In 2003, Hwang Yu-mi was 18. That’s the year she went to work in a Samsung semiconductor plant in South Korea. She died at the age of 22, only four years later. After working with the toxic chemicals in the plant for about two years, Yu-mi was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She underwent chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, and died in the back seat of her parent’s car on March 6th, 2007. They were on their way home from one of her treatments.
Just the year before, Lee Suk-young was diagnosed with the same disease and died only five weeks after receiving her diagnosis. Suk-young had developed a skin irritation from the chemicals she was handling at the Samsung plant, for which the company helped provide medical care. Suk-Young was the mother of two small children, and didn’t survive even two months from the time her aggressive cancer was spotted. She worked in the same plant, on the same semiconductor line, standing right next to Yu-mi.
South Korean culture places a heavy burden on being submissive to authority and on sacrificing yourself for the greater good. During and after the death of Hwang Yu-mi, her father Sang-ki began to fight the Samsung corporation for assistance and reparations. Company executives initially provided financial support, but later withdrew their money and stated that they had nothing to do with Yu-mi’s death. They claimed that the carcinogenic chemicals that the two girls worked with had no part to play in their untimely, painful deaths. Hwang Sang-ki continues to disagree.
Two films came out this year based on the life and death of these girls, and the struggle that Sang-ki continues to face every day. The film Another Promise, came out in February and is a fictitious retelling of the story with a veiled company by the name of “Jinsung” responsible for the deaths of the two women. The names have been changed, but the story remains that same. This film couldn’t get financial backing from a studio in South Korea, so crowd sourcing and private backers funded it. The second movie, titled Empire of Shame, is a documentary that more directly addresses the hardships that these families have faced. It took over three years to make, and is focused on the movement that Hwang Sang-ki has started. He is bringing light to the dangerous chemicals that Samsung, and companies like it, use in their manufacturing processes. Activists working with Sang-ki continue to find cases of leukemia and other health issues at Samsung plants, including skin conditions and pregnancy miscarriages. Samsung continues to decline discussing anything specific about what has been going on at their plants for over a decade.