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In Korea, there are over 200,000 runaways from home every year. They are amongst the most vulnerable. Of the 200,000 runaways every year, the Seoul Metropolitan Government estimates that over 50% are taken in and become involved in the sex trade. Once they are taken in, they are given some money to “help” them get on their feet, and before these women know it, they become prostitutes. As Wol-Goo Kang , the Director of the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea, puts it: “Once they’re out [of their homes], they are surrounded by people waiting to prey on them.”
This wouldn’t be a problem if they did so willingly, and were able to leave easily. However, once they begin, they are again given money for their use. This piles up until they are in debt, and are unable to leave. The average debt that prostitutes usually have is anywhere from $21,000 to $32,000.
In the documentary, this is told by the experts while cutting to interviews with the victims. It, again, grounds these lofty facts and figures with very human stories. Once they are pushed into sexual service, sometimes unwillingly, it is difficult to get out. Even when they run away, and run far, far, far away, they are somehow followed and physically dragged back.
Going in, one of the questions I had was wondering if the documentary would address the differences between prostitution and sex trafficking — and it does, in a way. But it seems like the documentary instead focuses on the instance wherein voluntary prostitution, a form where the person can willingly leave sexual services, crosses with forced sexual labor, where the voluntary crosses the lines and becomes sex trafficking.
This brings us to the second portion of the statement to describe the documentary: the government condones the practice and turns a blind eye. The way in which the documentary illustrates this is through the experience of the brothers going to the police station to ask about prostitution; is it illegal and is it okay? The first station they go to avoids answering, telling them to go to the capital office for the Women and Adolescents Department. Upon arriving at this office, they are then told that the people of the department are unavailable as they are at an event. From there, they are pointed to another police station that also have a department. There, they are told to go to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, emphasizing that the police are only there to crack down — but only if there are victims.
To this police person, he says he doesn’t see them as victims, even though the laws proclaim the prostitutes as such. This reflects the overall view of men interviewed — prostitutes are seducers, they deserve what sexual abuse they receive, and that they are worthless due to being “used.” Going to a prostitute is seen as being a rite of passage — a man becoming an adult — and as part of the “hosting culture” of the Koreans.
After being told that they have to go to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the brothers switch their tactic. Instead, they go to a police station just a short distance from the “588” red light district. There, they ask if it’s okay to go to a brothel. They are told “we don’t really go out of our way to regulate anymore,” adding that they only go in when there is a report. The visit is ended by the policeman telling the Lee brothers that prostitution is illegal and to “go have a good experience.” This illustrates that the police look the other way. The prostitutes interviewed also echo this sentiment, saying that the pimps and the police have a very close relationship.
If there is one criticism that I have, it is only several people were asked, which is not an indicator that the government actively turns a blind eye. There would need to be more visits done, in various districts, to indicate that there is even a trend of the police turning a blind eye. That being said, it is a starting point, and one that can be followed up upon for a bigger analysis.
Moreover, going to the red light district for sexual services is seen as part of company life; and it is estimated that Korean firms’ usage of the corporate credit card for sexual services amounted to $1 billion in 2013. As Dr. Na-young Lee puts it: “For the sake of the nation’s economic growth and safety, the government systematically exploited woman’s body.” This stems all the way back to the post-Japanese occupation, where the government set up “special districts” for the use of American troops. These “special districts” were composed of dance halls and brothels, and kept the then destitute Korean economy afloat, making up of at least 25% of the GNP.
The final portion of the documentary has the Lee brothers go to Miari armed with a pen camera. They visit at least 15 brothels. In a brief montage of these brothels, a common image was that upon entering and being presented the girls, they were, at least 80% of the time, sitting on the floor in a room that was lit low with a purple lighting, wearing white shirts or bride gown-like dresses. It was a short montage, but it is one that is memorable.
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