Modern-day Seoul is no different than many other thriving cities in developing nations across Southeast Asia. Peppered throughout the city’s seedier areas are a conspicuously large number of barber shops, nondescript cafes, and massage parlors, all of which are fronts for prostitution. These are the typical work arounds seen in every nation where the flesh trade is prohibited by law, yet permitted by lawmakers and authorities. After all, the sex trade in Korea is estimated at 14 trillion South Korean Won, a whopping 1.6% of the total GDP of the nation. But a prostitution industry of this magnitude doesn’t just spring up overnight. Or does it?
In 1950, Communist North Korea invaded it’s democratic southern neighbor. When an armistice was finally reached, all that separated South Korea from a future invasion was a demilitarized zone spanning the width of the Korean peninsula and a formidable western military presence. Springing up around military bases, “camptowns” became centers of R & R for allied soldiers as well as an opportunity for impoverished Koreans to improve their economic standing. But this turned to be an opportunity for slave traders to gain at the expense of the daughters of an entire nation.
South Korea had a vested interest in keeping an American military presence in the country, both for protection, but also because GI’s were an economic boon. They were indigenous tourists, a revenue stream that after a day staring down hostile forces across a barbed wire fence just wanted to blow off some steam. Behind the closed doors in the meetings of diplomats, Korean officials promised US officials that Korean women would be encouraged to meet the “natural needs” of american GI’s. Part of international relations between South Korea and America became ensuring that GI’s stationed in cities like Seoul had a steady stream of prostituted women who were regularly screened for venereal diseases and then licensed to sell their bodies. Never mind that the women were often lured and deceived by brothel owners into the trade, and sexually brutalized as an initiation. Or forget that they were forced to continue to prostitute themselves through debt-bondage, a system of exaggerated and often fictitious costs for room, board, and loans for medicine that prostituted women had to pay back to their pimps by having sex with customers. These “working women” were the true patriots of a nation, ensuring the continued good will of a nation far superior economically than they.
Whereas in the 60’s and 70’s, prostitution was an accepted part of the military life, by the 90’s, a growing consciousness of the plight of the women in camptowns began to emerge as an injustice that contradicted the very effort to secure freedom and liberty in Korea. “If U.S. soldiers are patrolling or frequenting these establishments, the military is in effect helping to line the pockets of human traffickers,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was told explicitly from his aids in 2002. Not long after, in 2004, Korea cracked down on prostitution, outlawing the practice and shutting down all brothels.
Despite the major reforms, though, not much is different today from the 60’s except perhaps the color of the women: Philippine women, along with Russian and Japanese, fill the barber shops and massage parlors all offering “special services,” which are in this day and age glaring evidences of international human trafficking.
In Spring of 2011, the most recent shut-down of the red light districts occurred in Seoul. This close held fast for a few weeks, yet soon the businesses were again in full-swing. Despite government efforts to stem the tide of illicit activity by placing police officers and squad cars in these districts, the trade continues. Although unwittingly tolerant of this matter, it seems that Seoul’s government is just waiting for the permission to move further with the criminalization of purchasing a woman for sex. These illegal institutes are the very grounds where foreign women are trafficked and enslaved, and unless prostitution and trafficking begin to be seen as intrinsic of one another, progress to end trafficking in Seoul seems far fetched.
We live in a world where prostitution is a glue that helps to hold alliances together, and where women’s bodies are the insinuated bargaining chips of international relations. Developing countries in a very literal sense must promise stronger nations in exchange for their help and protection, “our daughters will put out for your sons if your sons will fight for our homeland.”
But the daughters themselves have never made such an agreement. And that’s why this is slavery.
- Pray for the South Korean government to criminalize prostitution and take a stand for the sanctity of human life.
- Pray for another crack down on prostitution venues that shelter human trafficking victims.
- Pray that the church in South Korea would not ignore this issue, but begin to pray for these women and stand for true justice.