TOKYO — For the seventh straight year, South Korea ranked in the most responsible category among foreign countries for its efforts to stop human trafficking, according to an annual U.S. State Department report.

Japan, for the fourth straight year, ranked in a lesser category in the Trafficking in Persons Report, issued last week.

The study measures human trafficking in more than 170 countries. It’s a trade that the United Nations estimates involves 12.3 million people.

The yearly review weighs governments’ efforts against results in reducing trafficking, and in some cases it awards a better designation for anti-trafficking laws rather than recognizing the relative size of the problem.

South Korea was ranked again as "Tier 1," though it remains a source for trafficked women and girls to the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and parts of Europe. The country also plays a role in a sex trade — sometimes in the form of arranged marriages — from countries throughout Asia and Russia, the report said.

Yet the study praised South Korea for its acknowledgment of problems and its crackdowns of known trade brokers, the $19 million spent on shelters for victims, and a 24-hour hot line run by local police.

It also lauded the country’s willingness to punish its citizens who engage in child sex tourism abroad, including last year’s public campaigns that told travelers: "Don’t be an Ugly Korean."

The report, a yearly requirement by Congress since 2000, also commended Japan for efforts to improve its laws that guard against forced labor and sex trafficking.

But the report said Japan, ranked as "Tier 2," still does not offer adequate protections for victims. And it criticized Japan for a continued decline in trafficking prosecutions while at the same time noting aggressive investigations have forced criminal activity from plain sight.

"Some observers attribute the decline in identified victims to the difficulty of investigating sex businesses that are increasingly moving underground due to police crackdowns on red-light districts in major cities," the report read.

The report also noted recent reports by labor activists and the Japanese media about abuses in a government-run foreign trainee program. No companies involved in the scandal were penalized, the report said.

In 2002, South Korea — and U.S. forces stationed there — faced harsh scrutiny after media reported servicemembers were buying sex from trafficked women. Since then, U.S. Forces Korea has established hot lines, placed some well-known prostitution districts off-limits and conducted joint patrols with Korean police.

South Korea itself has passed an anti-prostitution law that punishes the customer and the broker, rather than the sex worker. Convicted customers must attend one-day seminars about prostitution, and more than 15,000 people have attended, the report says.

More recently, South Korea signed on with other countries to regulate the admittance of foreign workers, rather than relying on private agencies.

All overseas U.S. military members receive "trafficking in persons" training, according to James Brophy, the force-protection officer for U.S. Forces Japan. The course hits four major points: origins, detection, and U.S. and Defense Department policies and regulations governing human trafficking.

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