Helping women with nowhere to goKim Hyeon-seon is the president of Saeumteo, a civic group that helps female victims of the sex trade. Each year, Saeumteo (“a new home”), takes on 3,000 cases.
Ms. Kim, 36, is well-known among foreign human rights groups because of her work with prostitutes around the nation’s U.S. military camps. But not many know about the group in Korea, mostly because Saeumteo doesn’t go out of its way to make itself known. In fact, it took 10 days to actually meet Ms. Kim after making appointment. Her office in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province, is, not surprisingly, located in the middle of a brothel district near a U.S. Air Force base.
Q. Why is it so difficult to meet you? Do you shun the media?
A. Our group has internal rules. We live with the eonni (Korean for “big sister,” but used to refer to women involved in the sex trade, regardless of their age). We cannot ignore the eonni for the sake of public relations. They have nowhere to go except here. If reporters come, the eonni will feel uncomfortable. That’s why we eschew relations with the media. Please understand.
[Note: During my 3 or 4 hours at Saeumteo, many eonni came and went. One pencil-thin eonni was playing with her nephew, whom she had brought in. A glimpse of any outside visitors generally brought eonni looks of discomfort.]
How would you introduce Saeumteo?
We established the first office in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi province, in 1996, and we opened the doors of the Pyeongtaek office two years ago. These homes were set up based on my experiences in the field during college. There are 12 women activists employed by the organization. Half the time our employees have to stay up all night or go on business trips so it’s hard to lead a normal life. Jeju, Busan, Mokpo, there’s not a place I have not been to. When the eonni call, we go immediately. Most of what we do is give legal and medical advice, provide a haven for the victims and opportunities for them to get re-employed. And we’re always trying to gather statistics (an estimated 800,000 women are involved in the sex trade.) Next to our office, more than 10 women who escaped sexual slavery make their home.
The costs of running this operation must be huge.
We spend about 300 million won ($250,000) per year. Twenty percent of our budget comes from sponsors and the rest comes from the government. We scrape and save to make ends meet.
Why do you think society is like this?
The sex trade is illegal. Women are victims, conned into this, and pimps are systematic criminals. But social perception of the business misses the mark completely. Most people think that women engaged in the sex trade are just trying to earn easy money. Do they really think that women in room salons are college students, working there as a part-time job? If that’s the case, men are either naive or ignorant. The sex trade is an elaborate and systematic criminal pursuit. It has become so prevalent because it has not been reported well.
What is the reality of the victims of the sex trade?
When the eonni come to us, they sleep for four days straight. They eat whatever they see. Eonni always have to meet “guests,” even if they are sleeping, using the bathroom or eating. Pimps allow them only one meal a day so they do not gain weight. If their waistline increases just 1 centimeter, they have to pay the pimp 30,000 won.
What is the solution?
We must cut the link between criminals and public officials. If that is not broken, punishment is not possible. Threats of pimps are real, but the conflict with public officials is worse. Women who escape have nowhere to go, nothing to do. Greater support and measures [a hotline, for instance] are needed to protect victims.
by Son Min-ho
Saeumteo, Dongducheon branch (031) 867-4655
Pyeongtaek branch (031) 663-4655