'crackdown culture' - now it's brothels
By David Scofield
Korea loves "crackdowns". Whether designed to tackle the scourge of
mobile-phone use while driving or to clamp down on drivers stopping past the
white line on the roads, South Korean police revel in crackdowns. As a driver
in South Korea for more than six years, I witnessed a number of such exercises
in selective enforcement. Typically, the government announces a crackdown on
some illegal, but common, behavior and the police dedicate all their energies
to the task. During the cell-phone crackdown in Seoul a year ago I watched a
fully loaded city bus fly through a very red light while no fewer than four
police officers looked on. No one moved. The driver of the bus might have
endangered the lives of everyone in the vicinity, but as best one could tell he
wasn't talking on his mobile phone at the time, so there was nothing to be
This week the police launched another "crackdown". This one, we are told, is
designed to stamp out prostitution. But like so many other examples of myopic
enforcement, this attack on a well-entrenched component of Korea's culture and
economy has been tried before - and failed.
In 2000, then-president Kim Dae-jung's government announced the appointment of
an intrepid female police chief to Seoul's Miari district, home to one of the
capital's oldest prostitution areas. The government announced that this new
female firebrand would stop at nothing to rout the rot of prostitution, with
the full help and aid of the government.
Two months later the press and the public had long forgotten the brave crusade
by police chief Kim Kang-ja, and the whole program dissipated, as it were.
This week, it's another female police officer, Lee Kum-hyung, director of the
women's and juvenile affairs division at the National Police Agency, who is the
face behind this latest attempt to rout what was to have been routed four years
ago. Will it work? It's very doubtful. Not just because the program has been
given a ridiculously short shelf life - the "crackdown" will wrap up on October
22 - but because it fails to address the cultural and economic underpinnings of
the issue. Prostitution, for example, is one of the few growth areas in an
otherwise declining economy.
Though the police and government are quick to point out that the drive will
continue beyond October 22, though not in such a deliberate way and with less
fanfare, other new crackdowns after October 22 will surely steal the spotlight:
tailgating, or changing traffic lanes without signaling. New causes will rise
to the fore and prostitution will continue on as it has for more than a
Indeed, the drive behind this latest exercise is international pressure, not
domestic outcry. South Korea has been included in the US State Department's
2004 Trafficking in Persons Report, which admonishes Korea for a being a
"source, destination and transit" country for women trafficked for sexual
exploitation. Membership on the list could have real economic ramifications if
the US perceives no serious attempt by South Korea to address or mitigate the
problem. The United States could seek to penalize the country by inhibiting
access to US markets.
South Korea's new anti-prostitution legislation does, through its passage
anyway, address the issue of human trafficking directly, and it does assign
criminal responsibility to brothel owners and brokers - not, as was the case
before, to the sex workers themselves. South Korea's 1948 anti-prostitution law
did not differentiate between owners and workers, which meant the sex workers
themselves were often punished, fined or even imprisoned, dissuading most from
coming forward or giving evidence against unscrupulous brothel owners who
participated in trafficking. Many of the country's lowliest brothel proprietors
would quickly put their sex workers into debt by charging exorbitant rates for
room, board and other "services", a practice that in effect indentured the
young women to the owner, since "debts" would always far outstrip their
incomes, allowing the owners to swap and sell the girls among the owners, a
virtual slave trade.
The new law declares any such debts invalid and protects the workers, who are
described as victims. This is positive and progressive, but the crackdown will
in all likelihood still fail.
Prostitution has been a component of Korean culture for literally thousands of
years, and any attempt to eliminate this still viable cultural artifact will
not succeed if it does not address the demand for sex services within South
Korean society. A report issued by the Korean Institute of Criminology in 2003
indicates that 20% of men in their 20s pay for sex at least four times a month.
Elected officials and private business people discuss and negotiate deals not
only in boardrooms, but also in "business clubs" where whiskey and elaborate
plates of overpriced fruit accompany a bevy of attractive young women, or girls
- there to peel the grapes, pour the shots and perform sexual services for
These establishments are in every village and town and in virtually every
neighborhood in every city in South Korea. The total employment and revenue
generated is hard to pin down as, depending on the type of establishment, many
women and girls work freelance, called in to entertain certain customers or
help out when business is particularly brisk. The revenue generated is
estimated to be more than US$21 billion a year, or more than 4% of the nation's
gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Ministry of Gender Equality,
which also says more than 500,000 women and girls are employed. These numbers
are believed to be low, not reflecting the real scope of prostitution in South
To exorcise this industry from Korea will take a lot more than police
crackdowns, of whatever duration; it will require a change in culture. Many
women, those not indentured but who work for clubs, bars, barber shops, coffee
shops and other businesses of their own volition, do so for one simple reason -
money. South Korean businesses still discriminate heavily against women,
especially those over 25, as they are thought to be in transit, awaiting
marriage and therefore, traditionally, unemployment. For the companies, it is
sound business strategy since in-house training costs tremendous amounts every
year. To invest in training women only to have them quit when they marry is
considered a great risk, and is used by many of South Korea's largest employers
to justify their discriminatory hiring, promotion and retention strategies.
Historically, women are disposable in corporate Korea.
Employment opportunities - jobs that pay enough so that women can live
independently - are very few and far between. Many of the women working in the
sex trade have college diplomas and, indeed, university degrees. Some of those
who work in the higher-end places have graduate degreess as well and are hired
for their ability to converse with business clients., professors and doctors.
These days in Korea only a foreign degree from a "big name" school somewhat
assures employment. These are not illiterate women with poor educations for the
most part, but well-educated women with few other options in a limping economy.
Tackling prostitution, not eliminating but regulating it, requires a serious,
sustained commitment at the highest levels of the South Korean government and
new legislation demanding equal rights and treatment for women in the workforce
- as a start. This coupled with a national effort to redress cultural precepts
that make it acceptable for men, married or not, to buy sex is vital to check
Korea's large and growing sex industry. Success rests not in high-profile
campaigns involving sensational, but limited, police action but in opening the
industry, legalizing it, and strictly enforcing employment rights and health
checks. It is important to guarantee workplace safety and workers' rights,
while accepting the cultural and economic necessity of the trade.
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, United Kingdom.
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