It’s hard for outsiders to understand just how prevalent prostitution is in South Korean society. People from Europe or the United States will think of prostitutes in terms of stereotypes lifted from movies, and the occasional drive through a bad neighbourhood. These girls, we think, are a small minority working street corners for pimps.
In South Korea, however, prostitution is everywhere. Certainly there are places notorious for brothels, but they exist out in the open across every city in the country. It is technically illegal, but these American-introduced laws are largely unenforced, and “crackdowns” are just for show, to appease the international community.
You might be forgiven for overlooking prostitution as a tourist, unless you pass a U.S. military base or perhaps visit Seoul’s famous “Hooker Hill,” but once you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to miss. Perhaps the most common example is the “barber shop.” Of course, these places don’t even pretend to offer haircuts. They are simply apartments with rotating barber shop poles outside, and they can be found in even the most well-developed areas of the country.
Prostitution also exists wherever there are supposedly massages, saunas, nightclubs, karaoke, motels… It’s not considered a big deal and it is available all day, every day, everywhere.
Various reports place the number of women in the Korean sex industry at around 1.2 million. That’s between 1 in 5 and 1 in 10 adult women presently engaged in the sex industry… To put it another way: there are more prostitutes in Korea than there are schoolteachers.
Prostitution is so common that it accounts for between 4-5% of the country’s GDP. That’s more than the forestry, agriculture and fishing industries combined.
Perhaps a more telling statistic is that 20% of Korean men in their 20s pay for sex more than 4 times a month. It’s staggering to think just how acceptable it is for men to pay women to have sex with them.
It is so common for male employers and employees to visit prostitutes together, and to discuss at work their plans to visit a brothel, that the government actually offers financial breaks to companies whose male employees pledge not to pay for sex.
So how does such social acceptance of prostitution effect the attitude of Korea’s men towards women in general? Well, Korea is ranked 63rd out of 70 countries on the Gender Empowerment Measure, with countries like Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates following closely behind…
Human trafficking is a tremendous problem in Korea, too, or at least it would be if it were considered immoral. Women from Russia and South-East Asia are commonly brought into Korea after the offer of a legitimate job, only to find themselves trapped in the sex industry. It’s estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of these women currently working in crooked massage parlors and karaoke rooms.
Likewise, Korea exports its own citizens to the United States in what U.S. Immigration described as “a highly organized logistical network” between the two countries. In Los Angeles, 90% of prostitutes arrested each month are Korean-born.
But these are mere statistics. Numbers without human faces, and devoid of any particular attachment to reality.
Let’s take a closer look.
When I visited a journalist friend in Seoul last year, we decided to visit a notorious area of Uijeongbu (a town familiar to fans of M*A*S*H) and interview some of the prostitutes. We planned on writing an article that cut to the heart of the issue and got real stories from real women whose voices are lost amidst these heartless numbers and meaningless political rhetoric.
We took off from his apartment in the early hours, armed with a tape recorder and ready for anything. The streets of Uijeongbu look identical to every other city in a country which cannot stand originality or deviation from the norm, and we hardly noticed as we slipped into the red-light district.
On either side of a large, busy road were bland, innocuous building exactly like those on every other street in the country, except that the doors were open, and clichéd red lights shown from within.
“This is it,” he said. “You ready?”
“Of course.” And I was, or I thought I was. How bad could it be?
We agreed to walk down one side of the street, cross over the bridge, and back down the next. We didn’t think it was right to go into a brothel and demand an interview with some poor girl, so we decided that we’d just look around talk to whoever made the first move. If a girl came out and asked us for business, we’d engage her in conversation, and see what happened.
The first few doors were closed, and the next were open but the rooms were empty. These weren’t organized brothels with pimps and dozens of girls – these were the homes of women who lived and worked in the same filthy room, with only a small kitchen and bathroom attached.
About halfway down the street we came across an occupied room. The girl – or rather, the middle-aged woman – looked out at us and shook her head. “Not for you,” she said, in broken English.
“Why?” my friend asked, although we both knew.
In Korean, she explained: “Because you are foreigners.”
We asked her how much she charged, and she refused to say, but said that for $5 we could have a beer. She grabbed two domestic beers and moved to open them, but we declined and left quickly. The room stank of sex and looked like the sort of place you might catch an infection simply from sitting on the bed.
We passed a few more places, either being told “Not for you,” or “It’ll cost more for a foreigner.” We tried asking a few questions, but got no answers. Mostly, though, we were left speechless by the conditions in which these women lived and worked. The rooms were vile, even by Korean standards.
“We’re not getting anything,” my friend said. “We should at least sit down with one of them, just have a beer and talk.”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “I’m losing my nerve. This place is making me sick. I don’t think I could even stomach a beer, and honestly I doubt they’ll talk even if we sit down with them.”
We crossed the bridge and started down the other side of the road, having gained nothing useable. We didn’t even speak. It was just too depressing. Prior to actually stepping into the hooker district we’d been guilty of thinking of prostitution in those cold terms – numbers, percentages, rhetoric. Up close it was just hard to look at.
On the other side of the road we were getting some offers. Older women stood outside these apartments, offering their services and the services of younger, more attractive women. Obviously they’d watched us on the other side of the road and decided that they could probably make a bit of money. We were, perhaps foolishly, very well dressed.
We threw out some questions and asked if we could record the answers, but although the women had no issue with the tape recorder, they answered our questions with offers of blowjobs and price lists and chose to practice their English. We learned nothing.
About halfway down the road we found an open door with the standard red light and beaded strands hanging from the frame. Inside there was a mattress on the floor, a refrigerator full of cheap Korean beer, and a haggard woman sitting, waiting for a punter. When we stopped and looked inside she glanced up and we knew that she was trying to decide whether or not to offer herself to a foreigner.
That’s when we noticed she was not alone. There was a child sitting on a chair, opposite the bed. She was watching a drama on a small TV set in the corner, but there was nowhere else for her to be. There was one other door in the room and it led to a filthy little toilet. This was the girl’s home.
The woman said a number and I honestly don’t recall what number it was. My friend and I just turned and walked very quickly down the street, away from the mess. We passed three more women on the street who tried to entice us into their homes, but we ignored them.
We slipped silently out of the red-light district and back into normal, regular Korea without noticing. It was the same fucking place, except the doors were no longer open. Barber shop poles and old women with cards and promises of young women lined the streets. We both agreed to get out of the country as soon as we could. It was rotten to the core and would likely never change.