Cho Jin-kyeong has witnessed some of the worst cases of sex trafficking in Korea. As a veteran activist for Dasi Hamkke (Together Again), a support group that offers aid to victims of forced prostitution, she has tried to help former sex slaves repair their lives.
At her office in the quiet working-class neighborhood of Daebang-dong, not far from what used to be the red light district of Yeongdeungpo, she’s counselled a woman who escaped from an island after suffering years of debt bondage in an unlicensed club, earning 300,000 won ($330) a month in return for selling her body to sailors and tourists.
She has also offered aid to a young woman who was forced into a brothel to pay for her abortion, and a woman whose hands were paralyzed after being forced to work endless hours in a massage parlor. Drug addiction, death threats and the endless cycle of servitude are just a few of the themes that fill Cho’s mind on her way to work every morning.
With most of her cases, Cho is very willing to talk. But when the conversation turns to female victims who have returned to Korea after being trafficked to countries like Japan or United States, her words become more restrained.
“These are some of the worst cases I’ve seen,” she says. “Their experience involves the mental distress of migration, guilt and fear.”
Then there is the fear of revenge. The victims constantly suffer from threats during and after their enslavement overseas. They are told that any woman who escapes will be caught by international gangsters; rumors abound that women’s hands have been cut off and their bodies dumped into the sea.”
Then there is the fear of an unknown world ― one that’s poisoned by confusion and oppression.
Once the women are trafficked abroad, the local pimps block social channels that might give the women a chance to reach out for help. As a result, victims rarely know much about the countries where they are trafficked until they are out of a pimp’s hands. And, even if they are freed, the fear of trusting others remains.
“Really, who would you trust, besides yourself, if you had been in a situation like that?” asks Lee Jeong-hye, the director of the International Organization of Migration in Seoul, which monitors human trafficking.
When Korean women are trafficked to countries like Japan or United States, they are often lured into captivity by a desperate desire to pay off accumulated debts.
In a society that maintains a conservative attitude toward sex, young Korean women sometimes see working abroad in another country’s sex industry as a way to earn fast money without shame or prejudice.
The Korean government introduced the Anti Sex-Trafficking Law in 2004. It banned all forms of prostitution in Korea and, in its wake, overseas prostitution has become a promising business alternative for those Koreans who used to control the local the sex trade.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department launched Operation Gilded Cage, a federal investigation of illegal aliens involved in sex trafficking. Almost 150 Koreans were detained as a result. Last year, TVB, the Taiwanese news channel, ran a special report about Korean women who had been trafficked.
The report was called “The Korean Wave in Sex Trafficking,” a term derived from the success of Korean pop entertainers in Southeast Asia, which, in this case, was used to demonstrate a huge increase in the numbers of Korean women forced into prostitution in Taiwan.
Canada, Australia, Guam and even Brazil have also seen new waves of sex trade workers from Korea after the anti-prostitution law was put into effect and it became harder for the industry to survive here.
Women are lured into prostitution through discreet channels like Internet cafes and classified ads in free newspapers. On the Internet, ads for work in the sex industry are easily accessible by typing in phrases like “overseas employment for women,” “work in Guam” or “kurabu,” the Japanese version of a hostess bar. Some kurabu agencies guarantee up to 4 million won ($4,330) a month for pouring drinks for men.
he real issue is that there is a solid network of politicians, government officials and corporate powerhouses in this country who view the sex trade as a territory that cannot be controlled by the state, because the development of Korean industry was virtually built around the sex trade.”May 17, 2007/By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer/JoongAng Daily