Changes to the language used to describe prostitution in Korea are important because they reveal the contours of debates over how to categorise sex work. Is it a plight or a profession? This question came to a head in 2004 when the progressive government of former President Roh Moo-hyun passed legislation to criminalise sex work. But it also shadowed earlier forms of sex work which had passed unnoticed under euphemisms for decades. The term wianbu or ‘comfort women’ did not disappear after the war in 1945 but entered the lexicon in South Korea and morphed over time to refer to camp town sex workers serving the US military in bases dotted over South Korea. It only passed out of common usage in the early 1990s, as the ‘comfort women’ scandal erupted (Soh, 2008: 50). With this scandal the term wianbu stopped serving as a euphemism and became instead a direct referent for the forced sexual slavery of women and girls in the late colonial period. The fact that the term had survived innocuously in South Korea for so long, with its long trail of brutal connotations, reveals the political and gendered climate in which the former ‘comfort women’ felt compelled to maintain silence. Even today the sex industry’s shop signs and neon advertisements utilise the same coded language of concealment and beautification to communicate with their customers. While the hostess bars that cluster in shopping districts and suburban hubs are known by the generic name of tallanjujom (liquor party bar) or anmabang (massage parlour), in other parts of Seoul entire streets advertise the women themselves in interchangeable display in shop windows.

As well as the globalisation of the sex industry, Korea’s sex worker population has also been buffeted by internal crises. Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997 as the effects of mass layoffs of workers began to be seen, the sex industry expanded to absorb those women who as temporary, irregular workers had been the first to lose their jobs. Small businesses suffered alongside the conglomerates, such as Daewoo, that were forced to close down. Around the large provincial railway stations, prostitution hubs since the 1920s, women in their fifties and sixties began to appear in the alleys around the station square, selling sex on the street. In a crisis economy in which no business (except bailiffs and actuaries) was spared retrenchment, the sex industry demonstrated its resilience. In the war-shattered economy of the 1950s, the recession of the 1970s, and the Asian financial crisis meltdown of the late 1990s the sex industry swooped up women young and old, teaching us something about the resilience and continuity of the client market. Clients or johns have also diversified: once mainly Korean men, foreign businessmen and US servicemen, their ranks now include workers, English teachers, students, and backpackers.

Jin-kyung Lee has written about the clandestine nature of sex work in South Korean society where ‘[prostitution] is everywhere but it is nowhere’ (Lee 2011: 112). Hidden, yet endlessly available, sex workers and the entertainment districts are an essential part of male work culture and socialisation in South Korea. With direct historical links to the kisaeng parties in the great restaurants of the 1920s, the sex industry has been an enormous force in the generation of precious foreign currency (in the camp towns in the 1960s and 1970s), and in the smooth running of late capitalism today. Today, Korea is a country which both imports and exports sex workers. While the military camptowns now hold a large number of immigrant sex workers who have come to sell sex to the US soldiers stationed in Korea, the domestic market has also diversified. New female migrants/ refugees from North Korea are finding a lucrative income stream in the niche market of brothel management and sex trafficking. Utilising transnational networks familiar to them from their own experience as migrants/refugees who purchased passage from the China/North Korea border region to South Korea, sometimes by selling sex, these women trade their knowledge and ruthlessness in the ultra-competitive market of contemporary South Korea.

Just as Korea imports sex workers, it also exports a new cohort of sex tourists to destinations all over the world. While South East Asia and Hong Kong are favourite destinations, true figures on this trade are difficult to come by. Reticence about this industry extends to discreet tour advertisements and the phrase muchima! (‘don’t ask!’) tourism is a running joke (Kim, 1998: 109). Korea was once a favoured destination of Japanese male sex tourists keen to taste the famed delights of kisaeng both during colonialism and after. The recent memory over this national humiliation that for once united feminists and patriots in outrage goes some way to explaining the embarrassed hush around Korea’s own sex tourist industry in the furtive pursuit of sexual pleasure overseas.