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.
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 +++
“The biggest contributor to pushing sex work underground are the authorities.” A banner – previously used at the press conference by the Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers – hangs forlorn between two brothels in Yeongdeungpo, Seoul, as the red light district is closed on Korean Sex Workers’ Day 2012. (Photo by Matthias Lehmann)
Report on Public Opinion of Anti-Trade Sex Law
In 2011, the Hyundai Research Institute published the findings of a survey commissioned by the Hanteo National Union of Sex Workers. It examined “the changes in public opinions on sex trade after the enactment of the Anti-Trade Sex Law” in South Korea based on interviews with 1,000 adults from different age groups and all walks of life in a nationwide telephone survey.
Yeon Ju OH is a co-editor of Cyberfeminism 2.0 and has been researching women in technology, the relationship between gender and new media technologies, and feminist knowledge production. Her interests include the transnationalisation of feminist knowledge.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ms Oh who volunteered to translate the report to make it accessible to a wider audience and help to further a better knowledge exchange between the global south and north.
South Korean Model: The Anti-Trade Sex Law
In September 2000, the notorious Gunsan Brothel Fire killed five women who had been held captive. Their tragic deaths exposed the conditions in Korea’s sex industry and triggered a campaign by women’s rights activists to reform the country’s prostitution laws. Their proposals became the blueprint for the Special Laws on Sex Trade (성매매 특별법, Seongmaemae tteukbyeol beob), enacted in 2004, which include a Protection and Prevention Act and a Punishment Act, which penalises both buyers and sellers of sexual acts with up to one year in prison or fines up to 3 million won (approx. £1,715/€2,075/$2,825), except for those who were coerced into selling sex. Those who force others to sell sex are subject to up to 10 years in prison or fines of up to 100 million won (approx. £57,000/€70,000/$94,000).
The Anti-Sex Trade Law of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviours (Prostitution) of 1961 (윤락행위등방지법, Yullak haengui deung bangji beob). Interestingly, the new law replaced the term “prostitution” (윤락) with “sex trade/sex trafficking” (성매매) as the former was found to imply the “moral corruption of the engaged women” while the latter was deemed to be neutral in value. What this illustrates, however, is the law’s disregard of sex work as an act of self-determination and the definition of transactional sex, i.e. the receipt of monetary or other material benefits in exchange for sexual acts, as inherently exploitative.
By passing the Anti-Sex Trade Law, the government vowed to eliminate prostitution and protect victims of exploitation and violence in the sex industry, drawing inspiration from the so-called Swedish Model that criminalises the buyers of sexual acts. Although representatives of the Swedish government continue to claim that the law successfully reduced prostitution and human trafficking, a 2011 report by the Swedish police found that between 2008 and 2010, all those criminal offences the Sex Purchase Act from 1999 was supposed to tackle had actually increased, including a number of human trafficking offences, the purchase of sexual services and even the purchase of sex acts with children. In November 2013, Equality Minister Maria Arnholm voiced her concern that “prostitution in Sweden today is more affected by trafficking, compared to seven years ago” and announced to further examine the effects of Sweden’s prostitution law.
The Ministry of Gender Equality celebrated the Anti-Sex Trade Law legislation as a milestone achievement that would “vigorously strengthen the protection of the human rights of women in prostitution”. However, others criticised the legislation’s discriminatory attitude towards sex workers, who remain criminalised unless they claim to be victims. This “distinction between victims and those who [voluntarily] sell sex is actually one between protection and punishment” and categorises women into “good women who are worthy of help” and “bad ones who need to be punished”, thus continuing the stigmatisation of women who sell sex.
Challenges of the Anti-Sex Trade Law
In June 2006, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled 8:1 to uphold the law in the “So-called Brothel Building Provider Case”. A complainant who owned buildings in a red light district had argued that since his properties could not be leased out for any purpose other than brothels, regulating and punishing the leasing out as thus excessively infringed upon his right to property. The judges dismissed his complaint arguing that “the public good that may be achieved by preventing the deep-seated abuse and infringement of human rights of sexual traffic in the brothel area, and ultimately closing down the brothel area itself” was of greater importance “than the short term private losses suffered by the complainant”.
In January 2013, Criminal Law Judge OH Won Chan from the District Court in Northern Seoul accepted the request of a 41-year-old sex worker, surnamed Kim, for the legal examination of the Anti-Sex Trade Law and referred the case to the Constitutional Court for judgement. Kim had been fined 500,000 won (approx. £285/€345/$470) for selling sex in violation of the laws. The request is based on the premise that in the absence of coercion or exploitation, sex work should fall within an individual’s right to self-determination and that adults have the right to engage in consensual sexual acts without the state’s interference.
Korean legal experts appear to agree with that notion. According to HAN Sang Hee, professor at Konkuk University Law School in Seoul, “the policy approach to sex work in South Korea has centred on regulation [punishment], viewing it simply as an ‘evil’. The significance of this constitutionality review request is that it positions sex work as a matter of women’s rights and provides a starting point for a debate on expanding women’s rights to self-determination.” And according to HOH Il Tae, professor at Dong-A University Law School in Seoul, “criminal punishment should be a last resort. The state needs to refrain from interfering in personal matters that do not involve sexual acts with minors. The responsibility of the state is to monitor, protect, and/or provide appropriate education for the women who engage in sex work to earn money and the men who purchase their services.”
Public Opinion: An ineffective law in dire need of reform
The survey by the Hyundai Research Institute revealed that 23.2% of respondents believed sex trade* had increased since the enactment of Anti-Sex Trade Law, while 8.9% thought it had declined. The highest percentage (49.9%) thought the law had made “no difference”. While 29.3% of the respondents thought, the abolition of red-light districts had a positive impact on efforts to eradicate sex trade, in most respondent groups, the percentage of those who felt it had neither a positive nor a negative impact was higher. In addition, 58.8% believed that covert sex trade had increased since the enactment of the Anti-Sex Trade Law, while 7.4% said it had decreased (No difference: 24.9%). 46.1% of respondents answered that the number of sex workers travelling to work abroad had increased since the enactment of law, while 3.3% said the number had decreased. (No difference: 21.3%, Do not know/Unanswered: 29.3%)
These answers clearly indicate that the majority of respondents did not view the implementation of the Anti-Sex Trade Law as effective in reducing sex trade. It comes as no surprise then that 39.6% of the respondents did not agree that the law had been implemented in accordance with its original purpose and that 73.3% said the law should be reformed, mirroring what sex workers in South Korea have been campaigning for ever since the law was introduced. The constitutionality review of the Anti-Sex Trade Law was scheduled to conclude six months after the submission of the request. A year on, however, no decision has been announced and the persecution of sex workers continues.
*These passages are quoted and paraphrased from the English translation of the report. As mentioned above, the term “성매매 (seongmaemae)” can be translated as either “sex trade” or “sex trafficking”. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family uses the translation “sexual traffic”.
1. Jordan, Ann “The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering”
2. Dodillet; Östergren “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects”
3. Swedish National Police Board – “Trafficking in humanbeings for sexual andother purposes”
4. Lyon, Wendy “Sex trafficking in Sweden, according to the Swedish police”
5. Lehmann, Matthias “Criminalising the payment for sexual services”
6. The Hankyoreh – “Judge seeks constitutional review of law that criminalizes prostitution”
Looking back on a year of independent research* and looking forward to a meeting with Korean sex workers and a graphic artist to start creating a graphic novel about sex workers in South Korea.
Matthias Lehmann, independent researcher from Germany, at his favourite bakery in Gyeongnidan
*Research Project Korea is unaffiliated to any university or organisation and exclusively funded by myself and limited private donations. Please contact me should you have any questions, be it about the nature of my project or its funding, about the media I publish, or about my personal background. Find more details in the About section.
On the eve of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, I would like to share several messages. One is from KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers in South Korea; the second is from a Korean sex worker who sadly cannot participate in the festival; and based on both of their statements I would also like to share a message of my own.
I am often asked what I wish to accomplish with my research project. Some people simply happen to know very little about the subject of sex workers’ rights, others might question my motives or morality, and yet again others might wonder why I am doing this research in South Korea. In the following, I will explain one of the factors that motivate me, and it’s the same that also renders my research considerably difficult at times.
Think globally (sometimes), act locally
I usually try to avoid making generalising statements about Koreans. Firstly, it is never wise to make general assumptions about a large group of people, and secondly, Korean society is in a state of constant and rapid changes, which I have been able to witness over the last ten years, four of which I have been living in South Korea.
If you visit Korea, it will be virtually impossible for you not to come across the words ‘international’ and ‘global’ on a regular basis. You will find them on banners and brochures of universities, research organisations, government agencies or private corporations who all use those words to give their dealings the semblance of being interconnected with like-minded partners in other parts of the world.
My experience tells me, however, that this global link is more often than not in name only, regardless of how genuine the intention to establish it may be. Korean activists, while very apt when organising protests within Korea, are no exception to this rule. 
Raising awareness about sex workers in Korea
Raising awareness about the situation of sex workers in South Korea is therefore one of the factors that continue to motivate me. I will not pretend that the lack of an international network doesn’t pose a significant challenge sometimes. But it makes me want to engage with Korean sex workers even more to encourage them – where necessary – to increase their network with sex work activists in other countries and to make their voices heard beyond the Asian realm. 
The evening before I boarded my flight to Kolkata, I met with KANG Hyun Joon, Director-General of the Han Teo National Union of Sex Workers, at a café in Seoul’s red-light district in Yeongdeungpo. Kang founded Han Teo in September 2002 and the organisation soon represented 20,000 brothel-based sex workers. Following the Special Law on Sex Trade of 2004 and increased government crackdowns on brothels, membership has since dropped to approx. 8,000, as an estimated 100,000 Korean sex workers opted to move abroad, the majority of them to Japan and the United States.
Message from Korean Sex Workers’ Union Han Teo to the SWFF
Towards the end of our talk, I asked KANG Hyun Joon if he would like me to pass on a message to the participants of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, seeing that on this occasion, Han Teo wouldn’t send a delegate to the conference. He replied the following.
“Since we don’t have frequent contact with people in the sex industry at the international level, I can’t say much about it, to be honest with you. However, if I were to talk about the situation in Korea, I’d like to say that I hope the day comes soon where sex workers in Korea work without shame and speak up with confidence in their own country.”
“그 쪽분들은 제가 접촉이 없기 때문에 뭐라고 말씀드리기 힘들지만 한국 사정으로 봤을 때 이 업에 종사한다고 해서 부끄러워하지 말고 떳떳하게 자기 국가에서 목소리 내면서 노동자로 인정받을 수 있는 날이 빨리 왔으면 좋겠습니다.”
Stop and listen!
While the immense stigma attached to sex work represent a problem for sex workers worldwide, the traditionally strict gender roles still alive in modern Korean society greatly exacerbate it. In a recent meeting with a sex worker in Seoul, we talked about the common rhetorical ploy by prostitution abolitionists to ask whether or not one would wish for one’s own children to become prostitutes. Her comment was that she would indeed try everything to prevent her child from working as a prostitute, but the reason she gave for that was not the nature of the work, but the stigmatisation that goes along with it, and that is causing her great distress and has her keep a distance from her parents to avoid having to lie to them about her work. 
Stigmatisation and discrimination have been the most commonly given answers I received when talking to Korean sex workers about difficulties they experience in their daily lives.
And so my message on the evening before the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival is directed to those readers unsure about the subject of sex workers’ rights.
To change laws and improve the rights of sex workers will take a lot of time and effort. But to open your mind, you only have to stop and listen, even if some of it might make you feel uncomfortable. I like to encourage you to stop believing the one-dimensional rhetoric of prostitution abolitionists and to listen instead to the experiences shared by those who know best, and those are sex workers themselves.
One of them is Maggie McNeill, a retired call girl, who writes about how she sees the world on her blog ‘The Honest Courtesan’.
“Those who wish to control others, to attack consensual actions with criminal laws, and to eliminate options which make them uncomfortable, believe that morality is set in stone; they think that right and wrong are as separate and distinct as black and white, and that they and only they have the direct proclamation from Godhead about which is which. Rational people, however, understand that morality is a process of weighing out various factors, comparing the relative right and wrong of each, in order to come to the most just, least harmful decision possible.” 
 The protests against the naval base on Jeju Island are a significant exception to the rule. The Korean government responded to the appearance of 2012 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Angie Zelter (UK) and Benjamin Monnet (France) on the scene by arresting the two non-violent peace activists. While they eventually deported without any formal judicial procedure, three US citizens, members of US Veterans for Peace, were outright forbidden to land in Korea, discouraging further interference from the outside. Case in point.
 To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I do not wish to imply that Korean sex workers aren’t capable of making themselves heard, as this video greatly illustrates. In the recent past, Korean sex workers have more frequently participated in meetings and conferences outside Korea. As KANG Hyun Joon’s quote illustrates, however, contacts to sex work activists are still very limited, especially when it comes to links outside East Asia.
 The interviewee consented to having her views published. The photo was taken from a twitter account of a Korean sex worker.
 A Different View by The Honest Courtesan