Friday, January 31, 2014

Prostitution in Korea

Where to start...
The more I do research on this topic, the more I realize that I cannot cover every aspect of it because of its incredibly multidimensional nature. Although I want to quickly get over it by writing a simple entry, I couldn't dare to do so, from the fear of doing disservice to myself and the readers for overlooking such a serious matter. 

The root of the problem is very deep, and with my limited and miserable writing skills I am going to make a huge mess out of it. So I am going to follow my philosophy of K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid. Forgive me if I do not go in depth on the topic of prostitution in Korea. But I will try to come up with something that will not let you leave here empty-handed. So here we go. 

First things first, let's get the data out. These may be approximations, but I do not believe they are fabrications: 

  • According to the Korean Institute of Criminology 20% of men (1/5) in their twenties pay for sex at least four times a month, creating an endless customer base for prostitutes.
  • Korean Feminist Association estimates 1.2 million women are involved in sex trade in South Korea, and 20 per cent (1/5) of all South Korean women aged 15-29 were involved in prostitution. It is common to see female students from elite universities (equivalent to Ivy league schools in the US) working in some of the exclusive ventures (like "텐프로", "10 per cent") where customers may able to afford sex if they could lure the girls with enough money.
  • Despite its illegality, prostitution and the sex trade is so huge that the government once admitted it accounts for as much as 4 percent of South Korea’s annual gross domestic product -- about the size of the fishing and agriculture industries combined. (Around $14 billion annually).
  • 200,000 South Korean youths run away from home annually, with many of them descending into the sex trade, according to a report by Seoul’s municipal government. A separate survey suggested that half of female runaways become prostitutes.
  • From a peak of 73,000 in 2009, 21,123 people were arrested in 2012 for organizing, patronizing or working in the industry. (A huge decline)

For a more comprehensive coverage of prostitution in Korea take a look at:

For a graphic description of what kinds of prostitution occur in Korea:

There is nothing more I can add to these articles. They are eye-opening. In fact, my job is done here. You've seen how corrupted Korea has become, how materialistic people now are, how economic prosperity has murdered the value of humanity, how nuclear families are being fragmented into pieces that will never recover its shape.

I am truly embarrassed to admit this, but I did not know the state of our country was in such grave danger. Although I have heard of the numbers before, at that time they felt so distant from reality. I thought prostitution was just a next door neighbor that doesn't concern me nor affect me as long as I do not open the doors of my house. In actuality, prostitution and family dysfunction had settled into my asylum, my sanctuary. It had simply been deceptively camouflaged by our conservative society. I thought it only affected a unique population: those who were rich, greedy, broken, immoral, hopeless... But as I hit my mid 20s I began to realize that the population that I once thought was unique was not that unique at all. Out of all people, I was under its fierce influence. 

I remember one of my closest friends asking me to lend him some money so he could buy the services of a prostitute. When I was searching for a summer job I had applied to bars, but found out that they were actually host bars (호빠), where sexual negotiations commonly occurred. When walking down the streets of Gangnam or Nonhyeon, you would see beautiful ladies taking a walk with their pets or getting off from their BMWs, as if the luxury they've earned was through virtuous hard work. At first glance they look like the cream of the crop, the top 5% of the upper class. After a brief moment of awe, you come to your senses that most probably they are prostitutes. Then for the rest of the day the thought of one of these prostitutes ending up as your wife haunts your mind. At night, fliers and business cards of illegal sex traders  literally carpet the streets of Gangnam. We are talking about the "Times Square" of Korea here. "Right in your face." Aren't these invitations to the police to escort them into prison? Certainly not, as there is no hindrance to their activities. What is going on? Girl groups in K-pop pole-dancing, more and more idol groups dressing like bikini models as if in promotion to sell their bodies. Their obscene dance moves even more radical. On top of that, these dance moves becoming a trend in K-pop culture. Am I being overly sensitive here? Well let me give you a comparison. It's like Miley Cirus (the former Disney channel role model whom young teenagers look up to) "twerking it out." No idea? Check it out:

Miley Cyrus recently "twerking" during MTV music awards 2013.

Her past: Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana. An icon and role model for the younger generation, for her "Christian faith," influence, and success in the entertainment industry. I hope you can sense some of my exaggeration in these descriptions.

I know prostitution is legal in certain countries, but not in Korea. When did prostitution become a legal right? Take a look at this, I could not have imagined something like this would occur here in Korea.

South Korean prostitutes in underwear and covered in body paint douse with flammable liquid on a street to show that they're willing to die during a protest in Seoul, South Korea. (AP / Lee Jin-man)

These are photos of prostitutes protesting against the oppression from the government. I've read articles where prostitutes complained that they are not selling their bodies to earn a fortune but to merely pay off their living expenses. Honey, I guarantee you there are hundreds of other jobs that you can take in order to earn a living. It's just that "this other path" is physically demanding, takes much of your time, and won't pay as much as prostitution. I don't want to sound ignorant... I am sure that every person has a right to live a prosperous life in this country... But not like this. Not by selling your body and integrity to a total stranger. Even if you don't value your body or integrity, there is a huge likeliness that you are treating the other as an object for quick money, quick success, and quick pleasure. 

As I said previously, the roots of prostitution is complex. I can rant on and on but I understand that will push people away from reading this post. Hence, I will point out the main problems regarding the development of prostitution and suggest a brief roundabout to this problem at the very end. 

1. Media: I've stated it before, but female artists are manipulated as sex objects. If you are familiar with Gangnam Sytle, then Hyuna is someone you probably heard of. Everything she does simply cannot happen without promiscuity. We should understand that the entertainment companies are the ones mascaraing them to be the dolls they want them to be. The dolls that will earn attention, and money. They pollute the minds of the public. So what do we do? The public likes it. Unless some legit artist of Beetles' caliber shifts the trend of pop culture, it seems nothing will change in the near future.

Hyuna performing "Trouble Maker." Please take a look at the back-dancers on the left. I was initially going to post an obscene photo of Hyuna and Seungyeon until I found this. I was so shocked that I wanted to make sure this was not Photoshopped by going through other live performances. Unfortunately, these photos are legitimate and were performed in many other broadcasting stations. It's just that they are not so obvious on TV. 

It is embarrassing to speak of sex in the public, but it seems that it becomes tolerable when it is in an art form. Pure deception, I'd say. Several blogs written by foreigners have done an excellent job analyzing the problems of my country. I couldn't have done any better so I will be directly quoting them:

"Koreans often explain to non-Koreans that Korea is a “highly conservative country”, steeped in rich Confucius tradition and following a strict social hierarchy maintained over thousands of years. While on the surface this appears correct, even the most naive foreigners would begin to ponder about this supposed “conservative morality” after being exposed to highly sexualized kpop videos and Korean nightclub culture. While sex is still a very taboo topic in Korea and censorship laws ensure that a great number of music videos, lyrics, and movies are cut or vetted for Korean audiences, it is clear that sex in all its shades and varieties is in fact taking place in Korea, and it is likely occurring at a much greater frequency than anyone might suspect. Traditionally, Koreans have not been allowed to openly discuss issues relating to sex in society, even with their parents or teachers, and this consequentially appears to have left a massive void in the social and cultural understanding of sexuality in Korea."
-Written bLuigina Webb

2: Families and single-person homes: According to Al Jazeera, from 2013 "households consisting of a single person will be the most common living arrangement in South Korea. They will make up 25 per cent of all households, a ratio that has doubled in the last 20 years. Companies are responding to this trend, for example, by making ready-to-eat or easy-to-cook food in smaller serving sizes. The rapid growth in single-person households also worries the government."

Companies are responding, but also night life is responding to the increased number of single-person households. As someone who lived alone in a one-room (원룸) for two years before going to grad school, I know how lonely it can be. Many times I've sought for parties and night life entertainment to escape from desolation. I've met many people in similar circumstances where they have come to Seoul alone, to either attend university or earn money. In such stressful and solitary environment, it becomes a lot more easier to rely on "instant-gratification" through night-life such as clubs or in worst case prostitution. This can become a habit and healthy relationships between female and male are becoming more difficult to find.

As youth have become more independent, the problem of runaway kids have been on a sharp rise. I've noted previously in the facts section that 200,000 children run away from home each year. I believe that the reason for this number is family dysfunction that arises from the clash of parents' traditional values and the more Western values of the younger generation. When absolute obedience is expected from the parents, the youth of today are more sensitive to what is logical and fair. Blind obedience may sound narcissistic and abusive to many. Hence this family dysfunction not only affects children but influences young adults to quickly move away from their families and find an independent life. One more reason why single-person homes are on a steep rise.

All in all, unhealthy relationships between family members and the opposite sex is increasing the tendency to seek dangerous alternatives.

3. Education:

I cannot put it any better than this:

"The lack of sex education in Korean schools can arguably be described as thoroughly detrimental to the lives of young Koreans, who over time will potentially develop some rather mythical or fantastic ideas about sex based on the lack of adequate educational materials. This lack of education is one of the underlying factors influencing the yearly increase in the percentage of teenage pregnancies in Korea, and also leading to the relatively consistent rate of Korean babies still being sent abroad for adoption. Furthermore, there are serious political controls regarding topics that can be depicted and discussed within the Korean media (including talk shows, newspapers, magazines, dramas, and the internet), which leaves young Koreans with very little foundation knowledge of how to understand sex in society or what sex actually constitutes. Censorship is extremely tight in Korea and it is officially illegal to download pornography, however a great number of Korean children do seem to access pornography from home or occasionally in PC rooms, and this unfortunately gives impressionable Korean students a skewed idea of what sex should be and in what circumstances it should occur." 
-Written by Luigina Webb

4: Emphasis on physical beauty: Plastic surgery is huge in Korea. Actually, it's number 1 in the world:

As in the description, plastic surgery procedures per 1000 population.

It's so big that thousands of people from abroad visit the country to get the procedure done. According to estimates from the Korea Tourism Organization, South Korea’s medical tourism industry made a revenue of 487 billion won ($453 million) in 2012. 

Beauty is a universal trait that is sought after. I cannot complain about that. However, the lack of persona, independence, and strength in character, influences women in our country to change their appearance to win the favor of the public. I can speak about how contagious trends (fashion, IT, hang-out places, you name it) are in Korea and could even elaborate on the culture of "눈치" (being cautious and observant of others' behavior and words in order to do the right things to please them). This post has become long enough so none of that. But the main point is that there is a culture that is hazardous. Some kind of education needs to take place to provide people with a stronger inner being, confidence, and satisfaction for who they are genetically.

5. The "fast and quick" culture of Korea ("빨리 빨리 문화"): I have to admit, Korea has reaped many fruits from this innate quality (we all know Korea is one of the fastest growing economies in the past few decades). Korean people are known for their impatience and hot temper (which some blame it on spicy food such as kimchi and "Shin ramen"). If they want something done, they get it done immediately. However, (this might sound far-fetched but...) I think relationships between men and women have suffered greatly from this trait (if you haven't heard, among OECD countries, Korea's divorce rate is number 1 in the world). Whenever conflicts arise between two people, lack of persistence, patience, and understanding creates a chasm, and breakups follow in a swift manner. This also happens between married couples as well as parents and children. As a result, children run away from home, ex-couples tend to favor "instant" gratification by buying sex. If people do not resist their impulsiveness or try to seek something that is lasting... I see no reason why prostitution will go out of business. This "fast and quick" culture is deeply ingrained in our Korean DNA, and the best way I see it tamed is by the older generation setting an example and educating the younger ones. 

As 1TYM once put it, "한국 남자 우리성질은 hot 뜨거 뜨거 hot 뜨거 뜨거 hot!"


Increasing child pregnancy, unhealthy relationships, divorce, prostitution, plastic surgery, all of these trends show that clearly our value system is becoming focused on getting what we want as quick as possible, physical attraction, and promiscuity. I am certainly not an exception. Some may say that this is a global issue and Korea is no different. I agree. However, some of you will agree that it was a shock at first to accept our country to follow such values. The country that once was honest, hard-working, sincere, sensitive to etiquette and manners, exemplary in education, patriotic and proud of our recent history of liberation from the Japanese (not even 70 years old).

We cannot let this trend to progress into a national culture. Meaning, we cannot let other countries think of our country for the most beautiful artificially engineered women in the world. We cannot let tourists be eager to add "room salon" or "red light district" to their top 5 places to visit upon their arrival to Korea. We cannot continue to tolerate the rise of divorce and rise of family dysfunction, which will eventually diminish the number of our work force and weaken the economy of the next generation. 

I do not hope for much. We are all human beings who create problems stemming from personal greed, comfort, and independence. However, we should not forget that it is justice, love, integrity, compassion, and awareness of morality that separates us from animals. I hope that this nation could reflect itself and work towards what was once considered a graceful nation with a culture of endurance, perseverance, caution, virtue, and classy subtleness. Bless you. 

Sources I've relied on


  1. I dont agree on the fast and quick korean culture.. i think the reason why people choose to get divorced much more easily is partly due to thr transition out of paternalistic nature of society. My parents generation grew up in such social pressure that more women now are resisting what they grew up with such as "learn to respect and serve your husband no matter what...." and exercising much freedom through getting divorced. I just dont think couples breaking up cuz of rooted 빨리빨리문화 ^^ other than that it was an interesting post to read!!

    1. Thank you for your reply! I totally agree that the shift in social values is the bigger problem when it comes to divorce. I didn't mention it because I felt that the post was getting a little too long. However, I thought that the 빨리빨리 문화 was quite unique to Koreans and it was a factor that ignited conflicts within a household. I feel like it definitely did in my family :)

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