The prostitution debates in South Korea
In 2000 a fire broke out in a brothel in Gunsan in Cholla Province in which five women perished. In 2002 another fire broke out in Gunsan, this time in a drinking establishment. Twelve women died in this fire because they had been locked in their rooms. These fires and the attention they garnered brought the working conditions of some sectors of the sex industry out into the open. The bereaved families charged the police, Gunsan City Council and the brothel owners with negligence. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found the police guilty for failing to uphold minimum employment condition standards. This was welcomed by some feminist organisations who called for a crackdown on prostitution more generally. Their proposals became legislation in 2004 in the nation’s Special Law on the Sex Trade (Songmaemae Tukbyolbop) which included a Prevention Act and a Punishments Act. The law took inspiration from innovative prostitution prevention laws introduced in Sweden in 1999. Under these laws the burden of criminalisation would be placed on the client. It was the client who was prosecuted for purchasing sex, not the sex worker for selling it. Although these laws were framed with the aim of protecting women working in the sex industry, in fact it is debatable whether the criminalisation of sex work aids prostitutes. In Sweden the debate is ongoing, and the laws faced fierce opposition in South Korea, too. Sex worker advocates argue that since the law was passed working conditions have deteriorated, with sex work transformed into an illegal industry operating in clandestine markets. A criminalised sex industry translates at the practical level into a deregulated market, hard to monitor and with more power in the hands of pimps and police than practitioners.
In South Korea, the passing of the Special Law on the Sex Trade, the outcome of many years of work by a number of feminist NGOs and Parliamentarians, was greeted with outrage by the vast majority of sex workers. Although the previous legal regime that governed sex work was far from ideal, the ‘Law Against Morally Depraved Behaviours’ had since 1961 allowed for periodic crackdowns, although it was only sporadically enforced (Kim 2013: 1). Mass protests against the Sex-Trade Laws and accompanying police harassment have shown deep fissures between sex workers who define themselves as professionals, and state and NGO activists who interpret their status as that of a victim. As brothels were closed and sex workers were forced out on to the streets to earn their living, the uneven results of the legislation which exposed women to more dangerous and difficult working conditions were exposed. Some sex workers migrated to other countries, like Australia, to labour as undocumented migrants in an industry in which they had little power or familiarity to navigate for their interests (Kim 2013). Yet, at the same time, whole avenues of brothels in the large tourist areas of Seoul like Yongsan remained flagrantly open for business.
The question of how to improve the lives and working conditions of sex workers remains a contentious area, but legislating for sex worker unions and organisations to take control of their own members’ conditions seems a sensible place to start. In Korea the Korean Sex Workers Union Giant Girls, and the National Sex Workers Union have called for an end to police raids, bribery, and verbal and physical abuse against sex workers. By defining themselves as sex workers (song nodongja) advocating for their rights these women refute the simple binary between enslaved sex workers and elite and self-managing escorts at the top of the profession. They show us that terminology is important for clarifying the nature of their work and the reasons that drew them to it. Despite the shared embrace of the identity of worker, though, unionising sex workers is in fact not easy (Kim 2013: personal communication). Unionisation holds particular challenges in a profession with some of the deepest disparities in earnings and conditions, in which the gap between sex entrepreneurs at the top and bonded labourers at the
Figure 2ТЛ Demonstration against the Special Law on the Sex Trade in 2011. Courtesy of Corbis Images.
bottom is immense. It will be interesting to see how these issues are resolved in Korea, a nation with a strong, but still male dominated, union movement.