Torsos only for privacy reasons. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Despite a military crackdown on gay servicemen, politicians refusing to enact anti-discrimination legislation, and fundamentalist faith groups engaging in “Homosexuality Countermeasures”, South Korea has just witnessed its biggest-ever queer parade. Korean sex workers’ rights activist Yeoni Kim and others carried a message on their T-shirts that still needs plenty of amplifying, not only but especially in Korea: Queer Sex Workers’ Lives Matter! LGBT 성노동자도 함께 합니다!
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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.
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.
Giant Girls invites you to the Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum
Date: Saturday, 28th November 2015
Location: Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), 6th Fl. Kyunghyang Daily News Bldg., 22 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-702
Entrance Fee: KRW 10,000
11.00 – 12.00 Film screening of ‘Grace Period’ by Caroline Key & KIM KyungMook (see trailer below)
16.30 – 19.30 Film screening of ‘Red Maria 2’ by Kyung-soon (see interview with Kyung-soon here)
국제앰네스티 ‘성노동전면비범죄화’ 결정을 환영하며 <아시아태평양 성노동자 인권 포럼>을 마련했습니다. 이번 주 28일 토요일 오전 11시 민주노총 금속노조 사무실에서 참가비 1만원으로 진행됩니다. <유예기간>과 <레드 마리아2> 영화 상영과 함께, 스칼렛 얼라이언스(호주), 스와시(일본), 코스와스(대만), 그리고 지지(한국)에서 ‘아시아태평양 지역 성노동자의 인권과 성매매 정책’을 주제로 포럼을 열고자 하니 많은 관심 바랍니다.
2015 Panel Discussion commemorating Sex Workers’ Day
“On April 9th, 2015, a public hearing was held at South Korea’s constitutional court regarding the constitutionality of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. These laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications. The laws encompass social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation. In this light, Giant Girls Network for Sex Workers’ Rights will hold a panel discussion to review the aforementioned public hearing. The event will be held on Sunday, June 28th, 2015. Thank you for your interest and participation.”
“2015년 4월 9일 성매매특별법 위헌제청 공개변론이 열렸습니다. 성특법은 단순히 성구매자와 판매자의 처벌에 관한 법률이 아닙니다. 이 법에는 우리 사회의 성도덕, 성적 자기결정권의 국가 개입, 직업선택권 등의 복잡한 문제가 얽혀 있습니다. 성노동자권리모임 지지는 이 공개변론이 성특법에 대한 논의에서 중요한 역할을 했음에도 불구하고 공론화 되지 못함을 안타깝게 생각하여 6월 28일 일요일 공개간담회를 열고자 합니다. 많은 분들의 관심과 참여를 부탁드립니다.”
Chair: Sa Misook 사미숙 (Giant Girls)
Jeong Gwan Yeong 정관영 (Attorney)
Prof. Park Gyeong Shin 박경신 (Korea University, argues that the laws are unconstitutional)
Prof. Oh Gyeong Sik 오경식 (Kangrengwonju University, argues the laws are constitutional)
Jang Sehee 장세희 (Vice President, Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers)
Prof. Go Jeong Gaphee 고정갑희 (Hansin University)
Kim Yeoni 김연희 (Sexworker/Activist)
Date/Time: June 28, 2015 Sunday 13:30~15:30
Address: Bunker 1, Seoul Jongno-gu Dongsung-dong No 199-17 Floor -1 Danzzi Ilbo
서울특별시 종로구 동숭동 199-17번지 지하1층 딴지일보
Organiser: Giant Girls Network for Sex Workers’ Rights 성노동자권리모임 지지
Contact: Oh Gyeong Mi 오경미 010-4812-3350
Entrance is free. This event will be held in Korean.
Anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws might find it helpful to read Choe Sang-Hun’s recent summary in the New York Times. Please note that this recommendation does not represent an endorsement of the terminology used therein.
June 29th ☂ Korean Sex Workers’ Day
On this day, the National Solidarity of Sex Workers Day was organised, after the Special Anti-Sex Trade Law [which includes a Prevention Act and a Punishment Act] was passed in 2004. Since then, the date is commemorated as Korean Sex Workers Day to honour all sex workers who have contributed to the struggle against discrimination over the years.
Lucien Lee at the 2014 Korea Queer Festival in Seoul.
Photo © KQCF (left) and © Lucian Lee (right). All Rights Reserved.
By transgender sex worker Lucien Lee in Seoul
한국어 원본을 보시려면 여기를 누르세요.
Please note that the different copyrights for the respective photos.
Homosexuals once used to be outlaws, persecuted by the police and at the mercy of powerful justice systems in countries we now refer to as advanced. However, many places remain where homosexuals continue to be persecuted and even killed. In South Korea, however, homosexuals have never been outlaws. Unless a homosexual male engages in sexual activities with another person of the same gender while on leave from his mandatory military service, in which case the infamous Article 92 (6) of the Military Criminal Code, also known as “Sodomy Law”, applies, South Korea does not outlaw homosexuality. 
That may have been the reason why South Korea’s queer community had great difficulties to accept it when sex workers, who are criminals according to the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws, joined the 2013 Korean Queer Festival and identified themselves as sexual minorities oppressed by sexual morality. Comments like “What are you whores doing here?” came as no surprise because nobody would want to mingle with outlaws.
When I joined the Korea Queer Festival a year later as a transgender sex worker together with other sex workers, the reactions from people were quite different. Maybe that was because they couldn’t easily other me as a non-queer “whore” because I am a male to female transgender person. That day, we handed out a thousand copies of “A letter from independent sex worker ‘T’ to the LGBAIQ community”.  But other than that, sex workers’ rights are still not considered a part of queer issues.
Various research reports provide data about the ratio of sex workers among transgender people but those figures vary widely due to their limited sample sizes. It is undeniable, however, that those working at Itaewon’s transgender bars are the most visible group of South Korea’s transgender community.
On May 23rd, 2015, South Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo featured an article about transgender sex workers, which revealed the particular locations, times, and how much money is required to buy sexual services. But even before that article, it was impossible to hide transgender sex workers from the public view, and this visibility, together with a greater awareness among the cis-straight society in general, will likely result in police raids specifically targeting transgender sex workers, just as they targeted and demolished red light districts before.
A taxi driver interviewed for the abovementioned article said, “I’ve been a taxi driver for almost twenty years, and they [transgender sex workers] were already here when I started.” Traditionally, sex work is often the only viable source of income for male-to-female transgender people. We cannot survive economically if such a transgender-specific persecution occurs. We cannot easily change our jobs.
Sex workers and activists protest in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court.
© 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
On April 9th, 2015, a first public hearing was held at South Korea’s constitutional court in the ongoing review to determine whether the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws are unconstitutional. Article 21 (1) of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws Punishment Act penalises sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines of up to 3 million won (approx. £1,765/€2,485/$2,735), except for those who were coerced. The article is not gender-specific and therefore applies to male and transgender sex workers, too.
The female sex worker, whose arrest and subsequent trial led to the constitutional review, standing in the middle of the above photo, argues in favour of the decriminalisation of sex work limited to female sex workers only. However, members of South Korean feminist organisations, who used to advocate for what they referred to as “decriminalising female prostitutes”, have spoken out against this woman as they fear that if the article were to be ruled unconstitutional, buying sexual acts would also no longer be criminalised. Even if one were to accept their opinion that female sex workers are victims of a capitalist system, and hence innocent, whereas male buyers are guilty, their insistence on keeping the 2004 Anti-Sex Trade Laws makes no sense, as it punishes innocent people.
Anti-prostitution activist holding up signs saying
“There are things in the world that cannot be traded.”
© 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Despite the importance of this review, none of the LGBT organisations has so far made their stance on this issue publicly known. That is one of the reasons why, although the sexual minority movement is often referred to as “LGBT” or “queer” movement, in reality, it is more considered as a “homosexual” movement by the public.
Police raids targeting transgender sex workers would force transgender people to organise demonstrations in the same way as sex workers working at the Yeongdeungpo red light district did to protect their right to survive. If such protests were to happen, I wonder what stance LGBT organisations would take. Would they abandon transgender sex workers or stand together with them? Let us all take this very seriously and think about it together. See you all at the 2015 Korea Queer Festival.
 While engaging in sexual activities on military premises is generally forbidden, Article 92 (6) of the Military Penal Code states that “anal intercourse or other harassment against any person … shall be punished by imprisonment of up to two years” even if it occurs while on leave. LGBT rights’ activists argue that this paragraph is used to single out sexual relations between members of the same sex.
 A small clarification for readers less familiar with the acronyms: LGBTAIQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, and queer, and the T was here purposefully left out as ‘T’ addressed the LGBAIQ community.
Translation by Lucien Lee. Edited by Matthias Lehmann. I would like to thank Lucien Lee for her permission to reblog this article. The English version differs slightly from the Korean original and features two different photos. Footnotes were added for further clarification.
Photos taken on April 9th, 2015, as sex workers and activists gathered in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court in Seoul ahead of a public hearing, part of the ongoing review of the country’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws. The sex workers depicted in these photos consented to them being published online. All photos © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
+++ Update Sept. 23rd, 2015 | Please read E. Tammy Kim’s article for Al Jazeera America, titled Korean sex workers demand decriminalization of their labor +++
Grace Period – Film Still © 2015 Caroline Key All Rights Reserved
Please support GRACE PERIOD, a documentary about sex worker life and collective resistance in a South Korean brothel district.
Korean-American filmmaker Caroline Key, together with Korean co-director KIM Kyung Mook, is about to complete GRACE PERIOD, a film about a community of Korean female sex workers. In her own words, GRACE PERIOD is “a documentary, essay filmmaking, video art hybrid that explores issues of gender, work, intimacy and precarity”. Key and Kim filmed at the Yeongdeungpo brothels for nearly a year, and then spent the next three years “editing, sorting, translating, transcribing, crafting, discussing, animating, arguing, debating, making up and then editing some more”. Now they are almost done but they need your support to make it to the end.
Please read the Caroline Key’s note on the fundraiser page.
Why is it important?
I was introduced to Caroline Key by my professor back in 2012, while we were both working on our respective projects with sex workers in Seoul. I fully support this excellent film, which I had already the chance to see a rough cut of. Its importance couldn’t be overstated, especially in light of the many distorting, insincere, and even racist media reports and films, which have surfaced over the last year and misrepresented the lived experiences of sex workers in South Korea, largely with impunity.* With the outcome of the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws still unknown, GRACE PERIOD directs some much-needed attention to the real life experiences of South Korean sex workers and the struggle for their rights.