Korea's 'crackdown culture' - now it's brothels

David Scofield

Korea loves "crackdowns". Whether designed to tackle the scourge of mobile-phone use while driving or to clamp down on drivers stopping past the white line on the roads, South Korean police revel in crackdowns. As a driver in South Korea for more than six years, I witnessed a number of such exercises in selective enforcement. Typically, the government announces a crackdown on some illegal, but common, behavior and the police dedicate all their energies to the task. During the cell-phone crackdown in Seoul a year ago I watched a fully loaded city bus fly through a very red light while no fewer than four police officers looked on. No one moved. The driver of the bus might have endangered the lives of everyone in the vicinity, but as best one could tell he wasn't talking on his mobile phone at the time, so there was nothing to be done.

This week the police launched another "crackdown". This one, we are told, is designed to stamp out prostitution. But like so many other examples of myopic enforcement, this attack on a well-entrenched component of Korea's culture and economy has been tried before - and failed.

In 2000, then-president Kim Dae-jung's government announced the appointment of an intrepid female police chief to Seoul's Miari district, home to one of the capital's oldest prostitution areas. The government announced that this new female firebrand would stop at nothing to rout the rot of prostitution, with the full help and aid of the government.

Two months later the press and the public had long forgotten the brave crusade by police chief Kim Kang-ja, and the whole program dissipated, as it were.

This week, it's another female police officer, Lee Kum-hyung, director of the women's and juvenile affairs division at the National Police Agency, who is the face behind this latest attempt to rout what was to have been routed four years ago. Will it work? It's very doubtful. Not just because the program has been given a ridiculously short shelf life - the "crackdown" will wrap up on October 22 - but because it fails to address the cultural and economic underpinnings of the issue. Prostitution, for example, is one of the few growth areas in an otherwise declining economy.

Though the police and government are quick to point out that the drive will continue beyond October 22, though not in such a deliberate way and with less fanfare, other new crackdowns after October 22 will surely steal the spotlight: tailgating, or changing traffic lanes without signaling. New causes will rise to the fore and prostitution will continue on as it has for more than a thousand years.

Indeed, the drive behind this latest exercise is international pressure, not domestic outcry. South Korea has been included in the US State Department's 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report, which admonishes Korea for a being a "source, destination and transit" country for women trafficked for sexual exploitation. Membership on the list could have real economic ramifications if the US perceives no serious attempt by South Korea to address or mitigate the problem. The United States could seek to penalize the country by inhibiting access to US markets.

South Korea's new anti-prostitution legislation does, through its passage anyway, address the issue of human trafficking directly, and it does assign criminal responsibility to brothel owners and brokers - not, as was the case before, to the sex workers themselves. South Korea's 1948 anti-prostitution law did not differentiate between owners and workers, which meant the sex workers themselves were often punished, fined or even imprisoned, dissuading most from coming forward or giving evidence against unscrupulous brothel owners who participated in trafficking. Many of the country's lowliest brothel proprietors would quickly put their sex workers into debt by charging exorbitant rates for room, board and other "services", a practice that in effect indentured the young women to the owner, since "debts" would always far outstrip their incomes, allowing the owners to swap and sell the girls among the owners, a virtual slave trade.

The new law declares any such debts invalid and protects the workers, who are described as victims. This is positive and progressive, but the crackdown will in all likelihood still fail.

Prostitution has been a component of Korean culture for literally thousands of years, and any attempt to eliminate this still viable cultural artifact will not succeed if it does not address the demand for sex services within South Korean society. A report issued by the Korean Institute of Criminology in 2003 indicates that 20% of men in their 20s pay for sex at least four times a month. Elected officials and private business people discuss and negotiate deals not only in boardrooms, but also in "business clubs" where whiskey and elaborate plates of overpriced fruit accompany a bevy of attractive young women, or girls - there to peel the grapes, pour the shots and perform sexual services for money.

These establishments are in every village and town and in virtually every neighborhood in every city in South Korea. The total employment and revenue generated is hard to pin down as, depending on the type of establishment, many women and girls work freelance, called in to entertain certain customers or help out when business is particularly brisk. The revenue generated is estimated to be more than US$21 billion a year, or more than 4% of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Ministry of Gender Equality, which also says more than 500,000 women and girls are employed. These numbers are believed to be low, not reflecting the real scope of prostitution in South Korea.

To exorcise this industry from Korea will take a lot more than police crackdowns, of whatever duration; it will require a change in culture. Many women, those not indentured but who work for clubs, bars, barber shops, coffee shops and other businesses of their own volition, do so for one simple reason - money. South Korean businesses still discriminate heavily against women, especially those over 25, as they are thought to be in transit, awaiting marriage and therefore, traditionally, unemployment. For the companies, it is sound business strategy since in-house training costs tremendous amounts every year. To invest in training women only to have them quit when they marry is considered a great risk, and is used by many of South Korea's largest employers to justify their discriminatory hiring, promotion and retention strategies. Historically, women are disposable in corporate Korea.

Employment opportunities - jobs that pay enough so that women can live independently - are very few and far between. Many of the women working in the sex trade have college diplomas and, indeed, university degrees. Some of those who work in the higher-end places have graduate degreess as well and are hired for their ability to converse with business clients., professors and doctors. These days in Korea only a foreign degree from a "big name" school somewhat assures employment. These are not illiterate women with poor educations for the most part, but well-educated women with few other options in a limping economy.

Tackling prostitution, not eliminating but regulating it, requires a serious, sustained commitment at the highest levels of the South Korean government and new legislation demanding equal rights and treatment for women in the workforce - as a start. This coupled with a national effort to redress cultural precepts that make it acceptable for men, married or not, to buy sex is vital to check Korea's large and growing sex industry. Success rests not in high-profile campaigns involving sensational, but limited, police action but in opening the industry, legalizing it, and strictly enforcing employment rights and health checks. It is important to guarantee workplace safety and workers' rights, while accepting the cultural and economic necessity of the trade.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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