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[Voice] Is the prostitution law enforced?

With the industry still highly visible ...

Sept. 2, 2013 - 21:35 By Korea Herald
 In Korea, an establishment selling sex is rarely more than a short walk or mouse click away. Such is the visibility of massage parlors, room salons and karaoke joints that facilitate prostitution that a first-time visitor to a Korean city could be forgiven for thinking the sex trade was legal.

Even some 40 percent of Koreans claimed to be unaware that prostitution was illegal in a survey carried out in 2001, before the introduction of the 2004 Special Law on Prostitution that criminalizes both the buying and selling of sex. 

Despite the apparent openness of an industry estimated by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to be worth almost 7 trillion won ($6.3 billion) annually, the authorities make a sizable number of arrests related to prostitution every year. The number, however, has been in steep decline in recent years: From a peak of 73,000 in 2009, 21,123 people were arrested last year for organizing, patronizing or working in the industry.

The persistent visibility and scale of the industry has caused some working in outreach services for prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking to question how serious the authorities really are about the issue. Ahn Chang-hye, a former worker at one such support center in Seoul, acknowledged the authorities faced challenges in catching perpetrators “in the act,” but insisted they could be doing more.   

This massage parlor doubles as a brothel in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province. ( Korea Herald file photo)

“Despite the anti-prostitution law saying that even advertising or enticing the buying or selling of sex is illegal and is punishable, it all depends on how badly the government wants to eradicate it and how many resources the government is willing to put in,” said Ahn.

“I believe that the police can do a much better job as long as they work with more passion, but ... busting brothels is not one of their priorities.”

Those in law enforcement deny apathy is the reason for the prevalence of the industry, instead pointing to limited resources and difficulties collecting evidence.

“The police have designated a certain period every year devoted to crackdowns on prostitution as well as regular police raids,” a Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency officer said on condition of anonymity. “However, the size of the police force is very limited and there are other divisions we need to take care of, so it is difficult for us to exert our full force on prostitution problems.”

Kim Kang-ja, a former chief of Jongam Police Station who led a number of crackdowns on the industry in the 2000s, echoed these sentiments.

“The sex-trafficking population is too large for the police to take under control,” said Kim, who is currently a visiting professor at the department of police administration at Hannam University in Daejeon. “For each police station, only 3-4 police officers on average work on the prostitution problem. Therefore, in reality, they are only able to deal with those incidents that are notified to us because of the limited number of police.”

Kim said that a significant increase in police manpower would be needed to meaningfully curb the sale of sex.

“In order to truly crack down on the industry, it is absolutely necessary to increase the number of police that specifically deal with this issue. There are not enough police to enforce the law on this business,” she said.

As with other illicit trades, however, questions have been raised over whether the law has its intended effect. Not everyone agrees that greater enforcement would even corresponded to a reduction in the industry.

Kim Sang-kwon, a professor at the school of business administration at Halla University in Wonju, said that the law was in fact being enforced, but not with the result of a reduction in the sex trade. Instead, he said, enforcement was precisely what had allowed it to flourish.

“The strict enforcement contributes to the openness of industry,” said Kim. “The economic mechanism behind the effect is very simple. The success of enforcement in one area reduces the prostitution supply and leads to a higher price. Since the costs to enter are very low, higher prices induce more people to open the business in other areas where they can avoid detection. The more intense the enforcement, the more widespread the industry becomes.”

Kim claimed that some of the most unsavory aspects attributed to the sex industry were actually the result of legal interference.

“Even though the higher price contributes to reducing the demand for prostitution, total revenue increases if the demand is inelastic,” he said. “The increased rewards, in turn, stimulate more people to engage in prostitution and to invent legal but unethical types of prostitution. In addition, the steady source of income could lure criminals to organize and let them bribe the public officials. In the absence of the law these problems would have been unlikely to occur.”

With the Constitutional Court set to review the 2004 law following an earlier legal challenge, there is a real possibility that the legal framework could soon change. The review stems from a case involving a 42-year-old prostitute indicted for having sex with a 23-year-old man for money. The Seoul court hearing the case requested a constitutional review of the law, which punishes both buyers and sellers with up to one year of imprisonment or fines of up to 3 million won, on the grounds that it interfered with individual autonomy. Women’s groups and legal experts have broadly expressed support for ending punishments for sex workers, while some observers have called for decriminalization of buying as well as selling sex. 

Matthias Lehmann, an independent researcher from Germany and member of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, recently spent a year in Seoul investigating the impact of the law, interviewing women working in the industry, NGOs and other concerned parties. He said the current legal situation was doing more harm than good.

“Verbal and physical abuse of sex workers through law enforcement is a reality in South Korea. ... The decriminalization of sex work wouldn’t solve all problems in the sex industry -- just like laws in other industries don’t root out exploitation and abuse -- but evidence-based research indicates that, under the right conditions, legal sex work can be organized in a way that enhances workers’ safety and job satisfaction,” Lehmann said.

Some coming from an economics viewpoint argue that the authorities would never be able to stop prostitution even if they really wanted to. Kim of Halla University said the legal response had to take into account the reality of human nature and the rules of supply and demand.

“Sex enables us to pass genes on to the next generation. We humans are programmed to have sex for survival of the human species. It is unlikely that the law can eliminate the desire for sex previously satisfied through prostitution. The unsatisfied desire remains as pent-up demand. The demand creates the market,” said Kim.

“If history has taught us anything, it is that the market forces have won over any institution against them in the long run. To avoid long-term distortions and unintended consequences, we should make the current law market-friendly.”

By John Power (

Yoon Ha-youn contributed to this report. ― Ed.

Readers’ voice

Constitutional revision ...

Three major political concerns of Korea ― equitable economics, constitutional change and the environment ― are seldom discussed together despite being interlinked.

I suggest a method to interlink them with green constitutional engineering toward one of political stability, demotion of corruption and more representative equitable development. Three ideas are offered for constitutional revision debates in Korea in how green constitutional engineering can solve them.

The first debate is over districting; yet, no one has offered how to avoid districting that is partisan gerrymandering. Many accuse parties involved with “district reform” of merely scheming to elect more partisan incumbents by “pre-rigging” elections with creative line drawing.

This fails to create competitive elections and merely divides opposition artificially into separate districts or stuffs ballots (residences) of one party’s supporters in one district. A real electoral reform of districts would draw them in a nonpartisan manner.

The public can be assured of this by making stable watersheds as the mandated form of electoral districting. Watersheds are biophysically real lines separating different drainage basins (water catchments). Drainage basins concentrate more than water.

Since much pollution risk is waterborne, watersheds represent areas where common environmental risk experiences exist. Therefore, watershed election districts should be the durable form of environmental risk feedback into state politics.

As a publicly desired neutral, nonpartisan way of drawing election boundaries, it has positive effects on party competition by removing gerrymandering to create truly representative parties. Parties should compete to represent the people’s interests, not simply win by default because of gerrymandering.

A second debate is over whether multimember districts (multiple seats per district) or majoritarian districts (one seat per district) would provide stability. Political scientists note that stability problems exist because of “pure” static types of biased incentive structures for competition before elections and cooperation after them.

As a check against this, I offer a compromise by suggesting that “flexible seating” be institutionalized depending on the election’s outcome. If a watershed district votes more than 50 percent for one candidate, then one person should be seated to accurately reflect the result of the majority.

If a district votes for only a plurality winner (less than 50 percent), then the top three multiple winners should be seated (with their direct percentage of the vote seat) to accurately reflect the result of the majority as well ― since voters in this case want multiple people representing them. This “flexible seating” puts the decision in the hands of the people.

It is achieved by “PRMA” (proportional representation with majoritarian allotment) potential voting rules. Both structural outcomes are options that simultaneously work as a check and balance on the biases of each and also encourage an inter-party competition to have incentives to integrate the full electorate.

Smaller parties are assured their contention is worth something under plurality wins, and larger parties are encouraged to be more integrative for majority wins. Korea has had ever-lowering vote totals and party legitimacy. PRMA would provide parties with incentives to be more integrative.

A third debate is the relative power between the executive (prime minister/president) branch versus the legislature. I suggest a similar merged solution in a “flexible executive” arrangement based on election outcomes as well.

Let the outcome of voting determine the structure in each election through how their level of trustworthiness of a candidate is reflected accurately in how much power a winner is allowed to have each time.

For instance, if an executive candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, the executive branch goes presidential for that term given the greater trust shown. If an executive gets a plurality win (less than 50 percent), the winner has less trust, and the public wants him or her on a tighter leash.

This means the executive goes parliamentarian, and the winner is a prime minister that rules in closer association with legislative checks. This provides legislative checks on executive power.

However, multiparty legislatures can have their own hamstrung “gridlock” difficulties and require a check against their power by allowances for having a stronger executive as president when election outcomes demand it.

It’s encouragement for any executive to win as much power and legitimacy behind his or her party nationally beforehand instead of forcing it afterward in a partisan manner. A “flexible executive” solves several debates at once.

These three ideas (of about 60 in my book) are worth tabling to concerned Koreans wishing to avoid repeating mistakes of static, anthropocentric constitutional engineering. Stable constitutions can provide party incentives to integrate the full electorate and to integrate the environment.

States are eco-centric institutions that manipulate for good or ill variegated environments, and South Korea is a very regionalized polity. This regionalism can easily be extended in the event of North/South Korean unification, unlike other plans tabled.

The previous President Lee Myung-bak talked about bulldozing regionalism. He sounded like the late former President Roh Moo-hyun who attempted the same. Both were widely opposed for these policies. However, that course of action would be disastrously destabilizing, because Korean politics are regional. The state can work creatively with regional reality to be more legitimate and stable.

Opposing regionalism is political suicide, as Roh’s attempt showed while in office, and Lee’s attempt resulted in the same failure. Despite President Park’s election, her party still has an abysmally low approval rating very similar to its main opposition the Democratic Party, both with only around 30 percent of voter support. Therefore, the only way to get referendum approval is to make any constitutional change a clearly nonpartisan change.

Suggestions I have are nonpartisan, multiparty enhancements with green multiplier effects. When you integrate the full electorate in this fashion, in stable watersheds of environmental risk feedback, you are on the road toward a bioregional state with a representative development policy and a stable multiparty system of legitimate government.

― Mark D. Whitaker, the Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison (author of “Ecological Revolution” and formerly a professor at Ewha Womans University)