'Ambassadors' and Prostitutes: South Korea's Sex Workers
The red light district in Seoul (1945), marked as "off limits" for U.S. soldiers.
Image Credit: Flickr/ Don O'Brien

'Ambassadors' and Prostitutes: South Korea's Sex Workers


Prostitution is a politically and socially contentious issue just about anywhere. But it is especially contentious in South Korea. Seldom a popular topic, the ongoing effort by South Korean sex workers to have the Special Law on Sex Trade repealed creates an opportunity to direct the discourse towards this contentious issue.

Though primarily a domestic service, the history of selling sex in South Korea is also a matter of security and alliances; it is hard to consider one without the other. It is inextricably linked to Korea’s neo-colonial relationship with the United States. And while work published in conservative and U.S.-centric “security studies” is not likely to consider it, prostitution in South Korea is as securitized as is trade. Several contemporary Koreanists writing in English have highlighted the instrumentalization of sex work for purposes of security, development, and empire.

Katherine Moon’s Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations was one of the first to explore the way in which female sex workers were regulated, educated, and instrumentalized as ambassadors for the nation. The early 1970s were contentious times for U.S.-South Korea relations. With racial tensions between Koreans and Americans (especially African-Americans) running high and venereal diseases spreading, both governments sought cooperation on how best to “clean up” the problem. The solution was close(r) regulation (including VD check-ups) and better education. Sex workers were taught the values of tolerance and racial equality and expected to participate as ground-level diplomats for South Korea.

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Moon Seungsook, following on the work by Katherine Moon, contributed to the literature on regulated military prostitution in Over There: Living with the U.S. Military Empire from World War Two to the Present. She shows that the industry and institution of sex work in South Korea was an essential component of the American empire and a mechanism by which Korean elites could accentuate and maintain clear class boundaries at the expense of lower class women (i.e., those most likely to be sex workers). Indeed, as both authors emphasize, sex workers have always been comprised of the country’s down and out – women who, for educational, financial, and social reasons, were unable to find alternative work.

Most recently, Jin-kyung Lee, in Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea, challenges the triumphant “rise” narrative, arguing that it overshadows or erases altogether the less desirable but still essential elements of Korea’s development. Chief among these less desirable elements is sexualized service labor for domestic clientele and U.S. soldiers.

Today an increasing number of sex workers who continue to service U.S. military personnel in South Korea are migrant workers from other Asian countries – Lee writes that 90 percent are either Filipino or Russian, according to 2005 statistics. And while Korean sex workers form South Korea’s early developmental years demand restitution from the state, sex workers who serve domestic clientele are demanding legal recognition for their work – or at least the decriminalization of it.

Upon petition, the Constitutional Court began hearings last week to decide on the constitutionality of the Special Law on Sex Trade. The law, enacted in 2004, makes it more difficult for sex workers to practice their trade and make ends meet. While an otherwise conservative society may be loath to admit it, selling sex in South Korea is a big industry. By some unverified estimates, it accounts for 1.6 percent of GDP (there are also significantly higher estimates). Other reported statistics cite the figure one-fifth: one in every five men buys sex four times per month. So much demand creates a need for supply — the same source reports one out of every 25 women in South Korea is selling sex. This is to say nothing of the sex trade and sex tourism.

Sex workers are calling on the court to throw out or modify the law, according to JTBC. Former Jongnam (a district in Seoul) chief of police Kim Gang-ja is leading the charge. She argues that “the penalty clause must be abolished for the sake of sex workers’ livelihoods,” because “not only does the Special Law on Prostitution violate basic rights of sexual freedom and freedom of occupation, but it leads to negative side effects for sex workers who are forced to work illegally.”

The government sees it as a matter of protecting the public. JTBC cited attorney Choi Hyun-hee, who testified for the government, as saying, “Prostitution, which involves the transaction of sex, cannot be judged solely in the private domain. If prostitution is harmful to the public, it is not only undeserving of protection as an occupation, but the penalty clause must be maintained for a healthy sex culture.”

It is an interesting case for a nominally conservative society. Given the anti-adultery law was recently struck down, it wouldn’t seem far-fetched for the court to throw out the 2004 law on prostitution. While it may not make sex work an entirely legal enterprise, it might go so far as to decriminalize the sale of sex but not the purchase. This is a common social compromise that other countries have reached. Regardless of whose side the court rules in favor of, the sheer size of the sex industry means it isn’t likely to wither away just because some or even all of the transactions taking place therein are illegal. Above all else, as a popular service and form of consumption, it makes it all the more important to understanding its history, power relations, and gendered dynamics.

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