In 2004, the South Korean government enacted new laws designed to crack down on the country’s sex trade, which by some estimates accounted for a whopping 4.1 per cent of GDP. To some extent, those regulations were successful: according to the Korean Women’s Development Institute, a think tank dedicated to researching women’s issues in South Korea, the sex trade now generates approximately 1.6 per cent of GDP, or about $14 billion annually (by comparison, South Korea’s agriculture industry accounts for roughly three per cent of GDP).
But Sealing Cheng, an anthropologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who specializes in sexuality, prostitution and human rights in South Korea, argues the government’s efforts don’t always work as intended. While the sex trade laws target pimps and brothel owners, and offer financial and vocational assistance for victims of prostitution, they also establish fines and jail terms for the approximately 269,000 sex workers in the country. “It makes life difficult for a lot of women who, for some reason, remain in the trade. If there isn’t adequate assistance for them, they won’t leave.”
The crackdown is also forcing prostitution further underground. When illicit massage parlours are raided, they often reopen as “hostess bars,” where women are paid for their company but don’t specifically have to sleep with clients, although they often do. “They’re moving too quickly for the government to shut them down,” says Whasoon Byun, a researcher with the Korean Women’s Development Institute.
Cheng says the sex trade remains such a big problem largely because the government incorrectly believes it can stop prostitution by force, and that little will change until women are no longer treated as second-class citizens. “Even with a university degree it’s very hard [for women] to find a job.”