Hanteo National Union Plan Rally Against Evictions before 2018 Winter Olympics

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Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent
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Sex workers in South Korea are fighting an eviction project supported by a local council. This project will push sex workers out of their work places. It has been reported that Cheongnyangni is now being targeted as part of a “long-term trend in which visible signs of vice are being scrubbed from the capitals streets ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, a mountainous area a few hours northeast of Seoul.” Sex workers in various countries have often be targeted in so called ‘city clean ups’ by governments hosting Olympic Games.

Hanteo National Union (HNU) plan to hold a massive rally similar to one held in 2011 on Yeouido, Seoul, to protest the crackdowns on sex worker workplaces.

Cheongnyangni is one of the three largest red-light districts in Seoul. It was the workplace for over 1,000 sex workers in the 80s and 90s. In 2004, an anti-sex work law increased criminalisation, policing and penalties for sex workers. Facing the threat of criminalisation, increased police harassment and surveillance, sex workers have been pushed underground. The increased discrimination combined with lack of rights for sex workers has made them more vulnerable to eviction from various neighbourhoods in cities.

Local media have described the case of Cheongnyangni as the “last of the red light district wars” alluding to the potential conflict between developers and the eight brothels remaining. News1, a South Korean wire service, reported that of 165 commercial sex establishments in the area, 148 had agreed to vacate. According to the South China Morning Post, the remaining businesses are being targeted by plans from a joint team comprising representatives from the city government, Jung-gu District Office, the education office and police. The group plans to set up surveillance cameras at five entrances to the district alongside displaying banners such as “selling and buying sex is a crime and violators will be punished accordingly” and “Prostitution is illegal and carries fines of 3 million won and one year imprisonment.”

Kang Hyun-joon, director general of HNU told Korea Times, "it's like the fight is between us and the rest of the world."

Under the new 2004 law, the punishment for the employer is much more severe than for the buyer. A convicted male client can attend educational seminars aimed at preventing re-offenses in lieu of punishment. In cases like this, the brothel owner would rather take the financial loss than deal with the police. “The managers often end up giving (the disgruntled clients) more money on top of it. There’s nothing that the brothel owner or sex worker can do about this,” Kang says, ”Except for us, everyone else has vested interests in having us removed. Construction firms, the municipalities, the education authorities and police. They simply want the workers to relocate voluntarily out of shame."

The government introduced ‘exit programmes’ as part of the 2004 law reform, but the resources are insufficient. A monthly payment of 400,000 won is granted to sex workers, but the minimum cost of living in Seoul is over 600,000 won per month for a single-person household. Sex workers can earn upwards of 75,000 won per hour to 300,000 per three hours depending on where they work, the frequency of the customers and if they have a manager. The new laws have only enabled gentrification to curtail sex workers rights further and subjected sex workers to human rights violations all while limiting their access to justice.

Lucien Lee, a transgender sex worker in Seoul wants to be able to work without the fear of being arrested or secretly taped. The only way she sees this happening is through decriminalisation, which would remove the laws and policies that make sex work a crime, help to reduce the stigma attached to it and create a safer work environment. “Currently, we find it very difficult to call the police when the client refuses to pay the (agreed) price, wear a condom or when the client blackmails us,” she says.

“If sex workers, their business partners and clients are decriminalised, sex workers would feel much more comfortable calling the police when there is a need,” Lucien Lee concluded.