|March 1, 2000||atimes.com|
| The Koreas |
New broom sweeps Korean brothels clean
By Ahn Mi Young
SEOUL - ''I've begun to feel at home,'' said Min Sung-Ae, a 17-year-old high-school dropout who stays at the home of Kim In-Chull, who has taken her in temporarily after she left her life as a sex worker in the South Korean capital.
''I have long forgotten this feeling of being at home,'' Min added, sobbing. She is staying at Kim's eastern Seoul home for three months as recommended by the Korean Juvenile Confederation, a civic group that has been arranging ''home-stay'' periods for runaway juveniles at the homes of volunteers.
Only weeks ago, Min was one of some 400 juvenile sex workers in the so-called ''Miari Texas Village'', an area in northeast Seoul that houses some 250 prostitution houses. In those houses, customers are served liquor and some snacks in front room, and sex services in the back room.
While their peers were busy with their computers or hanging out at shopping malls, hundreds of juvenile prostitutes like Sung-Ae in Miari Texas were spending each night with some five to 10 male guests. They usually get up to 1.5 million won ($1,340) as a monthly salary, on the top of 15,000 won ($14) for each client. Some 50,000 won go to the pocket of the owner.
Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, but is tolerated as an open secret - as long as a prostitute is not a minor under the age of 18.
But it is common knowledge that more than 30 percent of about 1,000 sex workers in Miari Texas are under age, most of whom are runaway kids from financially-troubled homes, like Sung-Ae. ''I found an ad in a 'flea paper' (a town newspaper with a lot of advertisements in it) talking about much more handsome pay than that offered by factories,'' said Min. When she got to Miari Texas in 1998, Min started out handling money first. Then she moved into serving liquor to guests, and then was forced to provide sex to clients. ''Then I felt there was nothing more to lose,'' Min recalled.
For a long time, places like Miari Texas operated smoothly with what critics say was protection from policemen, who are believed to be bribed regularly to let them be.
Many of the rooms or so-called ''glass boxes'' inside the place have a secret exit - such as under the bed or behind a wall next to the bed - in case of a police raid. ''Even if a policemen came here, he would just see the front room without checking the secret backdoor,'' said a former owner of one such place.
But things began changing at the start of the year - which led to Min's departure from Miara Texas - when a new police chief dared disturb the status quo. On January 5, a new woman police chief took office in the district of Miari and said she meant business in keeping juvenile prostitutes out of her area of jurisdiction. The first thing Kim Gang-ja, 55, did as police chief was to declare an all-out battle against sex dens that have juvenile sex workers.
Social workers say that while the campaign does not deal with adult sex workers at all - the move against juveniles may well be the push needed to change the lives of more than 500,000 estimated minor sex workers across the nation and get them to return home.
Kim's clean-up was not the first. Previous efforts that began with a bang fizzled out, not least due to links between employers and police who get grease money.
Today, however, there is little of the old hustle and bustle around the Miari Texas street of Wolgok-dong. Some 100 of the 250 houses there have already suspended business, their glass windows shuttered with dark, thick curtains. There are now no customers around. Kim organized a special night time team to patrol the area between 11pm and 4am to discourage pimps trying to lure customers into the red-light district.
''Who would like to come to us, when police staff are living with us?,'' asked the owner of a prostitution house in Miari Texas.
The owner of the brothel where Min Sung-ae used to work, like others, in the end decided to let the 16 minors among 31 sex workers in his place go home. But since Min's family had moved from its old home, she was handed over to the Korean Juvenile Confederation for the time being.
The police chief, Kim, had planned her clean-up operation carefully, and began by being frank with the brothel owners. On January 8, Kim Gang-Ja invited owners of 110 brothels in Miari and made it clear to them that she would not tolerate minor prostitutes working there. She told the owners to promise never to hire juveniles to do sex work. Then, she ordered a stop to sex-oriented advertisements in ''flea papers'' and stickers in public toilets. She even went after pimps who lured minors into the industry by calling them through mobile phones or beepers.
Not everybody cooperated with her immediately, but a raid in February made it clear she would not buckle down. On February 7, police made a surprise swoop on 100 brothels in Miari Texas, and found out that some 70 of them had been hiring minors. All of their owners were arrested.
''I think that I must shut down or move to another place to do business,'' said one owner of a ''glass box'' in the Miari.
The crackdown in Miari has not shut down the industry, though. Indeed, many of the minor sex workers expelled from Miari are known to be going to other places to continue business. Some 40 brothels have already moved to surburbs like Paju, admitted the police station which Kim Gang-ja heads. Said Kim: ''I do not believe that I can root out juvenile prostitution overnight. But I will continue to fight until it is rooted out.''
Already, her campaign seems to be catching on. Jo Jung-Mi is the 25-year-old new chief of a police substation in Kim's district, who took office on February 10. ''I won't allow my younger sisters to fall prey,'' she said.
(Inter Press Service)
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