May 25, 2004 12:00am
South Korea Sex Trade Recession Proof
Source: Asia Times
by: David Scofield
(SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA) -- 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.
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