The writer is an MBA graduate of Yonsei University and founder of the Korean company Stelence International. He is currently writing a book about Korea.
In downtown Seoul, practically every lamp post and traffic light is plastered with posters promoting fitness center memberships or the opening of a new restaurant. The sidewalks are covered with fliers, often tossed en masse out of slowly moving cars.
And walking through the popular evening entertainment districts, such as the one in Shinchon, which is in convenient proximity to Yonsei University and not-so-fittingly right next to an elementary school, one can't help but notice a particular form of such marketing â€• colorful pictures of barely-dressed women in compromising poses printed on glossy paper roughly the size of a credit card. Some of them carry short phrases such as ``female students" or ``wet massage" and others just a cell phone number, but all advertise call girl services.
Despite their prevalence, the colorful call girl ``trading cards" are really nothing more than the tip of a dark iceberg floating under the surface of Korean society. Although Korea is, at least by European standards, a rather prudish country â€• judging from its laws on pornography and the frequently recurring waves of general outrage over the ``decayed morals" in cultures such as Japan or in the West â€• prostitution is more than rampant.
While there is not too much official data to go by, numbers released by the Institute of Criminology state that prostitution constituted 4.1 percent of the country's GDP in 2003. To put this in perspective, the forestry, fishing and agricultural sectors together generated only 4.4 percent. The study further revealed that one in five men in South Korea buy sex more than four times a month and 4.1 percent of women in their 20s make a living as prostitutes.
Estimates by the Korean Feminist Association have put the last figure even higher with a total of 1.2 million women working in the sex industry. A quick look at the country's demographics renders this figure even more remarkable. At the time of the estimate, roughly 17 million women between 15 and 64 were living in Korea. Let's assume that women between 18 and 35 make up the group most likely to be employed in this line of work â€• a total of 6.6 million women. This would mean that one in six women in Korea in the relevant age group work in the sex industry.
Regardless of whether the government's figures or the independent estimate is closer to reality, the number remains mind-boggling. Still, many Koreans might find that they have at least subconsciously been aware of this situation all along. At least to me, as someone who has spent the past few years here and whose friends, colleagues, business partners and other social contacts are almost exclusively Koreans, this reality, as grim as it may be, is not really astonishing. Prostitution just seems to be everywhere in Korea.
In the light of its prevalence and how openly it is being advertised and practiced, it might come as a surprise to most foreigners that prostitution is in fact illegal and has been so since 1948.
Buying sex is currently punishable by up to one year in prison, and advertising or organizing it by up to three years. However, maybe there is no need to be overly preoccupied by the punishments, since despite its prevalence and clearly being illegal, the Korean police are doing anything but a thorough job in fighting it.
The introduction of the Sex Trade Prevention Act in 2004, which was partly a response to ongoing international pressure on Korea to combat local sex trafficking, has not changed much. During the subsequent widely-publicized governmental crackdowns, a number of arrests have been made, but usually customers and prostitutes were targeted, while the pimps continued their businesses. Even well-known red light districts such as the one at Cheongnyangni Station continue to exist despite the fact they should be relatively easy to shut down if the government had a real interest in doing so.
Other government initiatives seem ridiculous at best, such as the offer of cash rewards by the Ministry for Gender Equality in 2006 to companies whose male workers promised to refrain from buying sex after office drinking evenings. I cannot think of another country where citizens are paid by the government for promising to not violate current laws.
And so, although a few years have passed since the estimates cited above, I would not be surprised if the sex industry in Korea has shifted from the red light districts of the post-war years to upscale massage parlors and call girls, but remains largely unchanged in overall size.
If one adds to the apparently huge demand for prostitution services in Korea and the reluctance or inability of the government to curtail it, it might seem like a sensible recommendation to just legalize it. First of all, this would be a way out of the unpleasant situation in which Korea is presently stuck, where the law is being violated in plain view on every street corner and the police are unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
To me at least, it seems questionable how young people can grow up to respect the law and reject corruption under such clear double standards. Second, this would allow the government to tax the enormous profits of the industry, where, according to the Korean Institute of Criminology, 20 percent of adult males aged between 20-64 purchase sex at an average of 693,000 won ($580) per month. These profits, by the way, seem to be recession proof, making the argument all the more valid.
Finally and most importantly, it would bring prostitution out of the gray area of illegality, allowing the regulation of the industry, the provision of health care and tax benefits for sex workers and their protection against abuse and crime.
Also, openly addressing this issue in a government-regulated framework could be an effective first step in dealing with other issues involving prostitution that so far have gone under the radar. These include child prostitution (according to a 2006 study by the Busan Metropolitan Police, 17.6 percent of local teenage prostitutes first sold sex between the ages of 13 and 14 and 58.8 percent between the ages of 15 and 16), sex trafficking (the government continues to facilitate this practice by offering suspicious ``entertainer visas" that require HIV tests) and whatever truth there is to recurring reports that the large share of female entertainers in Korea are being forced to perform sexual services in their jobs.
I will refrain from speculating about what drives Korea's insatiable appetite for bought sex, simply because I don't believe that I could without more research. (To be complete, such a study would have to add to this hunger the steadily-expanding sex tourism industry to countries such as the Philippines, where Korean men leave a trail of abandoned children behind). However, while I don't believe we will see prostitution vanish from modern society any time soon, the significance it plays in a country, expressed by its prevalence, does seem to say something fundamental about the health of that nation. And social factors such as sexual repression, unfulfilling marriages, group pressure, a lack of respect for respect for women or a combination of these come to mind as likely motives.