From America to Australia, in Singapore, Japan and in the Middle East there are reports of an influx of prostitutes from South Korea. In Los Angeles the police estimate that as many as 90 percent of the prostitutes arrested every month are from South Korea. In Australia there are reports that one out of every six prostitutes in the country is from South Korea. And from Japan come stories of over 50,000 South Korean prostitutes; enough to fill a stadium. These accounts are giving South Korea a new and undesired reputation as an exporter of prostitutes.
The rising export of prostitutes by South Korea is generally seen as a consequence of the enactment in 2004 of a law on the punishment of prostitution. Although prostitution was already illegal in South Korea under a 1961 law covering morally depraved behaviors, it was only after the 2004 law came into effect that the government began an intensive crackdown on prostitution. This concentrated effort to enforce the law pushed the majority of prostitution in South Korea underground and gave rise to the increased export of prostitutes. However these consequences were not only due to the increased enforcement but also the result of conflicting provisions within the law and the failure of the law to account for cultural attitudes towards women in South Korea.
These cultural attitudes have come from a Confucian tradition which regarded women as second class members of society. Good women remained chaste until marriage and then stayed at home raising the children, preferably sons. Women who failed to remain chaste before marriage were regarded as morally deficient and women who engaged in prostitution were regarded as morally depraved. However, men who purchased services from prostitutes were considered to be merely acting out of human nature. This judgmental attitude towards prostitutes was ultimately reflected in the legal codes.
Thus the new law, despite containing modern concepts such as the establishment of shelters and the provision of education and counseling to “victims of prostitution,” retained a judgmental bias against prostitutes. Under the law all prostitutes are deemed criminals until, and unless, they can prove they are a victim of prostitution, which is broadly defined in the statute to include women tricked or deceived into prostitution, women sold into sexual slavery, juveniles and the mentally deficient, and women who become prostitutes under the influence of narcotics. However, the law also placed the power to determine whether a woman would be classified as a “victim of prostitution” in the hands of the prosecutorial branch; a branch which has remained male-dominated and has interpreted the statute narrowly. Thus, recent reports show that out of the hundreds of thousands of prostitutes in South Korea very few are being granted protected status.
The result is that women engaged in prostitution, aware of the illegality of prostitution and steeped in the cultural tradition, rarely ask for help. When faced with a choice between abuse at the hands of their pimps or imprisonment by the courts, these women remain with their pimps. Many may also stay due to psychological pressures which deprive these women of the will to leave. Moreover these women are aware of the mistreatment that innocent victims of rape often receive from the police and prosecutors and understand that their treatment will be much worse. However, the consequence of remaining with their pimps is that these women are regarded by the police, the prosecutors and the courts as having chosen to engage in prostitution.
In an effort to address the dearth of women seeking help a recent amendment to the law provides for the posting of notices containing information on the shelters for victims of prostitution. However this amendment will be ineffective without the law itself first being amended to decriminalize prostitution. Other recent amendments to the law are equally ineffective because they do not remove discretion from the prosecutorial branch. Therefore, the National Assembly should decriminalize the selling of sexual services while simultaneously increasing the penalties for traffickers and customers of prostitutes.
Recognizing that all women engaged in prostitution are victims of a male dominated culture and society is the first step towards reducing the number of prostitutes in South Korea. Eliminating the ability of traffickers to trap young Korean women into providing sexual services for sale, either in Korea or overseas, will reduce the number of prostitutes plying their trade in South Korea. And as the number of prostitutes in South Korea falls, the law of supply and demand will result in domestic prices for prostitution rising eventually negating the lure of the overseas market.
Thus reducing the number of women engaged in prostitution in South Korea will gradually reduce the number of South Korean women traveling overseas to engage in prostitution. Perhaps at some point all South Korean women will not engage in prostitution, but until that time the laws on prostitution should be drafted so that no woman feels coerced by law or tradition into remaining in such a life.
By Daniel Fiedler
Daniel Fiedler is a professor of law at Wonkwang University. He also holds an honorary position as the lawyer representative for international marriages in Namwon, North Jeolla Province. ― Ed.