Film still from Grace Period (2015). Courtesy of Caroline Key and Kim KyungMook.
By YuJin, Popho E.S. Bark-Yi, and Matthias Lehmann
South Korea introduced a raft of new laws against sex work in 2004. These repressive policies are now up for constitutional review due to the intense reaction by sex workers there.
First-time visitors to South Korea may easily assume that selling sex is legal there, as major train stations are typically engulfed by an array of neon signs inviting patrons to enter massage parlors, noraebangs (lit. a ‘singing room’, essentially the same as a Japanese karaoke bar), and brothels. Media reports frequently quote statistics about the alleged net worth of the South Korean sex industry. However, laws repressing sex work are almost as ubiquitous as commercial sex venues themselves, particularly after 2004, when South Korea adopted the anti-sex trade Laws.
Between 2000 and 2002, a series of fires in Korea killed 24 sex workers, exposing the poor conditions in parts of its sex industry. In response, the government vowed to eradicate prostitution and embarked on an aggressive campaign against businesses facilitating it. Riding the wave of public outrage, women’s rights activists campaigned for a legal reform and their proposals eventually served as blueprints for the two-tiered anti-sex trade laws, which criminalise both buyers and sellers of sexual acts, except for anyone coerced into selling sex.
The new legislation reversed decades of de facto toleration of sex work by regulators and law enforcement. The anti-sex trade laws of 2004 replaced the Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviors (prostitution) of 1961, which wasn’t enforced homogeneously, and previously, even the government had actively engaged in organising commercial sex venues to cater to US military personnel stationed on the Korean peninsula.
The anti-sex trade laws have caused many negative, allegedly unintended consequences. According to a 2012 UN report, “police crackdowns from 2004-2009 resulted in [the] arrest of approximately 28,000 sex workers, 150,000 clients, and 27,000 sex business owners”, and 65,621 arrests were reported for 2009 alone. As researcher Sook Yi Oh Kim states, “the average prosecution rate of sex workers is 26.3%, higher than that of sex buyers, and none of the sex workers arrested are treated as victims”. Police crackdowns have led to an overall reduction of red-light districts. Of 69 red-light districts that existed in 2002, 44 remained by 2013. This represented a slight increase from 2007, when a government-commissioned report had located 35.
Police raids are often carried out very violently, and in November 2014, a 24-year old single mother died after jumping out of a motel room to escape arrest by an undercover police officer posing as client. In stark contrast to their usual reporting, most Korean media remained distinctively silent about the case. The continued repression has forced an increasing number of sex workers to work underground, resulting in lower incomes, poorer working conditions, and an increase in violence perpetrated against them. Sex workers worry more about police raids than about screening their clients, an essential measure, as violence or mistreatment from clients are very common. A substantial number migrates to sell sex abroad, at times under exploitative conditions, as they calculate that conditions in Korea threaten them at least to the same extent but yield considerably lower earnings.
Giant Girls and Hanteo against the law
Two organisations actively campaign for the rights of sex workers and against the laws. One is Hanteo, the National Union of Sex Workers, and the other is Giant Girls. Hanteo, which means ‘common ground’, was founded in 2004 and represents 15,000 sex workers as well as some brothel owners. Giant Girls, or GG, was founded in 2009 by a group of feminists along with a number of sex worker activists. GG aims at building a stronger sex worker movement to mobilise against the criminalisation of sex work, in part by working to remove the social stigma attached to sex work.
Yujin started selling sex online five years ago, in order to afford his tuition fees. YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of GG. Prior to his entrance into the business he had never met anybody who was ‘out’ as a sex worker, and he knew nothing about how to work. Since all aspects of sex work are illegal in Korea, beginners often feel isolated and lack basic work and safety information. Yujin decided to tweet about his experience soon after he started working, which brought him into contact with other sex workers. Like him, these other sex workers did not ‘act immorally to earn easy money’, as the prejudice would have it, but worked hard, albeit without being respected as workers and citizens.
In 2005, sex workers established 29 June as the national day of solidarity with sex workers, coinciding with the date on which the laws were passed. Resistance from sex workers has taken many other forms. Protests organised by Hanteo in 2011 gained worldwide notoriety, as they culminated in dramatic scenes at the Yeondeungpo red-light district in Seoul, where some activists threatened to self-immolate as the confrontation with the police escalated. The events are well documented in the film Grace Period by Caroline Key and KyoungMook Kim.
In 2013, District Court Judge Won Chan Oh submitted a request for a constitutional review of the laws after accepting the argument made by sex worker Jeong Mi Kim that sex work fell under her right to self-determination. Therefore, in sentencing her for selling sex the state had violated article 10 of the Korean constitution, which holds that “all citizens shall be assured of their human worth and dignity and shall have the right to pursue happiness”.
This opened a window for a phase of much more intense sex worker activism. In April 2015, sex workers and activists staged a protest in front of the constitutional court where a public hearing was held as part of the review. They submitted a petition signed by nearly 900 sex workers arguing that the government had no right to “use criminal punishment to discourage voluntary sex among adults”. The following June, GG organised a forum to draw further attention to the fact that “these laws are not simply laws that aim to punish buyers and sellers of sexual services, but have far wider implications … encompass[ing] social issues including sexual morality, sexual self-determination, and the right to choose one’s vocation”.
Sex worker activist Yeoni Kim once said in an interview with Matthias (one of the present authors) that, “the Swedish model is terrible, violates sex workers’ rights, and adds to the stigmatisation of sex work. But, frankly speaking, one could almost say it would be better to have that terrible law than having to continue fearing arrests and police violence under the anti-sex trade laws.” Hearing one of the most seasoned Korean sex worker activists prefer a slightly less terrible law over another should put all talk about ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ into perspective.
In September 2015, Hanteo staged a larger protest in downtown Seoul. Around 1,500 sex workers demanded an end to the government’s repression, shouting slogans and holding up signs in Korean and English that read “Repeal the anti-sex trade laws!”, “we are workers!” or “adopt Amnesty’s declaration!”.
Last year, when the constitutional court struck down the 62-year-old adultery law, it cited “the country’s changing sexual mores and a growing emphasis on individual rights”. Similar logic should govern the decision on the anti-sex trade laws, which is still pending, however some women’s rights and social conservative groups are continuing to stage protests to prevent a decision against the laws, citing fears over human trafficking and minors engaging in sex work.
Migration from Asian countries to South Korea has increased in recent years, and nobody suggests that the country is immune to migrant smuggling or human trafficking. Marriages between comparatively affluent Korean men and poorer southeast Asian women remain common in rural areas, as do the problems arising from illegal practices by marriage brokers or from violence perpetrated by Korean men against their foreign wives, whom they sometimes appear to seek only for reproductive purposes and household or farm labour.
There have also been occurrences of migrants being trafficked into commercial sex venues, but it is crucial to separate human trafficking from consensual adult sex work. Cases of human trafficking or exploitation of migrants have been detected in numerous industries, including in the fishing, agricultural, or manufacturing industries. Migrants of all genders, as well as Korean citizens, are affected by conditions amounting to forced labour. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that the problem is limited to women who are forced to sell sex, and to thereby disregard the experiences of trafficked persons and migrants in other industries, which include sexualised violence.
We are opposed to any form of violence. Sex and sexualised violence, however, are not the same. Consensual sadomasochistic sexual practices and actual violence are different, just as consensual sex work and being trafficked into the sex industry are different. People may choose to engage in sex work because they experience stigma as single mothers or due to their sexual orientation, or if other factors limit their options on the formal labour market.
Sex work itself is not violence and to suggest otherwise dilutes the meaning of violence. If we really want to curb human trafficking, we have to address the systemic circumstances that marginalise people and render them vulnerable. As sex workers’ rights activists, we have a stake in seeing human trafficking effectively addressed. The battle slogan ‘prostitution is violence against women’ harms both sex workers and trafficked persons as it drives the creation and perpetuation of precisely those failed laws and policies that enable traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations.
About the authors
YuJin self-identifies as a gay sex worker and is a member of Giant Girls, one of two organisations actively campaigning for the rights of sex workers in South Korea.
Popho E.S. Bark-Yi is a feminist researcher and activist in South Korea. Her work focuses on sexuality and on basic income.
Matthias Lehmann is a German researcher and activist, currently focusing on sex work regulations in Germany. His prior research dealt with human rights violations against sex workers in South Korea. He is an active member of ICRSE.
This article was first published by Open Democracy as part of the ‘Sex workers speak: who listens?’ series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance’ (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution. Please note: this article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact Open Democracy. Please check individual images for licensing details.
Giant Girls invites you to the Asia-Pacific Sex Workers’ Rights Forum
Date: Saturday, 28th November 2015
Location: Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), 6th Fl. Kyunghyang Daily News Bldg., 22 Jeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea 100-702
Entrance Fee: KRW 10,000
11.00 – 12.00 Film screening of ‘Grace Period’ by Caroline Key & KIM KyungMook (see trailer below)
16.30 – 19.30 Film screening of ‘Red Maria 2’ by Kyung-soon (see interview with Kyung-soon here)
국제앰네스티 ‘성노동전면비범죄화’ 결정을 환영하며 <아시아태평양 성노동자 인권 포럼>을 마련했습니다. 이번 주 28일 토요일 오전 11시 민주노총 금속노조 사무실에서 참가비 1만원으로 진행됩니다. <유예기간>과 <레드 마리아2> 영화 상영과 함께, 스칼렛 얼라이언스(호주), 스와시(일본), 코스와스(대만), 그리고 지지(한국)에서 ‘아시아태평양 지역 성노동자의 인권과 성매매 정책’을 주제로 포럼을 열고자 하니 많은 관심 바랍니다.
Screenshot from VICE report (see below)
In his article “Abandoned elderly turn to sex work” that’s currently being re-published by media outlets worldwide, journalist Kim Hyung-Jin quotes Lee Ho-sun, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University, as saying:
“Is this really these elderly women’s dirty problem or is it a problem caused by the ordinary people who point their fingers at them? I think it’s our society’s problem.”
At the start of this year, VICE UK published a video report by Matt Shea about the “South Korean Love Industry”, which wasn’t only nonsensical and factually incorrect on many occasions, but also a text book example of unethical journalism as well as of a sexualised orientalist gaze. In that report, Lee Ho-sun appeared as well, although at the time, she was affiliated with a different institution, called Seoul Venture University; the one she is apparently affiliated with now is a private Christian university. Not only did Lee Ho-sun state in the VICE report that “Bacchus Ladies are destroying the traditional sense of value in Korea” but she also didn’t object to – or allowed herself to get tricked into – Matt Shea filming secretly while she interviewed elderly sex workers.
Elderly poverty in Korea in general and the fact that poor elderly turn to sex work to survive are certainly issues that need to be addressed and deserve attention. However, due to the inclusion of statements by Lee Ho-sun, I recommend reading an overall better two-part report by Heo Seung instead, published in 2013 by Hankyoreh, a South Korean daily which has published several respectful pieces on sex work. Please note that this recommendation does not represent an endorsement of all terms used in both the English and the Korean version of the report.
[Starts at 36:15] Statement by Lucien Lee, a trans* female sex worker activists from South Korea, in response to Amnesty International’s sex work policy decision,* read out by N’jaila Rhee on episode 61 of This Week in Blackness TWiB! AfterDARK.
“This is Lucien Lee from South Korea. I’m a trans woman and at work, I either put on a strap-on and get behind my male clients or receive their penises in me. I’ve been doing this since November 2012. Sex work has given me hope that one day, I will be able to pay for my sex reassignment surgery and lead a life like any other ordinary lesbian. But as it is in the US, sex work is still criminalised in South Korea. If I ever get caught by the police, the fine or bribe I would have to pay would be too much for me. Recently, somebody reported my website, where I advertise my services to potential sex buyers, to the authorities. I was terrified when I got a message from a police officer. The police have never been there for me, like when I was sexually assaulted by a teenager who couldn’t afford to pay for my services. After the incident, I couldn’t go to the police because he threatened to report me for being a prostitute.
I hate everyone who criminalises my work, lets me get raped, and cockblocks my efforts to be a part of the lesbian sisterhood. I’ve been donating monthly to Amnesty for years, and I was thrilled this organisation that has been advocating for all the people in jail who stood up against mandatory military conscription in both Koreas now speaks in favour of all sex workers. I must say, thank you, Amnesty, for having been so brave all these years. Thank you for helping me to help myself. Thank you for protecting me from being raped again. This is Lucien Lee, a godless Seoulite.”
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.