Korea: Special Law on Prostitution proving ineffective

Though the number of red-light districts has decreased, the number of prostitution-related crimes is increasing

  • » On September 22, the group Dandelion Pilgrimage, whose members consist of women forced into prostitution and civic activists, holds a memorial ceremony in the Seogbuk district of Seoul for victims of a fire that broke out at a house of prostitution in the district. According to a 2007 report by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, the Special Law on Prostitution has been ineffective in reducing the number of prostitution-related crimes.

It has been four years since the Special Law on Prostitution went into effect. At the time, the government, pledging to eradicate the source of prostitution, conducted a one-month crackdown so wide in scope that pimps called it the “September Tragedy.” Four years later, a queer phenomenon is occurring in which the number of red-light districts has decreased, but the crime of prostitution itself is increasing.


The Special Law on Prostitution did result in the decrease in the number of red-light districts. According to a 2007 report on businesses involved in the prostitution industry by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, there were 39 red-light districts in 2007, down 30 from 2002. The report also found there were 1,443 shops in 2007, down 1,295 from 2002. Dongdaemun district’s Cheongnyangni, formerly Seoul’s representative red-light district, had decreased greatly in size from 246 shops in 2004 to 32 in 2008.


Citizen consensus on the social criminality of prostitution has also grown. In a survey of citizens by the Ministry of Gender Equality, eight out of 10 (79.6%) responded that they believed prostitution to be a crime, a 25.8% increase from 2005.

Despite the waning of red-light districts, however, the reality in which you can buy sex at any time has not changed. The number of prostitution-related offenses is increasing steadily, going from 34,795 in 2006 to 39,236 in 2007. In the first half of this year alone, there were over 20,000 detentions for prostitution-related offenses.


Due to the “War on Prostitution” launched by the Dongdaemun Police Station in July, 15 of the around 20 houses of prostitution found along Jangan Daero street have been raided, but the bright lights of the neighborhood have not gone out. For the past two months, pimps have hung “massage” signs on their establishments, while some pimps have continued on after changing their establishments into “room salons” and “karaoke clubs.” In response to the police crackdown, pimps are creating new forms of prostitution and proliferating quickly in other districts. Pimps are renting “officetel” rooms in the Gangnam area and elsewhere and facilitating prostitution by finding new johns using the Internet or phone. New forms of prostitution, like “telephone rooms,” “hyugetel” (“rest hotels”) and “doll rooms” are operating everywhere.


One of the reasons behind this “balloon effect” is that the police crackdowns have been for show. With the strength of the crackdowns fluctuating repeatedly, even pimps figure that all they need to do is wait until the crackdown subsides. Mr. Park, 40, who runs a massage parlor in the Jangan neighborhood, said he operates a shop elsewhere until the police crackdown subsides, and then returns. He said some establishments have already moved to the inn area across from the Grand Mart in Sinchon, where the streets are lined with “love motels,” inexpensive inns often used for sex, and begun business. He explained that the pimps’ failure to make public their list of police officers who have taken bribes means they will continue to do business in the Jangan neighborhood. While the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has created a “stealth” unit to conduct widespread crackdowns on prostitution in Gangnam and elsewhere, most of Seoul’s district police stations have not made particular plans for a crackdown. An official from Mapo Police Station, which overseas the Sinchon area where many of the Jangan pimps are relocating, said most of the places of prostitution in Sinchon and Hongdae have been cleaned up, and if they get a tip, they go out to check it out.


Experts stress that for the Special Law on Prostitution to have an effect, rather than focusing on how many places were raided and people arrested, they must break the connecting ring that keeps prostitution going by punishing pimps and building owners.


Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]


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