Enslavement of women persists despite new law
At her office in the quiet working-class neighborhood of Daebang-dong, not far from what used to be the red light district of Yeongdeungpo, she’s counselled a woman who escaped from an island after suffering years of debt bondage in an unlicensed club, earning 300,000 won ($330) a month in return for selling her body to sailors and tourists.
She has also offered aid to a young woman who was forced into a brothel to pay for her abortion, and a woman whose hands were paralyzed after being forced to work endless hours in a massage parlor. Drug addiction, death threats and the endless cycle of servitude are just a few of the themes that fill Cho’s mind on her way to work every morning.
With most of her cases, Cho is very willing to talk. But when the conversation turns to female victims who have returned to Korea after being trafficked to countries like Japan or United States, her words become more restrained.
“These are some of the worst cases I’ve seen,” she says. “Their experience involves the mental distress of migration, guilt and fear.”
Then there is the fear of revenge. The victims constantly suffer from threats during and after their enslavement overseas. They are told that any woman who escapes will be caught by international gangsters; rumors abound that women’s hands have been cut off and their bodies dumped into the sea.”
Then there is the fear of an unknown world ― one that’s poisoned by confusion and oppression.
Once the women are trafficked abroad, the local pimps block social channels that might give the women a chance to reach out for help. As a result, victims rarely know much about the countries where they are trafficked until they are out of a pimp’s hands. And, even if they are freed, the fear of trusting others remains.
“Really, who would you trust, besides yourself, if you had been in a situation like that?” asks Lee Jeong-hye, the director of the International Organization of Migration in Seoul, which monitors human trafficking.
When Korean women are trafficked to countries like Japan or United States, they are often lured into captivity by a desperate desire to pay off accumulated debts.
In a society that maintains a conservative attitude toward sex, young Korean women sometimes see working abroad in another country’s sex industry as a way to earn fast money without shame or prejudice.
The Korean government introduced the Anti Sex-Trafficking Law in 2004. It banned all forms of prostitution in Korea and, in its wake, overseas prostitution has become a promising business alternative for those Koreans who used to control the local the sex trade.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department launched Operation Gilded Cage, a federal investigation of illegal aliens involved in sex trafficking. Almost 150 Koreans were detained as a result. Last year, TVB, the Taiwanese news channel, ran a special report about Korean women who had been trafficked.
The report was called “The Korean Wave in Sex Trafficking,” a term derived from the success of Korean pop entertainers in Southeast Asia, which, in this case, was used to demonstrate a huge increase in the numbers of Korean women forced into prostitution in Taiwan.
Canada, Australia, Guam and even Brazil have also seen new waves of sex trade workers from Korea after the anti-prostitution law was put into effect and it became harder for the industry to survive here.
Women are lured into prostitution through discreet channels like Internet cafes and classified ads in free newspapers. On the Internet, ads for work in the sex industry are easily accessible by typing in phrases like “overseas employment for women,” “work in Guam” or “kurabu,” the Japanese version of a hostess bar. Some kurabu agencies guarantee up to 4 million won ($4,330) a month for pouring drinks for men.
One broker on an Internet portal recently advertised what he claimed was a high-paying hostess job in Japan by writing, “We will give you the income that your appearance deserves. We can assure you that the condition of Japanese clubs is much better than Korea. You will receive monthly payment, housing, meals and a personal maid. This is a good opportunity.”
“When Min refused, the owner physically abused her and threatened to distribute photos of her taken inside the massage parlor and tell people she was working as a prostitute,” the book reports, based on a conversation with the victim. “While she was forced to work, Min had to pay 400,000 won per month for accommodation and 900,000 won for food. She was not paid at all for the first two months after her arrival. She was forced to buy clothes from a specific retailer in Korea. Once she had to pay 1,200,000 won for two pieces of clothing. Her debt soon exceeded 8,000,000 won. The owner also took away her passport and mobile phone.”
Min was rescued by her mother, who contacted Dasi Hamkke and asked for help. Shortly after, Min’s owner in Japan sued her for libel after a local news program broadcast coverage of her case along with a clip of an undercover interview with the agent who lured Min to Japan.
Dasi Hamkke’s director helped to settle the case by securing the testimony of three former clients of Min, who confirmed that they saw bruises on Min’s body during her time in Japan, testifying against the owner’s claim that Min was never physically assaulted.
The case is still pending to date and, three years later, Min is still being treated for her drinking problem, depression and her fear for social interaction.
Min is typical of the victims who fit the UN’s protocol of human trafficking, which defines the term as “recruitment or transfer of persons by force, abduction, fraud or coercion.”
Cho follows a more radical protocol. She believes that any transnational movement of a person or persons within the sex trade should be regarded as human trafficking, even if force or abduction are not used, because recruiters always use false hopes and fear to lure a person into a world they haven’t experienced before. That, she says, is a psychological form of abduction.
“It’s a common strategy for the brokers to lure women by saying that American or Japanese men don’t play dirty like Koreans, when that’s completely untrue,” Cho says. “They tell the women that men overseas are more gentle and nicer to women, and that conditions there are far better than here.”
The Korean government has only recently begun to grasp the magnitude of the issue. Yun Won-ho, a lawmaker for the Uri Party, was forced to confront some realities after her recent appearance on a radio talk show for Korean-Americans in Los Angeles. She was in the U.S. with a researcher and a government official to figure out whether the 2004 act had caused a “balloon effect,” forcing sex trade workers to leave Korea for the United States.
During the interview, she said there was not a serious problem, although she acknowledged the number of women involved has grown since the act.
After her comment angry phone calls deluged the station from Koreans living in L.A., a community of over 700,000, complaining about her team’s lack of insight.
“We were completely crushed after the trip,” she says. “We didn’t know where to start. We were told before our trip that the situation couldn’t be that bad, because the U.S. government had tightened their borders after 9/11. It turned out that the actual situation was beyond our worst fears. The trendy room salons we saw in Gangnam before the anti-prostitution act have relocated themselves to L.A.’s Korea town. We got a sense that the industry has penetrated into American society so deeply that it is almost unreachable by public authority.”
Shortly after her return, Yun held a press conference on legal and systematic alternatives to prevent the overseas trafficking of sex workers in Korea. She was in an uncomfortable position because she had to admit that the anti-prostitution act, a major achievement of her own party, had a major downside.
She also presumes that in the sauna-room gossip of male politicians in Korea there is a general consensus that sex trafficking is something they had better not mess around with, because the anti prostitution law was put into effect by the so-called “wives troika,” of assemblywoman Cho Bae-sook; Ji Eun-hee, the former Minister of Gender Equality and Family; and Kang Geum-sil, who was the Minister of Justice when the bill was enacted. Their involvement made the bill into a “women’s issue.”
“Male assemblymen are very cautious about commenting on this issue,” Yun says. “They know that if they don’t deal with the subject carefully they could loose a lot of votes from their supporters. If you have the slight interest in running for the next National Assembly you wouldn’t jeopardize your career with an issue like this.”
Cho Jin-kyeong agrees, saying that an effort to eradicate prostitution is often seen as a worthless pursuit.
“There is certainly a lot of bitterness toward the anti-prostitution act,” she says. “Whenever there is news about overseas trafficking people tend to blame it all on the act, saying that the law forced women overseas. But the act helped to bring the issue up to the surface after it had been suppressed for many years. The real issue is that there is a solid network of politicians, government officials and corporate powerhouses in this country who view the sex trade as a territory that cannot be controlled by the state, because the development of Korean industry was virtually built around the sex trade.”
Even among the supporters of the anti-prostitution law, however, there is general criticism that the government should have taken proper measures to prevent the aftermath of the act before it was put into effect.
“The act itself was an ideal way to kill prostitution,” Yun says. “But we acknowledge that it was introduced too hastily.”
Lee, the director of the International Organization of Migration, agrees.
“We are not surprised about the outcome,” she says. “It’s a major problem that the Korean government often fails to think in terms of the economy when they introduce these new laws that are based on certain values or ideology.”
Meanwhile, the National Police Agency said that it does not keep specific data concerning the number of women who are trafficked abroad. In a press release from the agency last December, however, it says it has prepared a report concerning industry patterns and the initiatives it has taken to crack down on prostitution in Korea.
The report was passed to the FBI, to demonstrate that the government is on top of the trafficking issue as part of its push to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The release adds that the agency would continue to participate in a collaborative investigation with the FBI.
But no follow-up contact has been made with the U.S. government since then, according to a source at the agency’s Interpol department.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [email@example.com]