This is the eighth installment in a series of interviews with chiefs of United Nations offices in Korea. ― Ed.
In late January, shock and disbelief swept through the country as two people with disabilities were rescued from a salt farm on a remote southwestern island after years of forced labor, sleep deprivation, confinement and beatings.
A probe found at least 18 other such victims around the region, with the back pay for one of them topping at least 120 million won ($117,000) over the past 10 years. President Park Geun-hye called it “impossible in the 21st century,” pledging measures to root it out.
The incident, however, represents one of a myriad of appalling cases of modern slavery taking place around the globe at this very moment, according to Park Mi-hyung, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Seoul office.
“In Korea, the issue is not something that people like to talk about because it makes them uncomfortable,” she said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.
Park Mi-hyung, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Seoul office. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
“This is precisely why we should speak up ― advanced countries have so much to do. The salt field incident was a tragedy but did help raise awareness about and support for the issue here.”
Park raised the need to broaden the interpretation of human trafficking in domestic law as one way to help prevent future victims.
While U.N. protocols focus on exploitation as the aim of the acquisition of people, the country’s criminal law confines human trafficking to buying and selling of them.
“There have been efforts to understand the term more broadly within the legal boundaries at working levels, but greater awareness and support are needed higher up, as well as legislative improvement,” she added.
Amid rampant prostitution and labor abuse at home and abroad, the IOM has been spurring its campaign to fight human trafficking and assist and protect victims.
The Geneva-headquartered U.N. affiliate officially launched the Seoul office in 2007 on the back of a sharp growth in the number of labor and marriage migrants here. It also set up the IOM Migration Research & Training Center in 2009 in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, to expedite related research and policy analysis.
An expert in public health and social work, Park took office in July 2013 after developing programs in Africa and Southeast Asia for Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S.-based evangelical Christian international relief group. She was previously a researcher at the state-run Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs in Seoul.
With a focus on sex trafficking, her organization also helps developing countries build their capacity through training modules, humanitarian aid, seminars and other public events.
“The global sex industry is expanding at a rapid pace ― it’s a market where the supply-demand model works,” Park said.
“And the market is getting bigger than that for drug trafficking because of its tremendous profits. In the sex trade, for example, women are not consumables so you can take as many clients as time would allow, which makes for an attractive market.”
Though a series of laws and policies have been adopted in recent years, prostitution remains a thriving business for Koreans. A growing number of men now flock to China, the Philippines, Cambodia and other countries for sex, experts and activists say.
In a 2013 survey, the state-run Korean Institute of Criminology picked Korea as the biggest client for child prostitution in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. Department of State also listed South Korea as a “source, transit and destination country for men and women subjected to forced prostitution and forced labor” in its Trafficking in Persons Report last year.
“It is vital to curb the demand,” Park said. “Sexual exploitation, of youth in particular, is preposterous. Even if they get rescued, children need much more time and efforts for rehabilitation.”
With its population aging rapidly and economic growth slowing, Korea needs more robust debate over how to embrace immigrants and foster an inclusive society, Park said.
The number of foreigners in Korea topped 1.5 million for the first time in 2012, up a whopping 50 percent from 2007, according to the Ministry of Justice. They represent 2.5 percent of the population.
About 44 percent of them are migrant workers mainly from China including those under the Employment Permit System. Nearly 30 percent have come through marriage from countries including Vietnam and the Philippines.
“Immigration would be inevitable ― the population itself is an asset for the economy, as seen in countries like the U.S.,” she said.
“Though it will take many challenges and much time to shift the paradigm in such a homogenous society as Korea, I believe it will open a better future. Diversity is a must for any society to advance.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)