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Sex and denial in South Korea
By David Scofield

It's the world's oldest profession, and in South Korea it's a recession-proof industry that contributes more to the nation's economy than the agriculture and fisheries industries combined. And it's expanding. The Ministry of Gender Equality estimates that South Korea's sex industry generates profits in excess of US$22 billion a year, while employing some 500,000 women and girls. But non-governmental organizations and civic groups suggest the number may be even higher, concluding that if all informal venues of prostitution, such as the myriad wonjokyoje, or younger girls "dating" older men for cash, were factored in, the number of prostitutes could well exceed a million.

Venues where women and girls are available for a price total at least 390,000, according to civic groups, and they are quite literally everywhere in South Korea. Every neighborhood has at least a few singing rooms, room salons, business clubs, tea rooms or barber shops where sexual services can be bought. Given the openness of the prostitution and the leaflets and flyers advertising the multitudes of locations where women can be procured, one could be forgiven for not realizing it's all illegal.

Legal prostitution was abolished in 1948. The anti-prostitution law - a bill that also gave a virtual green light to red-light districts - was enacted in 1961. And in 1999, legislation provided for publication of the names of those who procure sex from minors, though it is rarely enforced. The nation's Commission on Youth Protection asserts that more than half the girls arrested for prostitution are under 16.

South Korea is not known for openly confronting societal problems, traditionally preferring to shunt nationally embarrassing issues to the side, in the belief that if something isn't acknowledged it will cease to exist. But the sex industry is not disappearing. Indeed, it is one of South Korea's few truly recession-proof industries enjoying steady growth, largely immune to economic cycles. However, Korean society is changing and women, long exploited and often abused by the still rigidly patriarchal society, are beginning to demand that their legally enshrined personal and human rights be respected.

With the help of the Korean Bar Association, some prostitutes have begun taking ruthless brothel owners to court for violating their human rights. And as these women come forward and give testimony about being physically confined and forced into the sex trade, often to repay loans proffered by the same gangsters who own the sex clubs, the ugly realities of South Korea's sex industry are beginning to come to light. Women receiving loans from gangsters must pay ridiculously high rates of interest, making it impossible for the girls and women ever to pay them back.

Groups of sex workers from South Cholla province in the country's southwest told of being forced to perform sex for fear of suffering violence. They said they were held captive and their every move was monitored, making escape impossible.

And what of the police who are sworn to uphold the law and protect the weak? According to recent reports and testimony from sex workers themselves, many police officers have long been taking payoffs from brothel owners, with some even demanding sex with prostitutes in return for turning a blind eye to the brothel's activities. In one recent incident, again in Cholla province, two police officers are being questioned, and another two sought, for allegedly having group sex with at least four junior-high-school girls working at area sex clubs.

A few small but positive steps
The fact that investigations are taking place and that more women are beginning to speak out are small but positive steps forward. Only five years ago, two men in the city of Daejeon were found to be harboring a runaway middle-school girl. The two were accused of having sex with the young girl for months in exchange for giving her lodging. They were arrested but later released, since the judge in the case determined that the sex was consensual and that the money they gave her was too small a sum to be considered payment for sex - her minor status apparently not withstanding. Another judge in the same city ruled that massage parlors, another in a long list of venues where sex can be bought, while technically violating laws against prostitution, were also performing an "indispensable service" to the community by offering a place where men could relieve their sexual frustrations. All charges against the owner were dropped.

And this is where the problem lies. As long as South Korea maintains the illegality of prostitution while turning a blind eye to one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, the industry itself escapes regulation and the sex workers do not enjoy even the most basic of human rights. In 2002 in a red-light district in Kunsan, 15 sex workers were killed when the building where they were confined caught fire. With the doors bolted from the outside and bars over the windows to prevent escape, the girls were unable to flee the flames, all suffering a horrific death. A Seoul court ruled in favor of the bereaved families, awarding them a total of $2 million in compensation from the brothel owner.

The same judge, however, ruled that the local government and the police had no legal responsibility, even though the brothel confined the women with the likely knowledge of the local authorities.

The federal government seems set to continue denying the scope and scale of the sex industry, declaring this month that it would "shut down" South Korea's red-light districts by 2007. The government was careful to focus only on red-light districts, even though government ministries estimate these areas account for only 2 percent of South Korea's enormous sex industry. These districts have been in steady decline for the past 10 years, relics of Korea's postwar camp-town past. Seoul's red-light districts include Hawolgok-dong, Chongnyangni, Yongdungpo, Yongsan, Chonho-dong and other smaller zones, areas that feature block after block of young women in windows. These extensive areas feature women displayed under red fluorescent lights, the same kind of lights Korean butcher shops use to display meat.

Putting these zones on the chopping block will do little to curb South Korea's sex industry, as most men prefer clubs, singing rooms and massage parlors - or increasingly popular Internet portals - to procure sex. Indeed, the closing of these red-light districts, if it actually happens, will actually increase the health risks to workers and their patrons, as government reports have found that the rates of sexually transmitted disease are higher in the more popular and ubiquitous clubs and salons than in traditional red-light zones.

Further, the move against these historical zones could well be geared more toward freeing up real estate for residential development than striking a blow against prostitution. The area around "Miari" in Hawolgok-dong, for instance, is virtually surrounded by residential apartment blocks, creating an obvious profit incentive for residential rezoning.

But even this very modest government initiative is encountering stiff and curious opposition from the association of brothel owners - the association's existence a testament to just how tacitly condoned the brothel business is. They are demanding that the government scrap its plans. Invoking their constitutional rights, the brothel owners are threatening to sue the government for infringing on their constitutionally guaranteed property rights if the government closes their brothels.

Through all of this, one fact is clear. The sex industry in South Korea is enormous and it is not about to go away. With most areas of South Korea's economy showing lackluster growth, the sex industry - the billions of dollars it generates and the hundreds of thousands it employs - cannot be legislated away. The still patriarchal Korean culture tolerates men seeking sex for pay. This may be contributing to family discord and divorce - South Korea's rate is almost 50 percent, making it second only to the United States. There are no signs, however, that the industry is slowing.

As long as the nation remains tacitly tolerant of the practice, the industry must be taken out of the shadows and into the open through legislation and regulation. The most abhorrent aspects of the industry - the abuse of children and trafficking and enslavement of women - must be abolished, while the revenues from the industry can be taxed for the benefit of the larger society.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield.

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May 26, 2004



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