South Korean Sex Workers Vow to “Take Every Measure” to Challenge New Organised Crime Policies Which Further Criminalise and Disempower Sex Workers - Part 1

Part 1: A History of Direct Action Style Sex Worker Organising in South Korea over the Past Decade

South Korean sex workers are undoubtedly the leaders in the Asia and Pacific’s direct action style activist techniques when it comes to defending their work rights as sex workers. The reputation of the militancy of South Korean sex workers, led by the Giant Girls, the South Korean Sex Workers Rights Network, is not unwarranted. Despite sex work being criminalized throughout the country, 2004 statistics allege that sex workers generated 1.6% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, over the past decade, South Korean sex workers have been fighting a number of spurious and ever more ridiculous laws and policies criminalising sex work and threatening their livelihoods.

South Korea had constantly been rated as a tier 3 country by the United State's Department of State Trafficking in Persons (TIP) annual report; however, in 2000, a fire in a brothel that killed 5 women who were unable to escape due to a lack of standardised national Occupational Health and Safety regulations in sex trade venues, tasked the Korean Women's Association United (KWAU)and the Global Alliance in Trafficking in Women (GAATWA) with reviewing the Law Against Morally Deprived Women - sex industry legislation that was introduced and unchanged since 1948 in South Korea’s first Constitution.

The outcome of the legislative review and change, which seemingly involved either little, or no, sex worker community consultation, resulted in the Special Law on Sex Trade 2004. The Special Law involved 2 aspects: the “Punishment Act” and the “Protection on the Prevention of Prostitution and Protection of Victims Act” (the “Protection Act”). These laws essentially prohibited the buying and selling of sex and provided a provision to close suspected brothels. Under the legislation, women who were arrested on suspicion of selling sex could either confess to being a sex worker and face a harsh penalty, or claim to be a ‘victim’, unwillingly working through coercion for a procurer, Madame, venue owner etc.

In response to the newly introduced 2004 legislation, 2000 sex workers, their identities disguised by surgical masks and sunglasses, embarked on several protests on 7 October and 1 November, cumulating with a hunger strike involving more than 50 women. These women protested that as sex workers, they were legitimate workers with the right to work in environments free from the threat of arrest and criminalisation, but were also the heads of their households and were not beholden to “pimps” or being “coerced” into sex work. The protest was supported by a sex worker labour rights group, Minseongnoryeon, who were not only campaigning against the 2004 Sex Trade Special Law, but also against the flourishing influence of radical feminists on sex industry related legislation and the subsequent increase in police powers, which were ironically supported by radical feminists against sex workers.

Meanwhile, in 2006, in an attempt to address the issues of demand for sex, the South Korean Government proposed a policy in which Korean companies offered cash incentives to male employees who pledged not to pay for sex following office parties. In 2007, seemingly discounting sex worker campaigns against the criminalisation of sex industry workplaces and the impact on sex worker’s livelihoods (whilst ironically, ignoring the “foreign princesses” working from venues conveniently located within ‘manageable’ proximity to the United States South Korean Military Institutions), the South Korean Government announced that sex tourism by South Korean nationals would be made a criminal offense, as would travelling abroad as a South Korean citizen to work as a sex worker. Despite presenting a petition containing 2,500 signatures from South Koreans objecting to the laws, the South Korean Government passed and upheld the legislation.

In May, 2011, the South Korean police undertook another futile campaign in an attempt to stamp out prostitution in Seoul’s infamous red-light district, Cheongnyangni, whose increasing property values were ostensibly putting pressure on local administration by local property developers to evict sex workers, brothels, sex worker flats and other sex industry related businesses. An ill-conceived policy initially involved parking police cars directly in-front of brothels and sex work venues, effectively intimidating anyone from accessing services or providing services, under the threat of arrest. Sex workers believed that a nearby up-scale shopping center was one of the main instigators of their eviction from Cheongnyangni, and on 11 May, 2011, over 400 sex workers took to the shopping center, demanding to buy luxury products and paying in coins. The shopping center, in Seoul's Yeongdeungpo district, refused to sell any products to the sex workers, some were clad incognito (in sunglasses and baseball hats), with a more radical contingent painted in body paint. During the 4 hour demonstration, the sex workers chanted slogans including, “Guarantee the right to live”.

Meanwhile on 7 June, 2011, sex workers and riot police clashed, as sex workers attempted to occupy the Chuncheon City Hall. Chuncheon is 70km east of Seoul, and was the focal point of sex worker demonstrators, whose spokes-person, Kang Hyun-Joon, President of the Hanteo National Union for Sex Workers, explained the situation as, "After opening a direct subway line between Seoul and Chuncheon, tourists seemed irritated by a red-light district near the line. Chuncheon city unilaterally wants to close the district without prior notification or compromise. Therefore we are here to say that we can’t accept it.” The protest also involved sex workers dancining in traditional Eowoodong costumes, followed by chants. An anonymous 29 year old sex worker stated, “There’s no place we can stand up within the domestic law. It's only pushing us out without any efforts of embracing us. We have nowhere to go, so we're here to keep our right to live, making our living, working, eating and sleeping possible."