Sex Work and the Law in South Korea
Cover Photo: Korean sex workers, wearing traditional costumes, attend a protest against the police crackdown on brothels in Chuncheon, about 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Seoul May 31, 2011. Reuters/Lee Jae Won.
Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific
The United Nations published a new report that investigates laws, HIV and human rights in the context of sex work. The report is a collaboration of UNDP and UNFPA, in partnership with UNAIDS, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) as well as other community sex worker organizations and individuals.*
“The report is intended to provide an evidence-base for: policy makers working in government, regional and multilateral organizations; parliamentarians; members of the judiciary; civil society organizations; donor agencies; and sex workers and their organizations engaged in advocacy to improve the legal and policy enabling environment for HIV responses. The study focuses on 48 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, with an emphasis on low and middle-income countries.” – Page 9
Sex Work and the Law in South Korea (pp. 110-112)
All forms of sex work are criminalized. Prior to 2004, the law defined sex workers as morally degenerate and imposed penalties for ‘protection of sexual morality’. However, this law was rarely enforced. In 2004, more severe penalties were introduced by the Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic and Enforcement Decree of the Act on the Prevention of Sexual Traffic and Protection, etc. of Victims Thereof.
The Act on the Punishment of Acts of Arranging Sexual Traffic defines sexual traffic to include sexual intercourse in exchange for money or goods (Article 2). Therefore, sex work is defined as a form of trafficking. The penalty for anyone who has been engaged in sexual traffic is imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine not exceeding 3 million won (Article 21). This provision criminalizes both sex workers and their clients. Persons who are coerced into providing sexual services are not liable to be punished (Article 6(1)).
Other offences include soliciting, arranging, enticing, recruiting and providing premises for the purposes of sex work (Articles 2 and 19). Advertising a sexual traffic business shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 3 years or by a fine not exceeding 30 million won (Articles 19(1) and 20).
The penalty for operating a sexual traffic business is imprisonment for not more than 7 years or a fine of not more than 70 million won (Article 19 (2)).
In 2006 the Constitutional Court referred to prostitution as ‘a low and mean occupation’ that is harmful to public morals. The Court upheld criminal penalties relating to recruiting people to work in the sex industry.
The Constitutional Court has also declared that the offence of providing a place for the purpose of trafficking in sex is constitutional, citing the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, which the Korean government signed in 1962. The Constitutional Court in 2011 ruled that adults engaged in ‘sexual traffic’ are subject to punishment because they are able to earn a living by means of a variety of occupations except for sex work.
5.8.2 Law enforcement practices
From 1984-2004, the government tolerated the sex industry provided that sex workers registered with health authorities and operated in specific red-light areas. Sex workers were required to be tested for STIs periodically and for HIV every six months. The government authorized the Korean Tourist Association to license bars or kisaeng (professional entertainer) houses near U.S. military bases and tourist enclaves. The government provided the workers based at these licensed entertainment establishments with STI and HIV testing. After the introduction of the anti-trafficking law that criminalized sex work in 2004, this practice ended and sex workers became reluctant to register for STI testing and treatment due to fear of prosecution. Data on sex workers registered for STI examinations show a rapid decrease from 5,922 in 2003 to 2,632 in 2004. In 2006 only 1,914 sex workers were registered, a reduction of nearly 70 percent since 2003. There was also a reduction in the overall number people seeking testing and treatment for STIs. The number of people seeking STI treatment at health offices declined from 156,000 in 2003 to 117,000 in 2006.
Police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners. It is estimated that 4 percent of the arrested people were sentenced to imprisonment. The Ministry of Justice operates schools for convicted male clients of sex workers who may attend seminars in lieu of punishment.
The Ministry of Justice reported that 99,958 men were sent to the ‘john school’ programme as an alternative to prosecution from 2005 to 2009. The programme aims to prevent clients from reoffending.
The Korean sex workers organization, Giant Girls**, describes the adverse effects of criminalization as follows:
Strict enforcement of regulations and severe punishment for the sexual traffic makes sex workers even more vulnerable in a relationship with business owners or clients. For instance, sex workers, in a legally disadvantageous position, can be forced to have sexual intercourse without using a condom by clients who would threaten to report to the police unless sex workers comply with their unfair request. Sex workers cannot easily report to the police if they become victims of assault or deception by clients or sex business owners. In other words, they are not under protection of the laws. Sex workers can be abused physically and verbally if they are taken to the police. Police sometimes take their naked photos or sex photos under the pretext of collecting and securing evidence.
‘Red-light districts’ (where brothels are densely concentrated) are being closed down and demolished in redevelopment areas, in the process of reinforcing elimination of the sexual traffic. In 2011, 42 brothels located in Yongdeungpo, Seoul were designated for removal, which triggered sex workers’ intense resistance.
5.8.3 Efforts to improve the legal environment
The Korean Sex Workers Network (Giant Girls) was established in 2009 by a group of sex workers who advocate for decriminalization of sex work. The group collaborates with human rights activists to campaign against the criminalization of sex work. The group also works to remove the social stigma associated with sex work through media interventions.
(End of excerpt. Please view the report for all annotations.)
“New UN report takes a stark look at links between sex work, HIV and the law in Asia and the Pacific”
— UNDP Press Release URL
* Shishuder Jonno Amra and Tree Foundation, Bangladesh; Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), Cambodia; China Sex Worker Organization Network Forum, China; Survival Advocacy Network, Fiji; Durbar Mahila Samanwya Committee (DMSC), India; Indonesian Social Changes Organization (OPSI), Indonesia; Asia-Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) Malaysia; Population Services International Targeted Outreach Program (PSI/TOP), Myanmar; Blue Diamond Society (BDS) and Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh (JMMS), Nepal; Friends Frangipani PNG; Empower and SWING, Thailand.