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SEOUL — In a nationwide crackdown against prostitution and human trafficking, the South Korean government will shut down all of the estimated 70 red-light districts in the country beginning in 2007, officials said this week.

The plan, announced at a news conference by the Gender Equality Ministry, Justice Ministry and Korean National Police Agency, also calls for seizing all brothel profits beginning this September.

By 2007, officials said, the government will actively close down red-light districts, moving sex industry workers to 14 new “self-support” centers designed to retrain them for other trades.

“To get more effective results, we introduced both punishment and welfare in our measures,” said Paek Young-lan of the Gender Equality Ministry’s Women’s Rights Planning Division.

Though illegal, prostitution in South Korea is widespread and rarely prosecuted. According to the Gender Equality Ministry, more than 330,000 women worked in some 80,000 sex industry establishments in 2002, the last year figures were available.

All told, the ministry said, the sex industry in South Korea — including legal entertainment associated with brothels — accounts for some $20 billion each year. In one case this February, officials said, police seized $1.7 million from a single Pusan massage parlor that was a front for prostitution.

The South Korean Prime Minister’s office signed off on the plan, proclaiming its determination that it no longer would tolerate the trafficking in women’s bodies.

“The government will enact a special law next year to provide the legal ground for the closure of brothels and begin to shut down 69 red-light districts across the country in phases from 2007, starting with those in juvenile-protection and residential areas,” said Gender Equality Minister Chi Eun-hee.

The crackdown will be done gradually, and officials could not predict how long the process would take, Paek said. By 2005, the special law will be introduced, she said; in 2006, a few test areas will be chosen and closed. The widespread closures would kick off in 2007.

And officials already are talking specifics. A press release accompanying the announcement was 93 pages long.

First, Paek said, brothel owners “will be advised to change their business into something legal, and after some time given, they will get neither electricity nor water.”

Another provision of the bill would allow the government to identify publicly people who hire minors to work as prostitutes.

In recent years, U.S. military officials have taken harsh measures to reduce both the actual number of troops who indulge in the sex industry and the perception that the military contributes to the problem.

A 2003 Defense Department report found military police didn’t report most sex trafficking activities because of a lack of evidence. Military police, the report found, sometimes were overly friendly with bar owners during their patrols and failed to report trafficking activity.

A controversial 2002 Fox News report also linked the U.S. military to a thriving sex trade in which women from countries such as the Philippines and Russia were held against their will, had their passports seized, and were forced to provide sex and sell drinks to patrons. It alleged military patrols were providing security for soldiers soliciting prostitutes.

In response, military officials made “off limits” establishments that veered into the sex trade. Soldiers routinely receive briefings and updates on the sex trade and what bars to avoid, officials have said.

U.S. Forces Korea law enforcement and Korean National Police officials meet monthly to discuss concerns, officials said. And a special hotl ine was established for soldiers to report prostitution or human trafficking. The numbers are DSN 333 or, from off-post, 0505 736-9333.

In reality, sex industry watchdogs say, the problem of cracking down on prostitution is that it is so ingrained in Korean culture, particularly in the business world. There are red-light districts in Seoul and other cities that only allow Korean patrons. Likewise, there are red-light districts in places like Itaewon, which cater to a mix of U.S. military and other foreign residents.

“You cannot solve the problem by simply addressing the supply side,” said Goh Hyun-ung, head of the International Organization for Migration, which monitors sex trafficking in South Korea.

“The people who indulge in the industry will find another way. The industry is very good at adjusting to new tactics aimed against it.”

Goh said the new plan to close red-light districts needed more emphasis on changing the business practices and attitudes.

South Korea is both source and destination for women trafficked for sexual exploitation, according to the 2003 Trafficking in Persons Report by the U.S. State Department. Victims come from the Philippines, Thailand, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the report said.


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