin that they were recruited from the alien land, and because of religious and secular prejudices nested toward their unerasable skin color. In the case of Choson nobi, collective memories about their 'extrusive' origins were very obscure, and most importantly, they were fused with freemen other than yangban without clear dividing line. These differences strongly influenced the process of their liberation. While in the United States, the moral and religious crusades which saw black slaves as owners of pure soul played effective roles, there was no substantial change in the perception of human nature in Choson, where the changes in the political landscape - the decline of yangban society which had counterbalanced the power of king - assumed a key factor. All these similarities and differences considered, we come to the conclusion that generally speaking, it is inappropriate to call nobi in Choson slaves.

Suggested Citation

  • Young-hoon Rhee & Donghyu Yang, 1999. "Korean Nobi in American Mirror: Yi Dynasty Coerced Labor in Comparison to the Slavery in the Antebellum Southern United States," Working Paper Series no26, Institute of Economic Research, Seoul National University.
  • Handle: RePEc:snu:ioerwp:no26

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