Neon sign of a motel in Daegu © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography All Rights Reserved
In early 2013, I published A Letter from a South Korean Sex Worker, written by Hyeri Lee [an alias to protect her anonymity]. Recently, I had the chance to meet her again in Daegu, South Korea’s third largest metropolitan area. After a few days of sightseeing and trying out the local cuisine, we sat down at a coffee shop near her home to talk about her experiences over the last few years. The following is a transcript of our conversation, which Ms Lee authorised me to publish.
Please note that the copyright for this transcript lies with Research Project Korea and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.
While Korean police lament the lack of sufficient resources to clamp down on prostitution businesses, police crackdowns and undercover sting operations are actually more frequent than the public believes. During the five years that Ms Lee has worked in different cities across South Korea, she has never encountered anyone being forced to sell sex, which is not to say that working conditions or clients are always pleasant. While there are people under the age of 18 who sell sex in South Korea, all sex workers Ms Lee encountered were between their 20s and 50s. Migrant sex workers she met came from China and North Korea, as well as from Russia and Uzbekistan. Police crackdowns and unruly clients take a serious toll on sex workers’ mental health. In light of that, it’s unfortunate that Ms Lee is no longer involved in sex worker activism as she has lost trust in organisations advocating for sex workers’ rights.
Matthias: How long has it been now since you started to work as a sex worker and where did you work before moving to Daegu?
Hyeri: It’s been five years and apart from Seoul and Incheon, I’ve worked in Bucheon and Yangju in Gyeonggi Province, and in Cheonan and Taean County in South Chungcheon Province. I’ve also worked at other locations but only for a short time.
Matthias: Why did you move to Daegu?
Hyeri: I’ve moved here last July because of my boyfriend.
Matthias: How did you two meet?
Hyeri: We first met on Twitter and later got to know each other more over the phone. I thought he was quite cool and we often happened to agree on quite many things, including our personal relationships. Whenever either of us felt down, we called each other to cheer the other one up. Actually, I felt suicidal a number of times and he always happened to call then to check in on me, as if he knew. It felt like a miracle.
Matthias: What made you feel suicidal? You’ve never mentioned that to me before today.*
Hyeri: I was just so tired of terrible clients and of sting operations by the police in Incheon, Bucheon and Taean.
Matthias: I’ve come across quite many comments online where people expressed they didn’t believe the Korean police was doing anything. What would you respond if someone said that to you?
Hyeri: I would probably just laugh. They clearly don’t know what’s going on. Incheon and Bucheon were the worst. The police was around almost all the time, day and night. There were many crackdowns but I managed to escape them. I left before they could arrest me.
Matthias: How do those sting operations work?
Hyeri: At first, they just act like clients. They’d come into our shop and say, ‘I’ll decide and pay later once I’ve chosen a girl.’ So they enter the room, talk to a woman and pay her, which makes her think this is actually a client. But once she takes the man into a separate room and takes out a condom, he’d arrest her. Just the fact that we have condoms is enough for the police to arrest us.
Matthias: You said before that you sometimes have terrible clients. Could you explain more about that?
Hyeri: The worst ones I had in Taean. They have no manners at all. They’d ask me stuff like ‘Why do you use condoms?’ or ‘Why can’t I use my finger?’
Matthias: I remember you told me one day about a client who had penetrated you with his finger although you had explicitly told him that was off-limits. How often do you have such clients?
Hyeri: Maybe around two out of ten clients try that. When I tell them I don’t want it, some even have the nerve to ask me ‘Why not? What’s the matter?’ What the f***! In other cities, maybe one or two out of ten clients ask for unprotected sex. But in Taean, it was almost every single one of them, so I fought a lot with clients there. Another client I remember from that time was an elementary school teacher. He was really smelly but at least he wasn’t as bad as the others and he was actually a repeat client. But he always made some condescending remarks about how much he paid for my service, like I had to be grateful. Such a show-off.
Matthias: I can only guess but people like him might feel ashamed about buying sex so they perhaps say those things to feel better about themselves.
Hyeri: Exactly. They want to have sex but have no partner, so they come to us and pay us for it. But they still think we are beneath them, like they are somehow better than us. But we’re human, just like them, and have the same rights – no grades, no levels. In fact, some sex workers are smarter than those lowlife clients. Well, maybe not all of them. (laughs) By the way, in Taean, I’ve also had some police officers among my clients.
Matthias: How did they treat you?
Hyeri: They acted pretty normal. Actually, I was more comfortable with them than with some of my other clients. But one of them was bad. All women hated and avoided him but I didn’t care as long as he paid. One day he asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid of me?’, and when I asked him why, he replied ‘All other girls are afraid of me.’ He then told me that he was a police officer and that his life was boring as his wife was working in another city. I guess he told me because he saw that I wasn’t afraid of him. But at other times, he would get angry, talk trash and yell at me. He was a really loud person. But I just felt kind of sorry for him. He wanted to appear really strong but he seemed quite unhappy and like he just needed someone to care about him.
Matthias: If you look back over the last five years, how would you rate your clients? How many were nice, how many were average, and how many did you have bad experiences with?
Hyeri: The nice ones were just ten percent, maybe a little below that. Half of them were so-so, not bad. The rest behaved badly or worse.
Matthias: So, the majority was average or good, but that’s quite many bad ones. Do you keep records of the bad clients?
Hyeri: Absolutely. I avoid them and tell them that I don’t want them as clients. Some ask me then ‘Why? I paid you, it’s your job.’ Dealing with those clients makes me feel depressed and gloomy. Sometimes, I just want to evaporate. It also burdens me to juggle my work and my family, so sometimes I cry a lot and feel suicidal.
Matthias: Does your mother know about your work?
Hyeri: No, she doesn’t. She does know I work in shops [brothels] but she thinks I am only taking care of the books and help the women with their make-up.
Matthias: And she doesn’t mind that?
Hyeri: No. It’s just one of the jobs out there and she doesn’t care. But if she knew I was a sex worker – she wouldn’t want that.
Matthias: How do you feel about living away from your children?
Hyeri: It’s my one and only regret. Actually, it’s not a regret. But I worry about them.
Matthias: Does your boyfriend have a problem with your work? And do you think you’ll move back to the north together?
Hyeri: No, he’s fine with my work. But Sung Woo [name changed] is a Daegu person through and through. He doesn’t like other cities and he certainly doesn’t like Seoul, so I don’t think we’ll move there. He’s been there for me every time I felt down, even when we were just friends. In Korea, usually just lovers hug each other, but whenever we met, we were hugging each other even when we still thought we were just friends. But then last year, I got unfairly fired from a shop in brothel…
Matthias: Oh, why was that?
Hyeri: The working conditions there weren’t good, so I argued a lot with the owner during the two months I worked there and eventually, he fired me. So I went on a short trip to Busan and Daegu. My plan was just to stay two days in Daegu, but then I met Sung Woo and felt really comfortable with him, so I stayed a day longer, and I visited him several times over the following months. Finally, in July, I started to live here. Actually, people in Daegu prefer a Seoul agashi [young lady; miss] so I have more clients here.
Matthias: Does that mean you can charge your clients more? How long are your sessions usually?
Hyeri: Yes. My sessions last between 60 and 90 minutes and clients have to pay between 100-150,000 Won (approx. £60-90 | US$ 90-140 | €80-120).
Matthias: How does it compare to your previous job in Yangju?
Hyeri: I worked at a room salon there and they had a system called jogeon mannam [lit. condition meeting], where the price depends on the duration as well as the service. What do I do and what don’t I do. There, sessions last for at least two hours or even longer, depending on what the client wants. The client then pays the owner and the owner pays me. Per hour, I earned 30-60,000 Won (approx. £18-36 | US$ 27-55 | €24-48). At the room salon, clients can choose which women they like. Most Korean men prefer thinner girls, so some clients rejected me. Sometimes, I would go a whole day without a single client.
Matthias: And you wouldn’t earn anything then?
Hyeri: That’s right. And whenever I told the owner that I wanted to take a rest, he would ask me, ‘How long?’ It felt more like dealing with a pimp, not with a manager.
Matthias: How about Daegu?
Hyeri: It’s much better here. I got more clients so I can more easily choose which clients I want. In Yangju, I worked pretty much every day but here, I only work 10-14 days per month. If I want to work, I work, and if I don’t, I don’t. (laughs)
Matthias: Very good. Where do you meet your clients here?
Hyeri: I first chat with them via one of two smartphone apps [names withheld] and then I meet them at a yeogwan [small hotel or inn].
Matthias: How much are the rooms there? Does the client have to pay for that?
Hyeri: Yes, sure. For two to three hours, they cost 20-30,000 Won (approx. £12-18 | US$ 18-28 | €16-24), but usually, 20,000 Won.
Matthias: Do you meet them in this neighbourhood?
Hyeri: Yes, I’m not travelling across the city. When clients call me, I tell them I’m from Seoul and don’t know my way around Daegu. (laughs) So, they have to come here and pick me up.
Matthias: What safety precautions do you take? Could they just drive you anywhere they want?
Hyeri: No, I never get into a car with a client. We just meet in front of a motel and then we go in. And they got to pay me first. I also screen my clients in advance. I test how patient they are. When I tell them I can only see them later or the next day, or that they have to come here if they want to see me, some swear at me, so of course I don’t meet them then.
Reflection of a motel in Daegu © 2015 Matt Lemon Photography All Rights Reserved
Matthias: Do you have many repeat clients?
Hyeri: Yes, about 60-70% of my clients are repeat clients. They like my Seoul accent and think I’m kind and sophisticated.
Matthias: Are the motel owners aware that sex workers use their premises? And how about the police? Do they check on the motels in the area?
Hyeri: The owners know, as does the police, but the police doesn’t do anything because we just look like normal couples.
Matthias: Do you have contact to other sex workers in Daegu?
Hyeri: At first, I worked at a noraebang [lit. singing room, Korean for karaoke bar] for a short time as a doumi [lit. helper; doumis sing and drink with customers, who then later also pay them for sexual services at nearby motels if they come to an agreement]. But I didn’t have much in common with the other doumis there. They didn’t think about the job like other sex workers I’ve met. They think of it just as a part-time job or a secondary job, and that they will only do it to earn more money within a shorter period of time and then stop it altogether. Some of them don’t care about using condoms or whether or not clients use their fingers.
Matthias: How old are the sex workers you’ve met over the years? Did you ever encounter any persons below 18 who sold sex?
Hyeri: No, those I’ve met where always in their 20s at least but I’ve also met sex workers who were in their 50s.
Matthias: At all the shops you’ve worked at over the last five years, did you ever come across any cases where you felt people were forced to work there?
Hyeri: No, not at all.
Matthias: Did you meet any sex workers from other countries?
Hyeri: Not here in Daegu but I’ve met Chinese sex workers in Bucheon, Incheon and Taean. There were also Russian und Uzbek sex workers in Bucheon, and I’ve met some from North Korea in Yangju.
Matthias: Do you know how those from North Korea got to work there?
Hyeri: One of them told me she married some older Chinese man who paid her 20-30 million Won (approx. £12-18,000 | US$ 18-27,000 | €16-24,000). She lived with him for almost two years, got pregnant and had a baby, but then she escaped alone via Thailand to South Korea.
Matthias: Did she choose to do all that?
Hyeri: Yes, she wanted to help her parents in North Korea so she got the money and gave it to them. I would call it ‘self-trafficking’. It’s very common for Chinese men to pay for a bride.
Matthias: Finally, I would like to ask you about sex worker activism. You told me before that you resigned as a member of Giant Girls [an organisation of sex workers and allies to support sex workers’ rights]. But I often notice that you post messages about other labour activists on Facebook and Twitter or join them for protests or vigils. Do you still engage in sex worker activism?
Hyeri: I resigned from GG last August and I want to stay independent. There were just too many disagreements. I love some of the members at GG. Some work at a hospital, some are lawyers, and they were really helpful. I don’t necessarily think that it’s a problem that there were more non-sex workers than sex workers at GG but their way of thinking was a problem.
Matthias: Maybe that is because they’re not sex workers? I feel that’s the same with many researchers, journalists or politicians I’ve encountered. Even among those who say they support sex workers’ rights, and let’s suppose they really mean it, there are still many who don’t fully accept sex work as work and hope sex workers would quit and do something else. If there would be a new sex worker-only organisation in South Korea, would you join?
Hyeri: Never. I hate organisations and frankly, I don’t want to meet with other sex workers anymore.
Matthias: Do you have anything else on your mind that you would like to say?
Hyeri: I still think that life is hell for sex workers in South Korea.
Matthias: Yes, it sure sounds tough. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with me and thanks for showing me Daegu. I had a great time.
* Since those who do not recognise sex work as work are often prone to use cherry-picked facts to support their arguments, I would like to point out that South Korea has the highest suicide rate among all OECD countries.  “Last year, data showed that 29.1 people per 100,000 took their own lives ― more than triple the OECD average.”  So, without meaning to trivialise in any way the impact of police crackdowns and mistreatment by clients on sex workers’ mental health, one needs to acknowledge that suicide is a broader problem in South Korean society, and not limited to its sex worker population.
Update to the previous post “Journalism that harms, not helps: A response to Yewon Kang”
After contacting the Wall Street Journal’s Asia Editor Paul Beckett to request a review of Yewon Kang’s article, I received an email from South Korea Bureau Chief Alastair Gale, from which he permitted me to quote here. With regards to the statements by Yeoni Kim, Mr Gale wrote:
“I have discussed this with Ms. Kang, who has notes of the comments made to her by Mr. [sic] Kim in the interview. It is not clear to me why Ms. Kim would’ve changed her story but it appears to me she has.”
As I responded to him, I have been in close contact with Ms Kim for several years, and in my view, it simply made no sense that she would suddenly turn around and tell a journalist she didn’t even know the complete opposite of what she’s told me on numerous occasions, i.e. that she exclusively works in establishments with managers, which is exactly what she said in her comments included in the critique.
With regards to the claim by Ms Kang that the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family had refused to release the results from a 2010 report, Mr Gale explained that Ms Kang was apparently referring to particular results that weren’t included in the report when it was eventually published. I maintain that at the very least, her remarks are ambiguous, since they suggest that the ministry suppressed an entire report, which is untrue.
Finally, Mr Gale stated that he discussed with Ms Kang my criticism that the story lacked “additional information and background”, when I had actually explicitly referred to Ms Kang’s failure to draw any conclusions about what changes of the law might be necessary to improve the current situation and to mention anything about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights and the dangers caused by police crackdowns. Both were among the motivations Ms Kang had stated when she first contacted me in June of this year. Mr Gale responded,
“I’ve talked with Ms. Kang about her reporting and research and I feel the story is a fair reflection of the reality of the sex industry in South Korea, including the risks for sex workers from crackdowns by the authorities.”
Where Mr Gale found these risks reflected in Ms Kang’s article continues to elude me, as the article only contains a reference to their economic impact but none about human rights violations.
Needless to say, Ms Kim and a colleague of hers whom I discussed Mr Gale’s response with were not amused with his complete refusal to acknowledge any of the problems in Ms Kang’s article. As for Ms Kang, she never bothered to respond to the critique, but judging from her article, it hardly came as a surprise.
A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga
Response to Yewon Kang’s article “South Korea’s Sex Industry Thrives Underground a Decade After Crackdown” at the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog
In her article, Yewon Kang failed to mention anything about the repeated protests by sex workers against the Anti-Sex Trade Laws, about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights, and about the dangers caused by police crackdowns and undercover sting operations. Instead of correctly conveying what a sex worker had told her about her work, she fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted her statements. Kang’s article adds to a public discourse already influenced by prejudices, misinformation and sensationalism, and in doing so, she harms sex workers who demand to have their rights protected, instead of having them further eroded by an increase in police crackdowns.
When I recently wrote an email to a journalist in the Middle East, who had written about sex work and prostitution laws in his country, I was impressed by the positive and constructive exchange that developed. In his response, he thanked me for recognising that one certainly couldn’t expect journalists to be experts on every subject they write about, and added that he welcomed it when researchers and experts took the time to open up the dialogue. As a result of our exchange, he tried to convince his editor to change the photo that had accompanied his article, responded well to the points I had raised, and finally, he offered to introduce me to his contacts at local NGOs offering services to sex workers, should I wish to get in touch with them. By doing so, he singlehandedly restored some of the faith I had long lost in journalists writing about sex work.
With this article, however, Yewon Kang and her editors at the Wall Street Journal have tipped the scale back to where it was, and it adds insult to injury that it was published in the immediate aftermath of a 24-year old Korean single mother and sex worker jumping to her death to escape a police sting operation, leaving behind her baby and sick father. My response to Yewon Kang is motivated by my indignation that she deliberately chose to misrepresent and omit important facts. To make matters worse, she not only misrepresented a sex worker’s comment by taking it out of context, she even attributed a statement to her that she never made. Ms Kang had initially informed me that she wanted to convey the voices of different stakeholders to show the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws on their lives and work and to explore what each of them thought would be the best model with regards to prostitution legislation. In her final email less than two weeks ago, she assured me that neither her nor her editors were trying to misrepresent anything, and that all her efforts in writing this article were to raise awareness for the ineffectiveness of the law and how it drives sex workers underground, exposing them to greater risks. Yet, she never replied after I pointed out numerous problems in her draft and explained to her why I wouldn’t want to be quoted in it.
Well-informed readers will find none of the following surprising, but since there is too little credible information available about the situation of sex workers in South Korea and since Ms Kang claimed she cares about the dangers the current laws cause for them, I take this opportunity to illustrate that regardless of whatever good intentions she claims to have had, the result is a rather hellish article.
The photos by Man Chul Kim that are used in Yewon Kang’s article show Cheongnyangni 588, a well-known red light district in Seoul. They depict clean and orderly facilities and the photographer avoided showing anyone’s face. Together with the image descriptions, which explain how the Anti-Sex Trade Laws have forced most brothels to close, and the statement by ‘Choi Min Seo’, a sex worker who is said to prefer the safety of a brothel to offering sexual services online, the overall impression is that the author indeed wanted to highlight that legalising or decriminalising sex work would lead to safer working conditions. If that is in fact her opinion, it is all the more puzzling why she chose to misrepresent so many aspects in her article.
Police crackdowns and human rights abuses
Kang mentions “crackdowns” both in the title and four more times in her article. Titles need to be catchy and “crackdown” probably seemed catchier than “adoption of Anti-Sex Trade Laws”; but titles should also be accurate and so “a decade after crackdowns intensified” would have been more appropriate, since they are ongoing and at times intensifying.
Kang writes that the “free-wheeling red-light districts that once dotted many of South Korea’s major cities have been mostly tamed” and that the few which remained “face the threat of police raids”, which she describes as “the law’s successes”. But citing “people who follow the industry”, she states that “the country’s sex trade continues to flourish underground”, and an officer from the National Police Agency knows why: “we just don’t have the manpower” to broaden the crackdowns.
Kang then cites Kim Kang Ja, a former senior police officer in Seoul, who confirms that “money and manpower allocated for tackling the sex trade has never been sufficient for a systematic approach to the issue”. Kim is also quoted as saying that “the current approach only pushes the industry further underground and makes business owners more guileful”.
What Kang omits here, however, is that in 2012, Kim Kang Ja caused quite a stir when she proposed to amend the law to allow brothels to operate in designated areas.
“No matter how hard we try to regulate prostitution and get rid of it, it will always exist. There will always be women who work in the industry and it is virtually impossible not only to crack down on all of them, but also to have a sufficient budget that will help them get out of the business. … That is why we need to allow them to continue to make a living. … Having prostitution out in the open will benefit the women who work in the industry as the government will make efforts to prevent the exploitation of them and violations of their rights, which are now rampant.” – Kim Kang Ja in September 2012
“It is a serious issue that the human rights of prostitutes are infringed upon while their most basic right to make a living is not guaranteed.” – Kim Kang Ja in October 2012
Although some of the other views Kim expressed were questionable, the fact that Kang omits her widely discussed proposal seems odd, at the very least, since she had wanted to shed a light on that very aspect.
Other than Kim’s ambiguous statement that brothel owners have become more “guileful”, Kang only refers to the economic impact of police raids, when she quotes sex worker ‘Choi Min Seo’ who states that she has to work twice as much as before to earn the same amount of money. Kang makes no mention whatsoever of human rights abuses against sex workers during police crackdowns, although she later refers to physical and verbal abuse by clients. And so I sent her the following comment.
“At no point do you mention any abuse by the police, although all sex workers I’ve ever talked to have mentioned it to me, and it was also included in my response to you. I understand that no article can include everything, but by mentioning abuse by clients and omitting abuse by the police, you perpetuate the idea that sex workers experience abuse only by clients, which is untrue.” Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014
Kang deliberately ignored my objections and instead quoted two police sources calling for more resources for crackdowns, which she labelled a success of the Anti-Sex Trade Laws. Given the information she was given (see also next paragraph), this isn’t a mere oversight, it’s a deliberate misrepresentation, supporting the call for more resources for the police to conduct more crackdowns. And given the tragic death of a sex worker this week, who tried desperately to escape a police crackdown, it is cynical beyond belief.
Fabricating, misrepresenting, and misquoting statements
Kang writes that ‘Kim Yeo-ni’ sells sex over “over the Internet, connecting with clients through websites that are disguised as social meetup sites” and that she “prefers to work on her own, instead of in a brothel”.
When I discussed Kang’s article with Yeoni Kim, she stated the following:
“I am very angry. Yewon Kang lies in her article. I never met customers over the Internet. I don’t like it and I told her that. It is very dangerous so I never do that. I only work in shops with managers, and I told her that, too. The person she describes is not me.” – Yeoni Kim, quoted with her kind permission
In the passage already mentioned above, Kang also writes that Kim “experienced physical violence and verbal abuse by some of her clients”.
“This was taken out of context. I got beaten in an environment where there was no manager around at the time to watch out. I explicitly told her that I am worrying about the entire industry going underground and that it has become so dangerous due to all the police raids. But she didn’t mention that at all!” – Yeoni Kim, quoted with her kind permission
The fact alone that Kang deliberately fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted Yeoni Kim should suffice to raise serious doubts over her journalistic integrity. But there is more.
More factual errors
Kang quotes statistics from a “2007 report into the industry by the government’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” (which I already discussed here) and writes that “the ministry conducted another report in 2010 but refused to release the results, saying it had grown difficult to collect reliable data because of the evolving nature of the sex trade.”
While it is certainly true that the reports are unreliable, neither report was conducted by the ministry but got commissioned to the Korea Women’s Development Institute and Seoul National University’s Institute for Gender Research respectively. The 2010 report has indeed been published, even if with a delay, and I sent her the link where she could download it from the ministry’s website. Finally, I had cautioned her that the data in both reports and in the “high-profile media report in 2012”, an article in the Joong Ang Daily, were limited to red light districts only and represented mere guesstimates.
Arguing over “conducted by” and “commissioned by” might seem nit-picky, although why she didn’t correct it eludes me. But deliberately stating that a government ministry suppressed a report despite better knowledge is a clear fabrication on Kang’s part.
As is common for articles about sex work, Kang focuses exclusively on women and leaves out men as well as transgender people, whether they be men, women or non-binary people, all of which are often ignored and erased in articles and debates about sex work, a fact I had raised in our email exchange. With her insistence to focus on women and her abovementioned narrow focus on abusive clients, Kang clearly throws her support behind the common female victim/male perpetrator narrative.
Kang had wanted to quote my statement that “the exit programmes offered by the government, if you can call them that, are a joke”, and I had also pointed out that the Park administration’s plan “to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won for tip-offs about prostitution activities” but only 400,000 Won as an incentive to exit prostitution “would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.”
As I wrote here, the bare minimum sufficient to survive in South Korea is approx. 600,000 Korean Won for a 1-person household. For a 3-person household, e.g. a single parent with two children, it is approx. 1,300,000 Korean Won. As a comparison, a person working at minimum wage would earn 1,080,000 Won in South Korea (before taxes).
To be fair, perhaps Kang didn’t have any other source who made a critical comment about the government’s exit programmes, after I withdrew my permission to be quoted, and the fact that she provides the equivalent of the monthly stipend in US dollars should allow readers to grasp that it’s nowhere nearly enough to survive. Kang also mentions that the director of the Women’s Rights Support Division at the ministry “declined to elaborate on how effective the exit programs have been” and that the number of people making use of support centres has more than halved between 2005 and 2013. Yet, she states that “the government provides an array of assistance”.
Earlier, Kang falsely states that the ministry suppressed a report, but here, where the facts she gathered suggest that the assistance offered by the government doesn’t fit the needs of those who might otherwise make use of it, she remains silent. A glaring omission, considering we had discussed the very issue.
Kang claims she wanted to show the impact of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Laws and explore which measures would be useful to improve the current situation. However, she failed to mention anything about the repeated protests by sex workers against the laws, about the frequent violations of sex workers’ rights, and about the dangers caused by police crackdowns and undercover sting operations. Instead of correctly conveying what sex workers had told her about their work, she described them and fabricated, misrepresented and misquoted them. As Laura Agustín, an expert on sex work and migration, accurately summed it up: “Although journalists may ask to speak to ‘real sex workers’, they often just create a general identity to attribute quotations to. Ms Kim could be ‘Korea Sex Worker Everywoman’.”
Kang drew no conclusions whatsoever about what changes might be necessary to improve an untenable situation, although she had ample access to interview partners who could have, and in fact did tell her about it. The only suggestion that appears in her article is to bolster the resources of the police to increase crackdowns.
“Writing about sex work certainly is a minefield. Different people will find different issues important and making everybody happy is quite a difficult task. … Sensitive subject matters, such as the situation of sex workers or other marginalised populations, do require anyone writing about them to go the extra mile to avoid misrepresentations that can negatively affect public opinion and subsequently policy makers.” – Excerpt from emails to Yewon Kang, 17+22/11/2014
In my view, Kang has failed on almost every account. The last thing sex workers in South Korea or anywhere need are articles like hers, as it adds to a public discourse already influenced by prejudices, misinformation and sensationalism. In doing so, she harms sex workers who demand to have their rights protected, instead of having them further eroded by an increase in police crackdowns.
One positive is that Kang consistently uses the term ‘sex worker’, by no means a given in articles in Korean newspapers. (The only time she uses the term ‘prostitute’ is when she quotes a brothel owner.)
Besides that, however, she reverts to a narrative style that is sadly common in articles about sex workers. And while one could think that she perhaps did so unconsciously, it was in fact one of the key points when I explained my reasons for declining to be quoted in her article. In the following, I will highlight just a few examples.
“wearing only lingerie”; “Neon red and blue lights flicker in the narrow alley”; “scantily-clad women”
Police officers wear uniforms; politicians wear formal attire; sex workers wear sexy outfits, and red light districts have neon lights. Yet, you won’t find interviews with police officers or politicians where journalists first describe what they are wearing or describe the lighting at their offices. You might be unaware of it, but this paragraph is sensationalising, and “scantily-clad” is actually a term that tries to evoke pity. – Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014
“women seeking a way out of a life of prostitution”
“a life of prostitution” suggests that if you are a sex worker, your entire life revolves around your work, and the underlying suggestion here is that anyone needs to get out of that life. Just compare it to other professions. Would one also write “life of selling insurances” or “life of politics”? No, one would write, “he wanted to get out of politics” or “she wanted to leave the insurance sector”. ‘Sex worker’ is not an identity but an occupation. – Excerpt from an email to Yewon Kang, 22/11/2014
In 2013, a journalist from German news magazine DER SPIEGEL interviewed sex worker activist Carmen Amicitiae. Although she had made it clear prior to the interview that she was not going to answer any personal questions but only those pertaining to her work and political activism, he went on to describe her as “petite woman, wearing a turtle-neck sweater and baggy trousers” in an article titled “Dark Fantasies”, of which only one fifth dealt with her political work. Amicitiae responded with a counterstatement on her blog and tweeted: “Dear Journalists, please leave my self-portrayal to me! If you want to report about me, then please write about my work or its legal status.”
Liebe Journalisten, überlaßt meine Selbstdarstellung doch mir selbst! Wenn, dann berichtet bitte über meine Arbeit oder deren Rechtslage!—
Carmen Amicitiae (@courtisane_de) May 21, 2013
Just as that SPIEGEL journalist, Kang was made aware of this, but as with everything else, she deliberately chose to ignore it.
Update | December 8th, 2014
“I feel the story is a fair reflection of the reality of the sex industry in South Korea, including the risks for sex workers from crackdowns by the authorities.” – Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Bureau Chief.
Find out more in Response from the Wall Street Journal.
A guide to respectful reporting and writing on sex work
By Marlise Richter, Ntokozo Yingwana, Lesego Tlhwale and Ruvimbo Tenga
“U.S. Military Camp towns were providing comfort women for U.S. troops” – 112 Women file for compensation against the South Korean government
The Korean government’s tolerance and supervision of camp towns was illegal.
Women who were involved in prostitution near US army bases filed for compensation against the Korean government. They submitted a petition to the Seoul Central District Court asking for a compensation of ten million won (approx. US$ 9,900) per person. The plaintiffs, comprised of 112 women, held a press conference on the 25th of June at Seoul Women’s Plaza, and stated, “The Korean government’s policy to keep military camp towns was nothing short of providing comfort women to US troops.” They went on to demand “an apology and compensation for every victim of the comfort women system within military camp towns”.
Plaintiffs also stated, “South Korean comfort women were not only in Japan. The Korean government created a ‘U.S. army comfort women’ system and supervised it.” “No one from the government protected us; instead they used us to earn foreign currency.” They continued, “Poverty resulting from the Korean War or human trafficking brought us to the military camp, and we experienced various forms of violence committed by U.S. soldiers. We tried asking the police for help in order to escape the camp, but it was the police themselves who brought us back there.”
Plaintiffs pointed out that the government not only tolerated prostitution, which was illegal, but also overlooked the abuse committed by the soldiers. They went on to say, “The government should reveal the history of comfort women in U.S. military camps, investigate the harm done to them, and take legal responsibility.” The press conference and the submission of the petition was hosted by the “United Korean Women’s Association” and “Solidarity for Human Rights of Gijichon Women”.*
Source: Park Eun Ha, Kyunghyang Shinmun. Click here to read the original article in Korean.
* Gijichon (기지촌) is the Korean term for U.S. military camp towns.
Sealing Cheng – On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea (UPenn Press)
* With regards to the title, it was pointed out to us that the term “camptown prostitutes” was, in that person’s view, “arbitrary” and “not fair”. The exchange of sex for money in the vicinity of U.S. military bases in South Korea is generally referred to as “camptown prostitution” and the women involved therein as “camptown prostitutes”. The corresponding Korean term for the latter is gijichon yeoseong (기지촌 여성), which literally means “military base village women” but is generally translated as “camptown prostitutes”. To our knowledge, the suit brought forward by the 112 plaintiffs is the first occasion where these women compare their situation to those women who are often referred to as “comfort women” (위안부, wianbu), a euphemism to describe women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. We decided to publish the translation of the above article because of the significance of this change, and we always used scare quotes when using the terms “camptown prostitutes” and “comfort women” to indicate that they represent special terminology used in this discourse. Where “camptown prostitution” is concerned, it remains unclear to what extent some, most or all women involved were forced to provide sex. The title above is not intended to dismiss the veracity of the claims brought forward by the plaintiffs, nor is it intended to express any opinion on the matter. It simply used, in scare quotes, the term these women are generally referred to.
Statement by Korean Sex Worker Organisation Giant Girls
We condemn the South Korean government for denying sex workers their human rights and criticise the government’s plan to pay rewards of up to one hundred million won to prostitution informants.
On May 20th 2014, the South Korean Government announced that they will pay rewards of up to one hundred million won (US$98,000 | £58,000 | €70,000) to informants who provide important leads to crime investigations, notably organised crime and prostitution. This announcement exhibits the government’s indifference, ignorance, and incompetency.
Since 2005, the government has successfully ignored the voices of sex workers, their cry against stigmatisation and discrimination, their fight for their right to survive, and the apparent link between sex work and women’s poverty. Instead of putting prostitution on the same level of criminal offences like organized crime, one should consider why people choose to enter and stay in prostitution.
What sex workers face is not limited to prostitution. Prostitution and sex work reflect the Korean society’s policies and attitudes towards minorities and workers, and also how strong the social safety net is. What people think of prostitution, how the sex industry is created and maintained, what the public opinion says about it, and how the government copes with it, all reflect the general problem of our society.
The government doesn’t think that prostitution is a result of inequalities in Korean society. Instead, it tries to blame prostitution for all sorts of social problems. Poverty and the failure to acknowledge the human rights of sex workers are key problems that sex workers face. It those problems remain unresolved, the controversy about prostitution will continue.
Prostitution is already illegal in Korea. That is why sex workers cannot ask for protection during their work. Rather than protecting sex workers, the police violate their human rights during crackdowns. Amidst all this, this new policy will pose a new threat to the survival of sex workers. With bounty hunters at large, sex workers will have to hide in the shadows where there is neither safety nor a regular income. This policy is also dangerous as it may direct public frustration at the Park administration’s incompetency, incapacity and dishonesty towards sex workers by defining sex workers as the delinquent “others”. Stigmatising minorities as criminals and putting them into dangerous circumstances represents nothing short of a witch hunt.
To most of male, female and transgender sex workers, sex work is a matter of survival. Before asking sex workers why would they go into this business, the government should reflect on the circumstances that renders sex work inevitable. A weak social safety net, prejudices within Korean society, and the attitude of Korean society towards poverty should be held accountable. Sex workers constantly have to be afraid and will have no access to workers’ rights and human rights as long as prostitution is deemed a crime and “prostitutes” as filthy.
We, the members of Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights, express our outrage over this incompetent and irresponsible government announcement and declare that we will take every measure against the situation.
May 20th, 2014
Giant Girls, the Network for Sex Workers’ Rights
Author: Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights (성노동자권리모임 지지)
Translation: Research Project Korea, with kind permission by Giant Girls
Please click here for the Korean version.
In May 2013, leading German news magazine DER SPIEGEL published a cover story on the alleged failure of the German prostitution law which, according to DER SPIEGEL, rendered the State complicit in human trafficking. Contrary to South Korea, prostitution is legal in Germany, though it is heavily regulated in most municipalities.
Since its publication, the SPIEGEL article has been quoted by campaigners for the criminalisation of prostitution in many parts of the world. Most recently, Mary Honeyball, a member of the European Parliament for the British Labour Party, cited the article as evidence in her “Report on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality”. The Honeyball Report was subsequently voted upon in the European Parliament, despite strong opposition from 560 NGOs as well as 94 academics and researchers who published a counter-report exposing the inaccurate and misrepresentative data used by Mary Honeyball.
Notwithstanding, a majority of MEPs backed the report, which was adopted as a non-binding resolution, thus formally establishing the EU’s stance on prostitution as being in support of the ‘Swedish Model’ that criminalises the buyers of sexual services.
Back in June 2013, Sonja Dolinsek and Matthias Lehmann had published a critique of the SPIEGEL article, which they found to be deeply flawed and failing to address numerous relevant aspects of human trafficking prevention and prosecution, including victim protection.
Noticing that the SPIEGEL article had found its way into the Korean news media, Research Project Korea launched a small fundraiser to have the critique translated into Korean. Nearly 90% of the funding target were reached quickly and the translation was completed at the end of June. The real challenge, however, was just beginning.
The plan to place the translated article in a Korean newspaper proved to be extremely difficult. Many editorial staff didn’t even bother to reply, but eventually, one of the biggest dailies expressed interest. The editorial department even planned to expand the article to include comments from sex workers and feminist academics. After protracted correspondence – months would literally pass by until the research team received new responses – it then suddenly transpired via a contact that the article wouldn’t be published after all. A journalist from the newspaper later confirmed this, without giving any reasons.
Although a lot of time has passed, we have now decided to self-publish the article, since the constitutional review of the Anti-Sex Trade Law in South Korea has still not concluded; a second reason is the significance the SPIEGEL article appears to retain for prostitution law discourses, especially outside Germany, where, long after the print edition has been recycled, it finds acceptance as unrefuted truth and continues to be utilised by anti-prostitution activists. It is currently disseminated on Korean online forums to insert some much-needed factual evidence into prostitution discourses in South Korea.
To view the Korean version of our article, please click here.
The research team would like to express its deepest gratitude to the generous donors who helped fund the translation as well as to the translators, Miss CHO Woori, Miss SONG Byol and [Anonymous].
More often than not, the ideas that people have about sex work result from the narratives created by the media or anti-prostitution activists and have little to do with reality. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to present to you a photo series by Yeoni Kim, a South Korean sex worker and activist with Giant Girls, Network for Sex Workers’ Rights. I would like to express my deepest gratitude and appreciation to Ms Kim for kindly providing her photos and statement to bring people – in her own words – “closer to sex workers”.
Please note that the copyright for the photos and statement lies with Yeoni Kim and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please share the link to this post with others but kindly refrain from downloading the photos and posting them out of context elsewhere. I would also like to ask bloggers to refrain from re-blogging this post. Should you wish to share Yeoni Kim’s work with your audience, please feel free to use the cover image and link to this post.
The reality is that unless you are a client, sex worker or middleman, it is not easy to gain access to the working environment of sex workers.
성노동자들이 어떠한 환경에서 어떻게 일을 하고 있는지, 구매자나 성노동자, 중개업자가 아니면 우리는 쉽게 접근할 수가 없는 것이 현실이다.
The shop that granted us the permission to take these photos is classified as ‘Hyugetel’, which usually have signboards that read “College Girl Massage” or “Gentlemen’s Massage”.
사진 촬영을 허가한 이 업장은 ‘휴게텔’이라 분류되는 업장이며 보통 ‘여대생 마사지’, ‘남성전용 마사지’라는 간판을 달고 있다.
The process starts with washing the client, applying gel on the client’s body while being naked, and then rubbing against the slippery body. This is also known as “riding the body”. After “riding the body” is performed, you wash and towel-dry the client, and then lay the client down in bed. Caressing and petting starts from the neck to the knees, both in the front and the back of the client’s body.
손님을 씻기고, 알몸으로 손님의 몸에 젤을 발라 미끌미끌하게 부벼 주는 일명 ‘바디 타기’ 후, 다시 손님을 씻기고, 수건으로 닦아주고 침대에 뉘여 목부터 무릎까지 등판과 앞을 전부 애무한다.
Intercourse is the last stage. When the client ejaculates, you remove the condom, wash the client again, dress him and send him on his way. The photos sum up the process.
그 다음 섹스가 이루어지고, 사정 후 콘돔을 정리하고 손님을 다시 씻기고 옷을 입혀 내보내는 이 과정들을 몇몇의 사진들로 축약해 보았다.
A lot of the process has been omitted in the photos, since it was hard to modulate the level of exposure. The pictures were taken to let people understand that sex work is more than “lying down with your legs open”, and perhaps bring the audience closer to sex workers.
노출의 강조를 어떻게 해야 할 지 고민이 되어 일하는 모습들을 생략한 부분이 많지만, 이 사진들을 통해 아주 조금은 성노동자들과 가까워지고 그들의 노동이 단지 ‘다리 벌리고 누워있는 것’ 이상임을 이해할 수 있기를 바라는 마음으로 찍어보았다.
Yeoni Kim / 김연희
Please click on the cover image to view the photos as slide show. Press Escape to exit.