Recently I watched a video where this Korean podcaster, Bobby Lee, made a claim that there was never slavery in Korea. At first, I scoffed at him for being ignorant of his own country of origin's history, and for being called out by two non-Korean Americans when they actually Googled whether Korea had slaves or not, which directed them to the Wikipedia article, Slavery in Korea. But then I actually looked up the article myself, and saw the word nobi. Without looking it up or even speaking Korean, I immediately knew what it meant, because it sounds exactly like a Sino-Korean word that describes a concept once very common in China and Vietnam (my country), and even in Japan under the Ritsuryo system as well:
Vietnamese: nô tì
Japanese: nuhi or dohi
This particular word seems to be sloppily translated as "slave", "serf" or "servant". From my shoddy memory of Asian history, which is seemingly confirmed by the article on Nobi, there was no racial component to this system, and it was used as a punishment for criminals and debtors. Meanwhile, the classic image of a slave in western history seems to have something to do with an "inferior", "subhuman" ethnicity (the Slavs, the Africans, etc.). The Nobi article seems to suggest that 奴婢 still had "civil rights" and even owned other 奴婢 as well? In Vietnam, there were legal mechanisms for 奴婢 to become freemen, for example as compensation for their relative 奴婢 being killed by their master. However, Asian 奴婢 and western slaves were both considered chattel to be owned, bought and sold.
And of course, there's also a linguistic problem, where the European words for "slaves" and "serfs" are often translated as the Chinese-based terms 奴隷 and 農奴 in modern contexts, despite the fact that in ancient China, they were barely distinguishable. Meanwhile, if this Wiktionary entry is to be believed, there's a chance that "serf" and "slaves" could be considered synonyms.
Perhaps Bobby Lee wasn't technically "wrong" to have thought Korea never had slaves, because their ideas of slavery and servitude were so different from the classic western imagery of slavery. In my mind, I'd think of 奴婢 as "bond servants" rather than slaves, mainly because I incline to the racial component of slavery, and also because 奴婢 had much better chances of becoming freemen than slaves.
So what separates a slave from a mere serf or servant in modern European contexts? When a European historian uses these words, what distinctions are they making?