September 2002


Thousands of women, mainly from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union, have been trafficked into South Korea for the sex industry since the mid-1990s, with the Philippine women servicing mostly the bars near the US military bases.

By Kanaga Raja

Third World Network Features

Geneva: Over 5,000 women, mainly from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union, have been trafficked into South Korea for the sex industry since the mid-1990s, with the largest employers of Filipino women being bars located near US military bases, according to new research published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The IOM's research report, titled 'A Review of Data on Trafficking in the Republic of Korea', reveals that increasing numbers of trafficked women are entering South Korea since that country's economic recovery in 1999 to service a growing sex industry.

According to the report, authored by Dr June Lee, a former IOM Seoul Chief of Mission, the largest employers of Filipino women are bars located near US military bases. These women are recruited by the traffickers for their proficiency in the English language and are admitted into South Korea on 'E-6 Entertainment' visas. As many as 1,000 Filipino women were estimated to be working in US military bases in 1999.

The report details interviews with trafficked women who describe their recruitment by agents, the false contracts that lured them and the exploitative working conditions that they endure in an industry characterised by entrapment and intimidation.

The report notes that based on official statistics and published reports, up to 5,000 women could have been trafficked into South Korea for the sex industry since the mid-1990s.

However, there is reason to believe that the actual number may in fact be higher. The report highlights that researchers have been hampered in their efforts on what to measure to estimate the true scale of trafficking in South Korea due to the fact that there is not a clear or consistent definition of trafficking in South Korea.

The lack of precise terminology and definitions of trafficking in South Korea remains an ongoing and serious problem. This lack of a unified legal definition of the crime of trafficking makes it unlikely that an adequate analysis of the phenomenon or uniform preventive and punitive policies will be established in the near future, the report notes.

The report finds that women trafficked into the South Korean entertainment industry endure working conditions that clearly exploit them and there is also a present and real threat of violence if any of these women do not perform exactly as instructed. Moreover, other human rights violations are widespread, including illegal confinement, forced labour and even forced prostitution.

Filipino women are especially prone to sexual exploitation as their English language skills make them attractive to American service men interested in purchasing sex. However, women of other nationalities are also sexually exploited since foreign workers are often easier to intimidate than local Korean women.

In July 2001, the US State Department, in a report on trafficking in persons, classified South Korea as one of 23 countries that did not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, under the terms of the US Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act.

The South Korean government meanwhile charged that the US report negatively portrayed Korea and was not based on adequate review of the country's situation. The Korean government, in rebuttal to the report, among others, pointed to several articles in its criminal law that heavily punished those involved in the sale of human beings for prostitution.

The IOM report traces the origins of the modern sex industry in Korea back to the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), when prostitution was recognised, licensed and even developed on a nationwide scale.

After Korea's liberation from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War, licensed prostitution ended. Then US forces moved in until Korea's independence in 1948 and they again returned during the Korean War in the 1950s.

Although the licensed prostitution industry ceased to exist, it easily transformed into an unlicensed, yet well-organised trade, targeting the military camp towns under joint US-Korean control that are still found in South Korea, the report emphasises.

While efforts have been made to 'officially' abolish prostitution, such endeavours have not been successful. According to the report, some observers have even suggested that 'an unwritten or de facto policy of the US military to "keep the men happy" has resulted in a sort of collusion with local businesses, local government, and military bases to support a camp town entertainment/prostitution industry.'

Against the backdrop of a sex industry in Korea that is becoming more diversified, foreign women have become an important source of labour to support this industry. The report notes that many of these women were not initially imported to provide sexual services to South Korean clients. Rather, they were brought into South Korea since they were essential to the survival of the military camp town businesses.

The demand for foreign female entertainers has more than doubled since South Korea's recovery from the Asian financial crisis of 1998. Since 1995, on average, over 90% of female entertainer (E-6) visa-holders entering South Korea came from either Asian or European countries, particularly from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union states.

The report does concede however that the Korean authorities and NGOs have been making efforts to stamp out trafficking.

The report makes several recommendations, the most pressing of which is that an official consensus be reached on Korean terminology to describe trafficking of women into situations where they are exploited as prostitutes or placed in low-paying jobs by abusive employers.

'Until that consensus is reached, it will be very difficult to establish methodologies to monitor this problem or even collect meaningful statistics,' according to Dr Lee. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Kanaga Raja is a researcher with the Third World Network.

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