Korea: Illegal sex trade dying hard

Kim Tong-hyung

A prostitute and pimp hustle for customers at a red-light district in Seoul, Sunday
Police declared Sept. 23, 2004, as the last day for legal prostitution in the country.

Two years later, however, it seems that the clampdown on illegal sex will require much more than just shutting down brothels, as the sex industry enjoys a rebound using underground means, such as massage parlors, bars, private homes and the Internet.

Adopting a ``zero-tolerance'' approach to the sex trade and the trafficking of women, the anti-prostitution law enforced in 2004 could put brothel owners in prison for up to ten years with a maximum fine of 100 million won for hiring prostitutes. Any financial gains acquired by selling sex could be confiscated by the state.

Buying sex was also made a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in jail and 3 million won in fines.

Police officials claim that the strengthened crackdown on the sex industry is achieving important results, as the number of red-light districts, once easily seen from the street corners of any city, have dropped sharply in recent years.

According to statistics of the National Police Agency, there were 1,679 red-light districts around the country as of September 2004, with the sex shops employing about 5,500 prostitutes.

As of May this year, the number of red-light districts was 1,097, with about 2,660 prostitutes working in brothels.

In Seoul, existing red-light districts in Yongsan, Chongnyangni, Chongam-dong and other areas are expected to be cleared up next year through new urban development plans.

Since the adoption of the anti-prostitution law, police have charged more than 40,000 brothel owners, pimps, prostitutes and customers.

``Although some of the brothels that went under because of the strengthened police crackdown at the start are reopening, the number of shops and prostitutes have dropped significantly, as has the number of customers,'' said Sgt. Yang Sang-mo at the National Police Agency's women and juvenile affairs division.

However, skeptics argue that the strengthened crackdown on prostitution opened the doors to other venues for the sex industry with which law enforcement authorities find harder to deal.

According to a survey earlier this year by the Korean Institute for Criminology, more than 60 percent of the 450 adult males who said they bought sex in the past year said they used massage parlors, which are quickly becoming the center of the underground sex trade.

Numbers released by the Financial Supervisory Service show that credit card spending at massage parlors rose 23 percent year-on-year in 2005.

Illegal sex transactions are also frequent at bars, hotels and even private homes, according to police, with pimps sending out prostitutes disguised as masseuses.

Internet dating services that connect prostitutes, and sometimes even teenaged girls, with sex buyers are also a problem.

The police charged more than 3,300 people for engaging in the Internet-based sex trade in a crackdown this summer, which accounted for more than 22 percent of the sex offenders caught during the period.

Last week, the police detained 25 prostitutes, pimps and Japanese tourists in a crackdown on Internet-based sex rings.

There are also worries that an increasing number of Korean women are being lured into trafficking rings and forced to participate in commercial sex services overseas.

Last year, about 60 people were arrested in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles on charges of smuggling Korean women into the country and forcing them to work as prostitutes at massage parlors and other businesses.

``Although most people now accept that selling and buying sex is a criminal offense, there is still a significant demand for sex. For brothel owners and pimps, its just about finding an easier way to sell,'' said Kim Young-rahn, who co-heads the civic group Naeil Women's Center for Youth.

The sex industry in 2004 accounted for over 4 percent of Korea's gross domestic product, according to a report by the Korean Institute for Criminology.

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