WATCH: Korea’s massive sex trade: A short history

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***This is the latest installment of a series on Asia’s sex trade. The first three can be found here, here and here. 

In this latest in the series, Borderless News Online goes to some of Seoul’s best known red light districts to uncover the history of Korea’s sex industry – which goes back at least to the time of Japanese occupation. Borderless talks to sex workers, pimps mamasans — older female brothel managers — and others in this underworld that is on the one hand secret but on the other hand widespread in Korea.

Korea’s massive sex industry – one of Asia’s biggest – has been around for at least over a century, and some in the industry say it’s growing.

In the book Yoo Gwan Eh (유곽의 역사) by Korean historian Hong Seung Jeol (홍성철) , the author says Japan introduced the sex trade to Korea when the island nation colonized Korea in the early 1900’s. It’s typical of some Korean historians to blame what they perceive as societies vices on the Japan occupation, and there was likely some form of the worlds oldest profession being practiced at some point in Korea before the Japanese arrived.

Still, as Korea was an impoverished nation of poor farmers and villagers at the time, it’s likely most men didn’t have the money to pay for sexual entertainment.

While the sex trade started in the early 1900s, it began to surge right after the Korean War, as over 300,000 U.S. troops were stationed there after the truce was signed with North Korea in 1953. Historian Yoo Gwan Eh wrote that scores of women roamed around U.S. military bases in search of food, and many women had nothing to sell except for themselves , just to feed themselves and their families.

According to the book Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations, by Katherine Moon, now at the Brookings Institution, there have been 1 million Korean women in the nation’s sex industry since the Korean War. That book was published in 1997, and there is now a new generation of sex workers in Korea. There are around a quarter million Korean sex workers now in Korea, according to estimates.

The sex trade flourished in the decades after the war, and Yoo Gwan Eh says Korean sex workers have contributed to economic growth after the war. One entire village of sex workers in Paju, near the North Korean border, was entirely dependent on dollars from U.S. service members after the war, according to some sources.  The closest U.S. base was Camp Ross.

Business in Paju’s red light district went down in 1971 when us troops started to reduce their numbers in Korea, according to Yoo Gwan Eh. But in the film above Borderless visited and filmed the place, and our film still shows a vibrant and busy red light district, with hundreds of women beckoning potential customers through glass windows.

In the early 2000s the industry came under scrutiny by Kim Kang Ja, Seoul’s first even woman chef of police, who wanted to ride the trade of under aged girls. In Borderless’ film above, we interview the boss of Seoul’s major red light district, called Miari Texas . He told Borderless in the film above that he and the other managers, or pimps, met with Kim Kang Ja several years back and agreed not to take in any more minors, and says there haven’t been any minors working there since.

Borderless could not independently confirm this, although the sex workers we met there said they were in their 30s, and they did appear to be that age. Borderless’ access was through the red light district’s boss, who showed us around the place and brought us to sex workers who said they wanted to speak with us. We were introduced to the boss via a Seoul based NGO that advocates for the rights and fair treatment of sex workers.

Sex workers at Miari Texas and other red light districts told us that most were women working there are their families main breadwinners and support children and are the sole source of money for aging parents medical care. While Koreans are covered under a state health insurance system, the system only covers those working in industries that are legal. Since sex work is illegal, women those in the trade cannot be covered, and some have to shell out big bucks to afford care for elderly parents, they said.

That’s one main reason why women work in Korea’s sex trade, sex workers there said. The industry draws many women with few job skills and who didn’t attend university – and often university diploma is the bare minimum requirement to earn a decent living in Korea’s hyper competitive job market . So rather than earning $700 per month as a supermarket checkout lady, many earn six or seven times that amount in the sex trade.

The fact that many companies are run by old boys’ networks also pushes many women into the sex trade. Most women cannot progress past entry level positions, as bosses don’t bother training them because it’s assumed they will eventually leave the company to be a full time mom, so managers don’t bother grooming young women for management positions.

For those who do want to move up, it’s an uphill slog. One sex worker Borderless spoke with in the above film, Su Young, says there was an invisible wall that kept women from moving up the ladder. She used to work for a major corporation in Korea, but the sex industry paid much better, and she’s a single mother with a 13-year-old son to support, she says.

Many other women Su Young works with used to do entry-level jobs at major Korean corporations, many of which sell myriad products to the United States, from washing machines to flat screen Tvs. Those women also faced a male-centered corporate wall they couldn’t scale, so they became sex workers to make ends meet.

Some sex workers told Borderless that even with a university degree, it’s hard enough to find a good job in hyper-competitive Korea. For those women with low skill levels and not much formal education, they can either work at a very low-paying job, or they can join the sex industry. Low paying jobs may work out for women with no kids or parents to support. But for many of the quarter million women in Korea’s sex trade, sex work is the only option.

Still, some Korean historians say sex workers helped develop the nation’s economy after the Korean War reduced the nation to a heap of rubble.

In the film above, Borderless brings you to Seoul’s biggest red light districts and shows you the history of the nation’s sex trade.

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