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It’s 10:00 pm and I’m sitting inside the office of one of Seoul’s biggest red light district bosses.
My translator and I arrived a few minutes before in Miari Texas, an old-school red light district where hundreds of sex workers do business every night of the week. The place is a labyrinth of alleyways with dozens of brothels, as well as “room salons,” where customers go to drink, sing Karaoke and, at the end of the night, have sex with their hostesses in exchange for cash.
We’re waiting for a man we’ll call Mr. Lee, the big boss who runs the entire red light district. Several minutes before, we drove into one of the narrow streets and parked. We were met by one of Mr. Lee’s associates, who took us down a dark, nondescript alleyway and down a flight of stairs into their offices, which are in the basement.
The place is in one of Seoul’s older neighborhoods, and this red light district has been around for decades. There’s a faint odor of dust you find in old buildings everywhere in the world.
The nearly bare room is brightly lit by lights in the ceiling. There’s a cement floor and a wooden desk on the right, and on the left is a leather couch where a few middle aged men are sitting, casually dressed Korean in jeans and ski coats – there’s not much heat in the room on this bitter cold November night – and watching a talk show on TV.
Unlike the movies, no one is wearing flashy suits or Rolexes. Everyone is kind of low key, sort of like an episode of the Sopranos, where guys sit around in nondescript offices drinking coffee.
No one has their hair slicked back, and a couple of the men – most are over age 50 — don’t have much hair left. One of them is sporting a comb-over.
The only sign of wealth are their cars, parked outside — a Lexus and other luxury cars.
On the surface, they seem no different than most other Korean ajushi – a term for middle aged men in Korea. Of course, that’s the side they’re showing me, and this is the first time we are meeting. One guy brings us coffee while we wait for Mr. Lee in an adjacent room, which has bare walls except for a poster of some Korean movie. We sit at a plain, wooden round card table.
“Kamsahapinida,” I say in my limited Korean, which is a formal way to say thank you.
He smiles and asks me in Korean if I can speak Korean, seemingly excited about the idea of a foreigner speaking his language. My translator explains that I speak a little bit, that I spent a year in Korea about a decade ago and taught English. I am careful to be respectful, since we’re on their turf, although my translator seems to have no worries.
Korea has in recent years been ratcheting up the pressure on the sex trade, shutting down a number of historic red light districts. That has sparked a number of highly-publicized street protests, in which hundreds of sex workers demanded that the industry be legalized. Many of the nation’s estimated quarter million sex workers – and that’s a conservative estimate – are the sole breadwinners for children and aging parents. For many, sex is the only way they can pay Korea’s high costs of educating their children and providing for medical care of aging parents.
One major factor pushing Korean women into the sex trade is that many are shut out of the nation’s male dominated economy. While there are many women in lower-level admin positions in major companies, it is nearly impossible for many women to climb the corporate ladder. One reason is because bosses assume young female employees will simply quit after getting married and follow the traditional path of becoming a stay-at-home mom. So, managers don’t bother grooming women employees for management jobs.
Also, group cohesion and after work drinking parties are a big part of getting promoted in Korea Inc. Departments get entertainment budgets. They are supposed to use them for department dinners, but with a little creative accounting when they turn in their receipts, groups of male office workers often take group trips to room salons.
For many Korean women, their only hope of making any money is marrying a good earner. And many women want to work at major companies in a bid to find a high-earning husband. While there are many more young women in university than even a decade ago, their careers are still hindered by this dynamic.
For single women without a college degree, the job opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer in a hyper competitive job market where even a degree from a top university is no guarantee of employment. For those who have not had the advantage of a good education, whose parents couldn’t afford the stiff fees for after school tutoring that is a must for getting into a good Korean university, chances are high that they’re in for a life of financial struggle.
Much of this pushes women into the sex trade, and many Women without job skills or degrees will never be able to find a job that pays better than selling sex.
My translator and I sit and wait as the clock ticks toward 11:00 pm. Since many of the women work all night, they are often sleeping from around 2:00 pm, and are now just waking up and putting on their makeup for another night’s work.
Around 11:30 they tell us the young lady who we came to interview on camera has come in to work and has some time to talk before she starts her shift.
We walk back up the stairs to the frosty winter outside, where we can see our breath in the dark as we talk. The place is a labyrinth of alleyways too tight for cars, except on the main street. It’s still early in the evening by the standards of this industry, and many shops are still dark. Some of the mamma-sans – middle-aged female brothel managers – are hanging out outside and staring at us as we walk with Mr. Lee toward the woman’s shop who we’ll interview on camera. Some are wrapped in blankets and others are sitting inside transparent plastic tents.
We make our way down a dark narrow alley and a Mama-san who looks around 60 years old passes by. She’s wearing a sequined New Year’s Eve hat and is carrying a small portable karaoke machine strapped to her back like a backpack, which blasts music as she dances past us, singing Korean oom-pah music, which is called “bonk-chak” here and is wildly popular among the elderly. As her singing fades into the distance, the area becomes eerily silent again, except for the sound of traffic from a nearby large boulevard.
While we walk through a series of dark allies on our way to interview a sex worker, a drunken ajushi, known to the local mama-sans and pimps, sees us with a camera and starts yelling. He’s either a local customer or just a wino, I’m not quite sure and my translator doesn’t know either. In his tirade I catch the word weigukin, which means foreigner. Apparently, he’s pissed off not only that people are filming, but that foreigners are filming, in a country that, for all its outward modernity, remains deeply xenophobic.
He’s screaming at us and Mr. Lee, a big guy around 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, is holding him off and trying to talk some sense into him. Mr. Lee looks even bigger in his puffy ski jacket. A small crowd of mama-sans gathers and explains to my translator that the guy is a known trouble maker in the neighborhood.
Miari Texas is one of Korea’s oldest red light districts, dating back decades. The name, according to some historians, comes from old U.S. Western movies, in which spur-booted Cowboys drink downstairs in a bar and take the bar girls to bedrooms upstairs.
Mr. Lee calms down the situation and we continue down the alley.
We stop and Mr. Lee knocks in a door. A Korean woman who looks to be in her late 20s answers the door. She’s got dyed, reddish-brown hair.
The place is a mom and pop shop brothel. It’s a converted apartment with hardwood floor where clients enter, and a staircase going down into the basement where the singing, drinking and, presumable, the getting-it-on are done. There’s a fridge full of cold beer – the door is see-through – for patrons to have a drink first. It’s shaped much like a traditional row home U.S. cities such as Philadelphia — with a living room in the front, a dining room in the middle, a kitchen in the back on the first floor.
We walk down the staircase to a karaoke room and sit down with Su Young, a sex worker who works here five or six nights a week. Her job is to entertain male clients by singing with them, pouring beer for them, chatting with them and providing sex at the end of the night in a different room. It’s a tough job. It’s all night. She doesn’t see the sun that often, except on her days off. She has to drink a lot. In this male-dominated society, customers are often condescending and treat her in demeaning ways, even though she’s trying to please them with flirtatious conversation and well-practiced sexual techniques. She tells me later that this is often perplexing.
She’s pretty, although she wears a lot of makeup, around 5 feet 2 inches, outspoken and knows the industry well, having spent a decade in the trade. Despite an unhealthy job of drinking a lot of alcohol, no time for exercise and working the midnight shift, she still seems healthy and energetic, and she laughs at me when I have trouble sitting cross legged on the floor at a traditional Korean table. She laughs even harder when my stomach gets in the way, as I had gained several pounds recently.
We greet each other, sitting across the table as my translator turns on the camera. She’s pleasant, polite, and doesn’t seem as stressed out as many Korean women I’ve met in the sex industry. Perhaps some people handle the stresses of this job better than others.
Su Young and most others in this red light district are what would be known in client parlance as mid-level ladies. Cute but not beautiful, savvy but not extremely sophisticated. Usually the ladies wear cocktail dresses to meet customers, but tonight she’s in a rush. She had time to put on her makeup but is wearing a ski coat and jeans.
Many of these so-called mid level women are in their late 20s to early 30s. They are average earners in the industry. Su Young says she makes around U.S. $4,000 or more a month, depending on the number of customers and how well they tip.
In a nation that prizes youth as the top beauty trait, her age – she’s in her mid-30s – precludes her from raking in the rally big bucks. Some of the younger women in this industry make $1,000 just from one tip from one customer – and might have two or more big tippers in one night. Those tend to be around 21 or 22 years old, and some are university students.
On past trips to Korea, I’ve seen women over 40 who were extremely attractive — in great shape and fashionable — only to find that Korean men my age considered them over the hill. In Korea even 30 can be considered old in this age-obsessed nation.
Many sex workers these days spend their earnings on plastic surgery, in a country preoccupied with making their Asian faces look Caucasian. Despite an underlying xenophobia that permeates much of the nation, the standard of beauty is to look like a Westerner. Plastic surgery can be a big asset in this industry, and can spur drunken, middle-aged businessmen to dump fistfuls of cash into young ladies’ hands for a night of sex and drinking.
This concept of offering a combination of sex and entertainment is said to come from Japan, a legacy of when the island nation colonized Korea in the early 1900s. Some Korean historians say Japan introduced prostitution to Korea, something that should be taken with a grain of salt, as Koreans tend to blame Japan for a number of what they perceive as society’s ills. However, as Korea was a simple agricultural society just a century ago — and most men would have been able to afford a tryst with a lady of the night – there may be some truth to the claim.
But whatever the case, there a many similarities in sexual entertain between Korea and neighboring Japan.
While Japan (supposedly) introduced its system of prostitution, which Korea adapted wholeheartedly, the sex trade really took off after the Korean War, when tens of thousands of U.S. servicemen purchased sex from Korean women. In the first years after the war, when the country was a heap of rubble and bombed-out buildings, young women roamed around U.S. military bases, exchanging their only asset – their bodies – for food to feed themselves and their families.
Later, sex work took on a more formalized form, and room salons and other sex entertainment venues sprung up. Since the war, 1 million Korean women have worked in the nation’s sex industry, according to the book Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations, by Katherine Moon, now at the Brookings Institution.
Over half of Korean men are estimated to purchase sex, and the industry can be found just about everywhere in Korea. Percentage-wise, Korea has one of the largest populations of sex workers in Asia – and the world.
Su Young is a working mom, the mother of a 13-year-old boy. A decade ago, she worked at a low level sales job at a major Korean conglomerate, or chaebol – massive corporations that control the nation’s economy. The job didn’t pay well, and she said she don’t see much hope for her to climb the ladder.
Su Young says the sex industry is growing, despite a government crackdown.
“From what I hear, every other house is running a sex business,” she says.
Su Young is like many of Korea’s estimated quarter million or more sex workers. In a male dominated society, it was nearly impossible for her to climb the corporate ladder. She says many in this industry are their family’s sole bread winner.
Su Yong said her job would be easier if it were legalized. That way she could pay taxes and partake of the nationalized health care system, which is low cost and at times free. But if you work in an illegal business you can’t participate in Korea’s healthcare system.
“Korean society has always been male-oriented, so women lack job opportunities,” she says.
“Hence, many women get into this industry just to make a living,” she says. “Because women have a hard time finding a job, women go into the sex industry,” she says.
The mama-san keeps peeking her head in and asking us to wrap it up since they have customers coming soon.
We wrap up our talk. When Su Young tries to get up she realizes her foot has fallen asleep. Mr. Lee, who comes in to walk us back to our car, massages her white-sock clad foot until she can walk. She says goodbye at the door and we’re on our way back outside.
Mr. Lee agrees to talk on camera – just out in the alley – about some concerns he and the other managers have. While a large swath of Korean men occasionally or regularly sleep with sex workers – it’s so common you could call it part of Korean culture – they also look down on these ladies of the night, and often try to cheat them or swindle them out of cash. Su Young, who we just spoke to, says they will often have sex with her and then make insulting remarks, making it obvious they see her as a lowlife.
Mr. Lee says he’s concerned about many women who work under him, saying that, after all, they are young girls.
He says often customers will come in with a broken smart phone and accuse the girls of breaking it and demand they pay for it, which can cost hundreds of dollars. It’s a regular scam of customers who take advantage of the fact that these women cannot call the police if they have problems with customers, since they are in an illegal industry and, as such, have few rights.
At times the customers threaten to call the cops if the ladies don’t pay up. That can take a serious chunk out of the monthly pay of young women supporting their families.
Mr. Lee has tried to go to the police to complain. “These sex workers are often victims of human rights violations… But because of the law (against brothels), the police said they couldn’t help us,” he says.
Mr. Lee says he and the other business managers – some would call them pimps or gangsters – started an organization to try to hear sex workers’ complaints.
Mr. Lee says the industry has changed over the decades, the biggest change being in the year 2000, when the first woman national police chief, Kim Kang Ja, took them helm of the nation’s police force.
She cracked down on under aged prostitution and took on the entire industry. Later, however, she changed course and called for its legalization.
“Long ago, there used to be under-aged sex workers. However, (National Police Chief) Kim Kang Ja (in 2000) said minors should not be sex workers. And we ourselves believed that taking in minors was wrong,” he says.
“And ever since Kim Kang Ja came to this area, we have not hired any under aged sex workers,” he says.
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