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.
Sexarbeiter*innen und Unterstützer*innen protestieren vor dem südkoreanischen Verfassungsgericht. In der Mitte: Frau Kim Jeong Mi. © 2015 All Rights Reserved.
Due to time constraints, this article will not be translated into English. Please see a short summary at the bottom.
Kommentar zum Artikel „Debatte um Prostitution in Südkorea: Frau Kim kämpft um ihren Job“ von Fabian Kretschmer (taz, Politik/Asien, 1.8.2015).
Prostitution wird als „Job“ bezeichnet, damit also Sexarbeit als Arbeit anerkannt.
Gezeigt wird nicht etwa eins der üblichen Bilder von Bordellen, in denen in Südkorea nur noch vergleichsweise wenige Sexarbeiterinnen arbeiten, sondern ein Bild vom Protest südkoreanischer Sexarbeiterinnen im Jahr 2011. Noch besser wäre gewesen, es wäre ein Bild vom Protest im April diesen Jahres vor dem Verfassungsgericht verwendet worden. (siehe oben)
Ein direktes Zitat von Sexarbeiterin Kim Jeong Mi.
Es wird höchste Zeit, dass die taz endlich die Begriffe Sexarbeit und Sexarbeiter/Sexarbeiterin in ihr Stilbuch aufnimmt. Südkorea „exportiert“ auch keine Sexarbeiter*innen, sondern diese nehmen die vergleichsweise geringeren – aber nicht geringen – Risiken auf sich, im Ausland zu arbeiten, weil die Verdienstmöglichkeiten dort oft besser sind als in Südkorea, wo ihnen ohnehin Razzien, Verhaftungen und Strafen drohen. Der Ausdruck „exportiert“ ist also sowohl unzutreffend – weil Südkorea ja nicht direkt die Migration von Sexarbeiterinnen unterstützt, sondern die harsche Gesetzeslage und die damit einhergehenden Repressionen Sexarbeiterinnen zur Migration zwingen – als er auch unpassend ist, denn Sexarbeiterinnen sind Menschen, die migrieren, keine Ware, die exportiert wird. Auch von einem Marktwert einer Sexarbeiterin zu schreiben, zeugt nicht gerade von Fingerspitzengefühl.
1. Legalisierung vs. Entkriminalisierung
Was die Forderung von Sexarbeiterinnen angeht, ist der Artikel leider zu oberflächlich. Die Forderungen divergieren: wohingegen Frau Kim und die sie unterstützende Organisation Hanteo, Nationale Vereinigung für Sexarbeiterinen, für die Legalisierung regulierter Rotlichtbezirke eintritt, da Hanteo nämlich auch Betreiber*innen angehören, fordern unabhangige Sexarbeiter*innen und Giant Girls, Netzwerk für die Rechte von Sexarbeiterinnen, die generelle Entkriminalisierung der Sexarbeit. Die Unterscheidung zwischen diesen beiden Forderungen ist sehr wichtig und etwas, das man von Journalist*innen gerne erklärt sehen würde, damit Leser*innen die Thematik besser verstehen können.
2. „Kim … verklagte den südkoreanischen Staat“
Richtig ist: Frau Kim verteidigte sich gegen ihre Anklage mit den im Artikel erwähnten Argumenten und verlangte eine verfassungsrechtliche Überprüfung des Anti-Sexhandelsgesetzes, die Oh Won Chan, der Richter der Verhandlung beim Bezirksgerichts in Nord-Seoul, daraufhin einreichte. Dass ein Richter diese Überprüfung einreichte, macht sie so bedeutend, denn vorherige Anfragen zur verfassungsrechtlichen Überprüfung des Gesetzes wurden jeweils von Privatpersonen eingereicht.
3. Zahlen im Allgemeinen und im Speziellen
Die jüngsten Schätzungen – nichts anderes sind sie – sind nicht aus dem Jahr 2007, sondern von 2010. Sie wurden Anfang 2012 schließlich veröffentlicht. Der Bericht mit dem Titel “ Umfrage zum Sexhandel 2010” wurde vom Institut für Gender-Forschung an der Seoul National University angefertigt. Im Vergleich zum Bericht von 2007 hatte das Institut einen Anstieg der Rotlichtbezirke von 35 auf 45 und der Anzahl von dort beschäftigen Sexarbeiterinen von 3.644 auf 3.917 festgestellt. Dieser Anstieg passte natürlich dem auf die Utopie einer Abschaffung der Sexarbeit hinarbeitenden Ministerium nicht, weswegen er zunächst einmal in einer Schublade verschwand.
Nach eingehendem Vergleich mit dem Artikel Choe Sang-Huns in der New York Times – Suit Has South Korea Looking Anew at Its Hard Line on Prostitution – liegt der Verdacht nahe, dass hier schlicht eine gekürzte Version in deutscher Sprache veröffentlich wurde. So stammen die in Choes Artikel erwähnten 8.600 Fälle der Prostitution, in denen Südkoreas Polizei angeblich „derzeit“ ermittelt, vom Jahr 2013, und bei der Anzahl der Sexarbeiterinnen wurde offenbar auf glatte Summen aufgerundet. Das ist so ungenau wie es unnötig ist. Ebenso unnötig ist die Aussage, Prostitution sei in Südkorea „so allgegenwärtig wie in kaum einen anderen OECD-Staat“, denn es gibt keine verlässlichen Zahlen, auf die sich solche Behauptungen stützen ließen, auch in Südkorea nicht. Die sogenannten Regierungsschätzungen sind in Wahrheit zweifelhafte Schätzungen von Forschungsinstituten.
4. Todesfälle von Sexarbeiterinnen
Gut ist, dass das Feuer in Gunsan Erwähnung findet. Allerdings war dies kein isolierter Fall. Fünf Sexarbeiterinnen starben bereits bei einem ersten Feuer in Gunsan im Jahr 2000; 2001 kamen vier weitere Sexarbeiterinnen bei einem Feuer in Busan ums Leben; dann starben wie im Artikel erwähnt 14 weitere Sexarbeiterinnen bei einem zweiten Feuer in Gunsan. Durch diese Verkettung extremer Unglücksfälle gelang es Prostitutionsgegnerinnen danach, eine Verschärfung der Prostitutionsgesetzbegung durchzusetzen.
Alles in allem ist Fabian Kretschmers Artikel einer der besseren, aber insbesondere die teils sehr unpassende Wortwahl und der unnötige Fokus auf nicht belegte, nicht aktuelle und ungenau wiedergegebene Zahlen sind sehr zu bemängeln. Es gibt einige Anzeichen, die vermuten lassen, dass hier der Beitrag von Choe Sang Hun in der New York Times „recycled“ wurde, der im Vergleich sehr viel mehr Einblicke in die aktuelle Situation von Sexarbeiterinnen in Südkorea bot. So wäre besonders eine genauere Erklärung wünschenswert gewesen, für welche Rechte sich Sexarbeiterinnen in Südkorea engagieren, da dies auch in Hinsicht auf die aktuelle Debatte in Deutschland interessant ist. Zum anderen wäre es angebracht gewesen, das südkoreanische Prostitutionsgesetz genauer zu beleuchten, von dem Prostitutionsgegner*innen wiederholt behaupten, es ähnelte dem Schwedens, was eine glatte Lüge ist. In dem Zusammenhang hätten weitere Einzelheiten über Menschenrechtsverletzungen bei Polizeirazzien in Südkoreas Rotlichtbezirken erwähnt werden können. Positiv zu erwähnen ist die gute Wahl des Titels, des begleitenden Fotos und der Bildunterschrift, und dass überhaupt über dieses Thema berichtet wird. Angesichts der üblichen Berichterstattung über Sexarbeit bzw. über Südkorea ist dies nämlich durchaus keine Selbstverständlichkeit.
The above are a few quick comments about Fabian Kretschmer’s article “Debate about prostitution in South Korea: Miss Kim is fighting for her job”. While overall, the article is informative and provides some of the key points of the current debate in South Korea, the terminology used is inept and a quick fact check reveals several inaccuracies and crucial omissions. As is often the case, Mr Kretschmer (or his editor) seem to have felt the need to include statistics, although no reliable data about sex work in South Korea is available, not even in the reports commissioned by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Positive are the choice of title, photo and caption, all of which are by no means a matter of course, and the fact that a German newspaper reported at all about the ongoing constitutional review of South Korea’s Anti-Sex Trade Law.
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.
Sex workers and allies protest in front of the South Korean Constitutional Court.
© 2015 Research Project Korea. All Rights Reserved.
In May, I accepted an interview request by Malte Kollenberg, a freelance journalist producing a series about Germans living in South Korea for KBS World Radio. After several negative experiences with the Korean media, it was refreshing to meet a sincere journalist willing to go the extra mile to communicate before, during and after our encounter to ensure that the subject of sex work would be dealt with appropriately.
Listen to the interview in German or read the translated transcript below.
Please note that the copyright for the interview recording lies with KBS World Radio and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Introduction by Malte Kollenberg
Matthias Lehmann’s research deals with a stigmatised occupation. He currently works on his dissertation about sex work regulations in Germany at Queen’s University Belfast. Over the last years, he’s created his own niche. Starting from his interest in North and South Korea, and later in human trafficking prevention in Thailand, he presented in 2013 the results of a privately funded research project about the impact of the South Korean Anti-Sex Trade Laws on sex workers’ human rights. And South Korea is still on his mind. Lehmann actively engages for improved working conditions for sex workers. For the “Meeting of Two Worlds”, we’ve met Lehmann in Busan and spoke with him about his research, the differences between Germany and South Korea, and his critique of the media.
Malte Kollenberg: Mr Lehmann, what brought you to South Korea?
Matthias Lehmann: I first came to Korea was in 2002. I majored in Korean Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and the first time I came here was as a visitor, and then I returned later as an exchange student. Back in Berlin, my home town, I had quite a few Korean friends, and that’s how I came in contact with Korean culture, especially with Korean music, and of course with Korean films. My family’s history was shaped by the German division. I was born and grew up in West Berlin, but I also had relatives in East Berlin and other, smaller cities, all the way down to Saxony, and often visited the former GDR. That’s why the history of the Korean division is both a very interesting and emotional issue for me, and that was one of main reasons why I got into the field of Korean Studies.
MK: In the meantime, your research field is an entirely different one, however, and has little to do with the Korean division.
ML: Right. During my previous studies, and also for some time after that, I was particularly interested in North Korea and the role of the United States in the so-called North Korean nuclear crisis. Afterwards, I first shifted my focus onto the field of human trafficking. I did my master’s degree here in Korea and the subject I then wanted to focus on, sex workers’ rights and prostitution laws, which is the subject I am also dealing with now, I couldn’t get approved by the faculty at my university here, and I guess I can understand that. That was why I continued to focus on human trafficking prevention for my M.A. thesis, but of course that included illustrating how laws that should actually fight human trafficking, like here in Korea, negatively affect the rights of sex workers, especially of migrant sex workers. So, that’s how my research interest developed: first Korea, then human trafficking, then sex work. And although I first focused on Thailand, I later returned to South Korea to focus more closely on the situation here after the huge protests in Seoul in 2011.
MK: You also did research about this subject from a German perspective. Generally speaking, are there great differences between how sex work/prostitution is regulated by law in Germany and South Korea?
ML: Yes, there’s a huge difference. I’ve now begun to focus on Germany for my doctoral degree, and it’s exciting for me to do research about my own country for the first time. In Germany, sex work has been legal for a very long time. The media often report that Germany legalised prostitution in 2002 but that is actually incorrect. Prostitution was already legal for most of the 20th century, with the exception of the Nazi period. What changed in 2002 was that a law was created to strengthen the legal and social rights of sex workers, and that the operating of brothels was permitted. That’s what changed. But sex work was already legal, both the buying and the selling of sexual services.
And that’s exactly what is prohibited in Korea, which means that brothel operators, people who facilitate contacts, for example escort agencies, and also sex workers themselves are all prosecuted here. And it does happen! I’ve often experienced that both Koreans and foreigners living in Korea say that they believe nothing is being done and that the police is always looking the other way. And that really isn’t true. It might only be a drop in the bucket – but that drop hits the target. In fact, there are many raids here, and since last year, they’ve actually increased again. People are arrested and sentenced, people have to appear before the court, and last November, a woman even died as a result of a raid, because she panicked and jumped out of a window to escape the police.
That was a very interesting case and that’s where we come to the media. If any “prostitution ring” or human trafficking case is uncovered in Korea or abroad, where Korean sex workers are involved, or victims of human trafficking, which of course can also occur, then the Korean media always report about it immediately and extensively in their English editions and on their English websites, because that’s “sexy” news. But when that woman died last November – absolute silence! Nobody wanted to report in English that this sort of thing also happens. Of course there were some reports about it in Korean, but they were not good and very disrespectful. In one of them, there was a cartoon that showed two police men looking down from a tall building and a dead woman lying below. How one can even have such an idea is a mystery to me. Of course there isn’t always such extreme harm involved, but raids do happen and the human rights of sex workers here in Korea are being violated. That’s a big problem.
MK: You just said that the media are keen on such “sexy” news. And that’s exactly how it is. Sex always sells in the media. You must be flooded with media requests.
ML: Indeed. With the exception of September 11, I’ve never experienced such an avalanche of media reports as in the last 18 months, both in Germany, but also in the UK. In Germany, that’s because there’s an ongoing discussion about changing the prostitution law. There’s a new bill but it has already been in the works for quite a while and no final decision has yet been made. The ruling coalition will probably just push it through parliament since they have such great majority there. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and also in the British House of Commons, different attempts were made to introduce laws to criminalise the purchase of sexual services. [In Northern Ireland, a law criminalising sex workers’ clients has come into force on June 1st, 2015.] And in Korea, there are also a lot of media reports, especially due to the ongoing constitutional review concerning the Korean anti-prostitution law.
MK: What might be the outcome of that?
ML: I didn’t really look very deeply into the adultery law, which was recently changed here so that adultery is now no longer punishable by law, but in the wake of that decision, it is of course possible that the constitutional judges, they’re eight men and one woman, will take the next step and say that the prostitution law also needs changing. But I don’t quite believe it yet. There have been constitutional reviews of the law in the past, but those weren’t submitted by a judge. However, two years ago, a Korean sex worker stood before the courts because she had sold sex, and she insisted on her right of self-determination, which resulted in the presiding judge at the Seoul Northern District Court submitting a request for a new constitutional review of the law.
The review should have been concluded already, but these things take a lot of time. In the case of the adultery law, for example, it took four years. The first public hearing was in April and the process will continue. The experts I’ve heard giving evidence so far represent a mixed bag. Sex workers are not sufficiently included. It’s bad enough in Germany, but here, it’s even worse. Although there are two different sex workers’ rights organisations, sex workers haven’t presented evidence so far. Instead, that was done by lawyers, researchers, and other experts, so that at the hearing, sex workers themselves weren’t heard. At least in Germany, even if that was merely a fig leaf, we did have a sex worker presenting evidence in front of the justice committee of the German parliament. But here, nothing of that sort happened.
MK: Let’s return to the media. On your blog, you published a media critique some time ago. What problems do you see when it comes to media reports about prostitution/sex work?
ML: Well, it wasn’t just one media critique but sadly, it’s a recurring issue, and it’s always a lot of work. I only focus on those that matter, for example, if there’s a detailed report from the BBC or from [German broadcaster] ARD. When it comes to reports about Korea, then what you mostly see in the German media are the latest stories to have allegedly happened in North Korea, and those stories are often trumpeted before they’re even confirmed, simply because they make for good clickbait. And when it comes to prostitution, there is no value set on fact-checking or actually speaking to members of the occupational group concerned. When the train drivers or pilots in Germany go on strike, then journalists speak with representatives of those occupational groups. Sadly, when it comes to sex work, that just doesn’t happen. Or if it happens, then they are harassed to make certain statements they don’t want to make, or do certain things they don’t want to do. I remember talking with a sex worker while I was doing my research project here in Korea, who told me that after the 2011 protests in Yeongdeungpo, that’s a red-light district in Seoul, one of the media teams insisted on filming her while she would do the dishes at a brothel. She replied to them that she never does that, so why should she do it now? Their idea was obviously to convey a message like, “Look, sex workers are normal people, just like you, doing normal things.” Maybe from a very naïve perspective, one can understand their motivation, but it’s still nonsense to try and fabricate something like that. Instead of trying to put words into their mouths, shouldn’t they actually report about what sex workers’ concerns and demands are?
On July 19th, 2013, people gathered in 36 cities across the globe
to protest against violence against sex workers. | Official Website
MK: The topic sex work/prostitution is so complex. Is there anything that you would like to add that you consider as particularly important?
ML: Yes, thank you. Ever since the global protest in June 2013, after two sex workers were murdered in Sweden and Turkey, the #StigmaKills hashtag is being used on Twitter. It refers to the fact that the stigmatisation of sex work and of sex workers really does result in deaths – or at the very least, it has a very negative impact on sex workers. Something I notice time and time again, especially here in Korea, is that people either feel sorry for sex workers, which they really don’t need, or they’re angry about them, which happens both in Korea or in the Korean communities in Australia, for example. They are angry because they seem to think that Korean sex workers who work abroad are giving Korea a bad image. But the reason why many Korean sex workers have migrated to work abroad is that the law, which was adopted here in 2004, criminalises them, and that the risks they’re taking by working abroad, for example in the US where sex work is also illegal, are still more predictable, or the conditions more attractive, than the risks they’d face if they were to stay and work here. People should finally listen to sex workers, and not just let off steam based on their prejudices.
MK: Thank you very much, Mr Lehmann.
ML: You’re welcome.
Please note that the copyright for the interview recording lies with KBS World Radio and is not licenced under a Creative Commons License.
Interview by Malte Kollenberg. © 2015 KBS World Radio. Translation by Matthias Lehmann. The English version differs slightly from the German original to make for easier reading. I would like to thank Malte Kollenberg for his professional attitude and sensitivity throughout our communication before, during and after the interview.
[Video in German] “Sex Crime” or “Sexual Self-Determination”? Prostitution discourses in South Korea
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 +++
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.