Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

Korean sex workers demand decriminalization of their labor

Activists in Seoul protest anti-prostitution law, citing Amnesty International's recent support of sex workers' rights

On Wednesday afternoon at the foot of Boshingak, a bell pavilion in Seoul that dates back to the 14th century, around one thousand Korean sex workers and brothel employees protested the government's crackdown on their chosen labor. Rows of young women disguised in baseball caps, sunglasses and surgical face masks sat before a red stage, cheering and holding signs that drew connections between the local situation and international standards: “Repeal the anti-prostitution law!” “We are workers!” “Adopt Amnesty's declaration!”

The rally and march, marking the 11th anniversary of Korea’s anti-prostitution statute, was organized by the Hanteo National Union, which represents some 15,000 sex workers and business people in red-light districts. Sehee Jang, sex worker representative for Hanteo, said that her group, “above all, focuses on abolishing the prostitution ban and seeking recognition for all voluntary sex workers in Korea.”

When South Korea made prostitution a punishable offense in 2004, the decision reversed many decades of de facto (if unreliable) decriminalization. For most of modern Korean history, regulators and law enforcement have treated sex work with an air of inevitability. In Seoul and other large cities, hall boxes, or brightly lit brothel stalls, have long formed the central node of commercial districts that include pharmacies, convenience stores, street vendors, restaurants, bars, hair salons and clothing boutiques. And during and after the 1950–53 war, the Korean government enabled sex work to flourish near U.S. military bases on the peninsula. 

Sex workers protest their eviction from an established red-light district in 2011. Their sashes read, "Abolish the anti-prostitution law."
Caroline Key

Now, according to Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, “prevention, protection and prosecution” are the correct approach to prostitution, despite contrary recommendations from public health experts and human rights groups. On August 11, Amnesty International approved a controversial document calling on states to “repeal laws that make sex workers vulnerable to human rights violations.” This pro-decriminalization policy, echoing previous statements by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other U.N. agencies, provoked an outcry among some feminist groups, as well as celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway [PDF]. In a press release, the Washington, D.C.-based National Center on Sexual Exploitation wrote, “decriminalization of brothel-keeping and soliciting is a gift to pimps, sex traffickers, and sex buyers.” 

But sex workers around the world, including those represented by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, have expressed unanimous support for decriminalization, separating consensual adult prostitution from coercive trafficking. Lucien Lee, a transgender Korean sex worker who joined the industry in 2012, called the Amnesty decision a “brave” and necessary move in the face of opposition. “Only full decriminalization, which treats sex work like any other work, would be helpful for independent sex workers like me,” she said.

Jang, the Hanteo activist, shares Lee’s approval of the Amnesty resolution but has little confidence that it will shift Korea's policy. “Our strikes and protests have occasionally forced [sex worker] issues to the surface, but until now, the higher-ups in the Korean government have refused to take notice,” she explained. “But if money’s involved, maybe things will change. Money is what gets the government’s attention.”

Sex work as work

Crackdowns on sex work since the 2004 anti-prostitution law have often been a proxy for other fights — over business, real estate and land. “Grace Period,” a film by Caroline Key and Kim KyoungMook, documents the lives of brothel-based sex workers and tells the story of the Youngdeungpo red-light district, which, at its high point, employed as many as 2,000 women. In 2011, amid skyrocketing land values and the opening of a new shopping mall development, Seoul officials who’d previously turned a blind eye to the hall boxes moved to evict the Youngdeungpo sex workers, offering no alternative place for them to do business. The women fought back, staging large, theatrical demonstrations to assert their right to earn a living.

A still from the film "Grace Period," about a 2011 labor struggle in and around a Seoul brothel.
Caroline Key

Through interviews with dozens of Youngdeungpo sex workers, Key found that criminalization often had unintended effects. Fear of arrest — Korean police apprehended over 200,000 workers, clients and brothel owners between 2004 and 2009, according to the U.N. Development Programme [PDF] — intimidated providers and clients, leading to lost wages and a “push” effect: Sex workers “ended up being trafficked. And that’s one of the dangers of not having decriminalization,” she said. “They go to Japan, Australia, Canada or the U.S., through brokers who will send women abroad to brothel houses.”

The Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group in New York, adds that criminalization deters women from reporting assaults and organizing for better conditions. “In another job, you might have a union or colleagues you can speak to, but with sex work you’re prohibited by law,” said Melissa Broudo, a lawyer with SWP, referring to statutes against “promoting” prostitution.

Yet legalization can make things worse, said Matthias Lehmann, a researcher and activist who’s studied sex work in Germany and Korea. In his native Germany, he said, sex workers oppose a new law requiring mandatory enrollment and government health exams: “Registration is a pretext to persecution.”

By refusing restrictions on their labor, said Key, those who provide sex for money insist on their status as workers. Brothel activists in Seoul have “closely modeled themselves on workers’ movements,” she said, but while “sex workers align themselves with ‘workers,’ it doesn’t go the other way.” Korean unions have been silent on the issue, and the same has been true internationally: Neither the International Trade Union Confederation, an umbrella labor group, nor the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million workers in the U.S., would comment on the Amnesty resolution.  

It's this disconnect that Jang, Lee and other sex workers hope to overcome. Following Wednesday's rally, Hanteo led a march toward the constitutional court — where the appeal of the anti-prostitution law is pending — and hosted an international symposium on commercial sex. The message was clear, Jang said, “Sex work is work, too. Recognize our rights as sex workers!”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter