Ever since the Mongol Empire, prostitution and sex trafficking have been unspoken components in Korean culture. Sexual domination and violence were cruel and ruthless concessions made by defeated Korean subjects to appeal to the invading forces. The Korean state was forced to round up young females and send them as ‘kongnyo’ or tribute women (Soh, 2004). This systematic victimization continued throughout the eventual conquests and occupation by the Chinese dynasties until the early 20th century. In some cases, young Korean women and girls were sent to China as sex slaves to Chinese masters. Returning to their homeland led to secondary victimization. In Korea, women are compared to rags. Once they are ‘dropped’ and ‘dirtied’ again, they can never be clean again (Lee, 2016). Former victims were stigmatized and disowned by their family. During the 35 year occupation of the Japanese Empire (1910-1945), Korean females, once again became victims of sexual exploitation and used as comfort women. Under the Japanese, the Korean state oversaw the institution of ‘kisaeng,’ who, as entertainers (analogous to Japan’s geishas), sometimes engaged in prostitution (Soh, 2004).
After the U.S. troops entered the peninsula in 1945, prostitution was rendered illegal. However, it remained an ignored problem. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, the United States Forces in Korea (USFK) and the Republic of Korea cooperatively agreed to set up ‘rest and relaxation’ centers for U.S. troops (Hughes, Chon & Ellerman, 2007). To reduce the spread of venereal disease among prostitutes and U.S. servicemen, the Korean government rounded up prostitutes near U.S. bases [and took] them to clinics for group venereal disease examinations and penicillin injections (Zimelis, 2009).
With Western influences, the South Korean economy began to industrialize and grow. Skyscrapers emerged in the midst of traditional Buddhist temples and craggy mountains. American businesses and chain restaurants changed the Korean landscape to bustling neon-lit cities. Globalization made Korea an economic powerhouse in Asia. Dr. Nayong Lee, Professor at Chung-Ang University, stated [Korea] doesn’t admit that it grew the economy by exploiting women (Lee, 2016).
Very similarly to Western societies, runaway youth continue to be extremely vulnerable. Girls who leave volatile homes (alcoholism, mental health concerns) and sexual assault by male family members have very little resources for support. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Seoul Metropolitan Movement, nearly half of all female runaways end up in prostitution (Lee, 2016). The basic needs of shelter, adequate clothing, and food take precedence over dignity. Nefarious employment agencies seek out women who are experiencing debt. Financially strapped Korean women enter prostitution as a way to pay of credit card debt (Hughes, 2004). Pimps, sometimes sponsored by organized crime groups, utilize debt bondage to control their victims. Women may be given sums of money or fashion clothing under the false pretenses that they would be able to reimburse their pimp. However, the pimp imposes additional fees for food, transportation to other bars, and missing work to the point that the victim would not be able to make any financial headway.
In 1991, the Soviet Union broke away into separate republics. In the same year, the U.S. Department of Defense closed its military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base. Both events created economic instability in the former Soviet republics and the Philippines. As a result, South Korea witnessed an increase of Russian and Filipina women entering the entertainment business on E-6 visas.
In addition to luring victims by providing initial monetary and/or material reimbursement, traffickers may make false promises of legitimate jobs. Traffickers and illegitimate employment agencies offer hospitality (waitress, bar staff) or entertainment jobs (vocalist, dancer) to foreign women in developing areas. These fabricated jobs eventually lead to prostitution in hazardous conditions. Even more astonishing are the sporadic reports of U.S. military members actively involved with the international trafficking of Korean women to American massage parlors (Hughes, et al., 2007). American soldiers marry the Korean, or Filipina in a sham marriage, thereby giving her sponsorship necessary to enter the U.S. Once the newly married couple arrives in the United States, the service member divorces, delivers and sells his wife to a massage parlor or another pimp. Hughes, et al (2007) and Goldman (2002) quoted one INS agent. I don’t recall even having interviewed a Korean prostitute in [the United States] that was not in the country as a result of being married to an American serviceman.
Sex trafficking victims, regardless of nationality (Korean, Russian, or Filipina), are stigmatized by society. Conventional wisdom among those interviewed in Jason Lee’s 2016 documentary Save My Seoul depicts apathy and a lack of sympathy for sex trafficking victims. Male interviewees rationalized that the victims are willing participants with the intent to earn money, that there is no victimization. Other Koreans consider prostitution as a necessary evil possibly noting Korea’s patriarchal mores and customs in heterosexual relationships and the belief that sexual services are essential in maintaining partnerships with an occupying force at the expense of women’s rights.
Some scoff off concern by stating that the government seems to be taking care of it. The question How? is up for argument. The U.S. State Department rated the Republic of Korea as a Tier 1 country in its efforts to thwart human trafficking. The 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) from the U.S. State Department noted the following:
The government demonstrated serious and sustained efforts by increasing the number of trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions compared to the previous reporting period, conducting numerous awareness raising campaigns, providing services to 7.397 potential trafficking victims, and strengthening procedures to prevent trafficking among entertainment visa holders.
In 2004, South Korea instituted new anti-prostitution laws intended to better protect victims of forced prostitution (Yea, 2006). Yea (2006) continued that sanctions against traffickers [do] not specify details of compensation for debt bonded and financially exploited victims. Escape from the bowels of prostitution proves to be a difficult process. Korean police still regard prostitutes not as victims, but as consenting participants in criminal activity. Corruption within the Korean criminal justice system leads to an enormous amount of distrust in reporting victimization. Women who seek help from the police have been returned to their pimps. Once returned, the pimps use physical violence to punish the girls for fleeing. Through bribes and association, police officers disregard complaints or assist victims to rehabilitative services. Skeptics noted that while the USFK does not condone prostitution, military police presence in known bars and brothels serve as a means to protect the business and maintain order under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Although some service members have assisted in rescuing victims from their pimps, many more new victims fall prey to sex trafficking.
One may hope that a new day is rising in The Land of the Morning Calm. In 2014, the USFK cracked down on Juicy Bars and other nightclubs surrounding military installations by deeming them off-limits. According to a July 6, 2014 Stars and Stripes article, such initiatives have helped dramatically lower the clusters of establishments thought to be involved with prostitution and human trafficking (Rowland & Chang, 2014). South Korean governmental agencies began conducting inspections of nightclub establishments, especially those employing foreigners with E-6 visas. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), such as Candy Cafe and Korea Church World United (KCWU) have been established to provide sanctuary to victims who have escaped their captors. Some assist foreign women to return to their home countries. Escape is difficult- living with the emotional scars consists of intense therapy to confront sexual and psychological trauma.
It is even more difficult to change Korea’s patriarchal and misogynistic beliefs in respect to acknowledging prostitution as violence against women. Jason Lee’s Save My Seoul addressed this disturbing practice. Such documentaries are necessary, along with other media coverage, to bring awareness to everyday Koreans. It is time for Korea to challenge centuries of exploitative practices.
Hughes, D.M., Chon, K.Y. & Ellerman, D.P. (2007). Modern-day comfort women: The U.S. military, transnational crime, and the trafficking of women. Violence Against Women, 13(9), 901-922. doi: 10.1177/1077801207305218
Lee, J.Y. (Director). (2016). Save my Seoul [Motion Picture]. [With E. Lee]. United States: Gravitas Ventures.
Republic of Korea: Office to monitor and combat trafficking in persons. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of State website: https://www.state.gov
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