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Archive for May, 2003

On Prostitution in Korea

Posted by Brian on May 15, 2003

Cheers to to seeing eye blog for bringing this to my attention… Here's an excerpt from a recent post over at Dave's ESL Cafe:

Driving home from work today I noticed that hanging in front of both entry ways to Miari Texas is a large banner reading "Foreigners Off-Limits". For those who don't know, Miari Texas is a large prostitute area near Kirum subway station. I don't really have a problem with the individual 'businesses' not allowing foreigners to enter, but to ban us from (what I think is) a public city block is going a bit too far.

That's right, Miari, one of the more famous prostitution areas in Seoul (and there are several), is banning foreigners from the area. How can they do this? And why? Miari is a strange place. Try to imagine a walled-in red-light district and you might get the idea. It takes up a city block, but all the "shops" are on the inside, and there's a wall surrounding the entire area with the occasional entrance that is guarded by a few cops (ostensibly, I'm told, to make sure young girls aren't snuck in). Passing through the "gates," you'll find yourself in a maze of narrow alleys, with beautiful girls on either side of you, sitting patiently in their place of business until a man walks by and picks them out for a little fun time upstairs. Driving by, you would have no idea what goes on there. With the guarded entrances, it's quite easy for them to monitor who comes and goes, and, if they're really serious about keeping out foreigners, I bet they could. But, as the ESL Cafe poster said, it is a public area… it's all sidewalks and alleys. Banning foreigners from the area is akin to telling tourists in America that they can't visit Central Park or stroll down Rodeo Drive in LA. Why would they do this? My guess is that it's part image, part "we don't want you fucking our girls." As I said a few days ago, Koreans are obsessed with how the world sees them. This new policy can be viewed as an effort by the Korean government to put a band-aid over what is a really an ugly aspect of Korean society: a huge sex industry that involves slavery, extortion, and close ties with Korean law enforcement agencies who are bribed to keep quiet. What better way to crack down on the worst aspects of prostitution than to keep foreigners out so that they just don't see it? By doing so, perhaps South Korea can avoid another F on the State Department's next report on human trafficking. It's a brilliant plan. Of course, it doesn't change one bit the situation these girls are in. But that's not important. What is important is the appearance of doing something about organized prostitution. There's also a touch of racism here, as they don't like the idea of their women being sullied through contact with foreigners. In Cheongnyangni (another red-light district), I'm told the girls won't do foreigners because the cops will bust them if they do (I was also told by an ajjuma there that they don't like doing foreigners anyway because our dicks are too big). Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone familiar with Koreans – their feelings on miscegenation are pretty well-known. Prostitution is big in Korea. According to the Asia Monitor Resource Center, an independent NGO that deals with labor concerns in Asia, some 1.2 million Korean women work in the industry, which works out to be about 20% of all Korean women between the ages of 15-29. It takes place in red-light districts, room salons, tea houses, barber shops (don't ask), and massage parlors across the country. It's not something Koreans like to talk about, but it is nearly everywhere. Which brings me to another point I want to bring up: the myth of the "conservative Korea." If you've spent any time talking to Koreans about sex, no doubt you've heard them say, "Korea is a conservative country." When I first heard this, I believed them. After all, take a quick look around Korea and you don't see adult video stores, sex on TV, raunchy music videos, or chicks walking around in low-rise jeans with their thongs hanging out. At first glance, Korea might seem boring in its lack of adult entertainment for single guys. But unknown to the visitors who spend a few days or weeks in Korea, there is a very seedy underside in Korea that Koreans try to hide from the world (hence, the "No Foreigners" sign) and themselves. I'm talking about wonjo gyojae (child prostitution), mutjima gwangwangs (tours for older, married Koreans who are paired up with a partner for anonymous sex), junghwa bangs (phone rooms for men where women can call them and offer their servcies), room salons, love hotels and the widespread infidelity that make them possible, and the barber shops (don't ask). I could probably go on, but I think my point is made (as a bonus, ask a Korean male friend what a gaekokju is). None of those things are part of what I consider to be a sexually conservative country. In fact, Korea looks more like a country that is very liberal when it comes to giving men plenty of opportunity to stay sexually active throughout their entire life, both in and outside of marriage. And this is now changing to include women as well. Korean sexual conservatism is a charade. It's something Koreans like to believe about themselves because it gives them some sense of superiority over the "decadent" cultures in Japan and America. But in reality, Korea is every bit as freaky as those two countries, they just work extra hard at keeping it below the radar so everyone can save face while the sex industry thrives.

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