Film still from Grace Period (2015). Courtesy of Caroline Key and Kim KyungMook.
By YuJin, Popho E.S. Bark-Yi, and Matthias Lehmann
South Korea introduced a raft of new laws against sex work in 2004. These repressive policies are now up for constitutional review due to the intense reaction by sex workers there.
First-time visitors to South Korea may easily assume that selling sex is legal there, as major train stations are typically engulfed by an array of neon signs inviting patrons to enter massage parlors, noraebangs (lit. a ‘singing room’, essentially the same as a Japanese karaoke bar), and brothels. Media reports frequently quote statistics about the alleged net worth of the South Korean sex industry. However, laws repressing sex work are almost as ubiquitous as commercial sex venues themselves, particularly after 2004, when South Korea adopted the anti-sex trade Laws.
Between 2000 and 2002, a series of fires in Korea killed 24 sex workers, exposing the poor conditions in parts of its sex industry. In response, the government vowed to eradicate prostitution and embarked on an aggressive campaign against businesses facilitating it. Riding the wave of public outrage, women’s rights activists campaigned for a legal reform and their proposals eventually served as blueprints for the two-tiered anti-sex trade laws, which criminalise both buyers and sellers of sexual acts, except for anyone coerced into selling sex.
The new legislation reversed decades of de facto toleration of sex work by regulators and law enforcement. The anti-sex trade laws of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviors (prostitution) of 1961, which wasn’t enforced homogeneously, and previously, even the government had actively engaged in organising commercial sex venues to cater to US military personnel stationed on the Korean peninsula.
The anti-sex trade laws have caused many negative, allegedly unintended consequences. According to a 2012 UN report, “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in [the] arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners”, and 65,621 arrests were reported for 2009 alone. As researcher Sook Yi Oh Kim states, “the average prosecution rate of sex workers is 26.3%, higher than that of sex buyers, and none of the sex workers arrested are treated as victims”. Police crackdowns have led to an overall reduction of red-light districts. Of 69 red-light districts that existed in 2002, 44 remained by 2013. This represented a slight increase from 2007, when a government-commissioned report had located 35.
Police raids are often carried out very violently, and in November 2014, a 24-year old single mother died after jumping out of a motel room to escape arrest by an undercover police officer posing as client. In stark contrast to their usual reporting, most Korean media remained distinctively silent about the case. The continued repression has forced an increasing number of sex workers to work underground, resulting in lower incomes, poorer working conditions, and an increase in violence perpetrated against them. Sex workers worry more about police raids than about screening their clients, an essential measure, as violence or mistreatment from clients are very common. A substantial number migrates to sell sex abroad, at times under exploitative conditions, as they calculate that conditions in Korea threaten them at least to the same extent but yield considerably lower earnings.
The trailer for Grace Period, which documents sex worker life and collective resistance in a South Korean brothel district.
Giant Girls and Hanteo against the law
Two organisations actively campaign for the rights of sex workers and against the laws. One is Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers, and the other is Giant Girls. Hanteo, which means ‘common ground’, was founded in 2004 and represents 15,000 sex workers as well as some brothel owners. Giant Girls, or GG, was founded in 2009 by a group of feminists along with a number of sex worker activists. GG aims at building a stronger sex worker movement to mobilise against the criminalisation of sex work, in part by working to remove the social stigma attached to sex work.
Yujin started selling sex online five years ago, in order to afford his tuition fees. YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of GG. Prior to his entrance into the business he had never met anybody who was ‘out’ as a sex worker, and he knew nothing about how to work. Since all aspects of sex work are illegal in Korea, beginners often feel isolated and lack basic work and safety information. Yujin decided to tweet about his experience soon after he started working, which brought him into contact with other sex workers. Like him, these other sex workers did not ‘act immorally to earn easy money’, as the prejudice would have it, but worked hard, albeit without being respected as workers and citizens.
In 2005, sex workers established 29 June as the national day of solidarity with sex workers, coinciding with the date on which the laws were passed. Resistance from sex workers has taken many other forms. Protests organised by Hanteo in 2011 gained worldwide notoriety, as they culminated in dramatic scenes at the Yeondeungpo red-light district in Seoul, where some activists threatened to self-immolate as the confrontation with the police escalated. The events are well documented in the film Grace Period by Caroline Key and KyoungMook Kim.
In 2013, District Court Judge Won Chan Oh submitted a request for a constitutional review of the laws after accepting the argument made by sex worker Jeong Mi Kim that sex work fell under her right to self-determination. Therefore, in sentencing her for selling sex the state had violated article 10 of the Korean constitution, which holds that “all citizens shall be assured of their human worth and dignity and shall have the right to pursue happiness”.
This opened a window for a phase of much more intense sex worker activism. In April 2015, sex workers and activists staged a protest in front of the constitutional court where a public hearing was held as part of the review. They submitted a petition signed by nearly 900 sex workers arguing that the government had no right to “use criminal punishment to discourage voluntary sex among adults”. The following June, GG organised a forum to draw further attention to the fact that “these laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications … encompass[ing] social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation”.
Sex worker activist Yeoni Kim once said in an interview with Matthias (one of the present authors) that, “the Swedish model is terrible, violates sex workers’ rights, and adds to the stigmatisation of sex work. But, frankly speaking, one could almost say it would be better to have that terrible law than having to continue fearing arrests and police violence under the anti-sex trade laws.” Hearing one of the most seasoned Korean sex worker activists prefer a slightly less terrible law over another should put all talk about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ into perspective.
In September 2015, Hanteo staged a larger protest in downtown Seoul. Around 1,500 sex workers demanded an end to the government’s repression, shouting slogans and holding up signs in Korean and English that read “Repeal the anti-sex trade laws!”, “we are workers!” or “adopt Amnesty’s declaration!”.
Last year, when the constitutional court struck down the 62-year-old adultery law, it cited “the country’s changing sexual mores and a growing emphasis on individual rights”. Similar logic should govern the decision on the anti-sex trade laws, which is still pending, however some women’s rights and social conservative groups are continuing to stage protests to prevent a decision against the laws, citing fears over human trafficking and minors engaging in sex work.
Migration from Asian countries to South Korea has increased in recent years, and nobody suggests that the country is immune to migrant smuggling or human trafficking. Marriages between comparatively affluent Korean men and poorer southeast Asian women remain common in rural areas, as do the problems arising from illegal practices by marriage brokers or from violence perpetrated by Korean men against their foreign wives, whom they sometimes appear to seek only for reproductive purposes and household or farm labour.
There have also been occurrences of migrants being trafficked into commercial sex venues, but it is crucial to separate human trafficking from consensual adult sex work. Cases of human trafficking or exploitation of migrants have been detected in numerous industries, including in the fishing, agricultural, or manufacturing industries. Migrants of all genders, as well as Korean citizens, are affected by conditions amounting to forced labour. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that the problem is limited to women who are forced to sell sex, and to thereby disregard the experiences of trafficked persons and migrants in other industries, which include sexualised violence.
We are opposed to any form of violence. Sex and sexualised violence, however, are not the same. Consensual sadomasochistic sexual practices and actual violence are different, just as consensual sex work and being trafficked into the sex industry are different. People may choose to engage in sex work because they experience stigma as single mothers or due to their sexual orientation, or if other factors limit their options on the formal labour market.
Sex work itself is not violence and to suggest otherwise dilutes the meaning of violence. If we really want to curb human trafficking, we have to address the systemic circumstances that marginalise people and render them vulnerable. As sex workers’ rights activists, we have a stake in seeing human trafficking effectively addressed. The battle slogan ‘prostitution is violence against women’ harms both sex workers and trafficked persons as it drives the creation and perpetuation of precisely those failed laws and policies that enable traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations.
About the authors
YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of Giant Girls, one of two organisations actively campaigning for the rights of sex workers in South Korea.
Popho E.S. Bark-Yi is a feminist researcher and activist in South Korea. Her work focuses on sexuality and on basic income.
Matthias Lehmann is a German researcher and activist, currently focusing on sex work regulations in Germany. His prior research dealt with human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. He is an active member of ICRSE.
This article was first published by Open Democracy as part of the ‘Sex workers speak: who listens?’ series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance’ (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution. Please note: this article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact Open Democracy. Please check individual images for licensing details.