The image to the left is a representation of the traditional ruling class, the yangban. The image was taken in 1863 and is one of the earliest photographs depicting highly educated civil servants and military officers of Chosŏn Korea. The image to the right is a representation of the Korean slaves and serfs, the nobi. According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, nobi were responsible for majority of manual labor such as housework and farming. They were not treated with the same level of respect as the Yangban. Harvard professor Sun Joo Kim, in her article “My Own Flesh and Blood: Stratified Parental Compassion and Law in Korean Slavery,” discusses an issue where these two groups intersect: yangban and nobi: the relationship between human emotions and slavery in Chosŏn. In the eighteenth century, 30% of Chosŏn’s population were slaves. A large number would have also been public slaves as well. Sun Joo Kim’s article shows how yangban would refer to slaves as their "hands and feet,” because they provided the domestic and agricultural labor necessary for the master’s economic and social life. Having hundreds of slaves working on a single estate suggests how little human interaction existed between slave and master, but there were also numerous cases of yangban men who had children with women of slave status. One of the main problems the author is trying to address in this article is, “what happens to the status of a child who was fathered by the yangban master but born to a slave woman?”
Usually, even if the father was a yangban and the mother was a slave, then the child would still belong to the lowest class. A yangban male who had a child with a female of slave status, for instance, a kisaeng or entertainer, might still invest feelings of sympathy towards the child as his "own flesh and blood.” This emotional attachment could be one way a slave might escape slave status. For instance, the Chosŏn court recognized this problem when it issued an order through the Directorate for Reclassification of Slaves in 1397: “Even if a child is born of a slave-status concubine, the child is also one’s own flesh and blood. Therefore it is inconvenient to enslave them like other ordinary slaves.” According to this statement, a child with yangban blood born to a slave-status concubine was eligible for special treatment. If the father and the owner of the slave child agreed, they could be manumitted to attain so-called “good status,” signifying a rise in the social hierarchy.
Slaves were treated as property, but they were still considered human beings as well. This raised a problem. Relinquishing slavery status made upward social mobility possible, potential disturbing the distinction of status. These gestures, however, were justified by parental compassion, where it was not possible to treat one’s own “flesh and blood” as slaves. According to a diary Yu Hŭich’un, a yangban, with a slave concubine, were still “[his] own flesh and blood” and he repeatedly declared that “manumitting one’s children and cousins is ‘the right thing to do.’” In this respect, a yangban rescuing his children from slavery was more of an emotional gesture, rather than a rational one. Yu believed that it was his right to exercise parental compassion for his family members rather than a political act. Although many yangban shared these feelings and argued against the laws of the time, the appeal to parental love and care was not extended to slave-status offspring of non-yangban fathers. Non-yangban fathers could not help their children obtain good social status because they had no leverage or legal option to do so. Unlike yangban who had aristocratic status, wealth, and most importantly the ability to voice their opinions, non-yangban fathers had little recourse when their children were born into slavery. In conclusion, this difference demonstrated the stratified layers of parental compassion within pre-modern Korean law.
Personally, I believe that the early premodern status system was enforced to increase the number of slaves. I find it very interesting that in Korea, the enslaved might include one’s own kin, and did not involve racial or ethnic difference as was the case in other parts of the world during this period. Although it seemed that the possibility of a slave rising in social hierarchy was controversial, partly because it was very common for a yangban male to have a child with a female slave. However, if I had been a yangban father, I would not like to see my daughter or son working desperately as a slave. After all, a parent’s natural instinct is to nurture their children and seek what is best for them.