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A woman stands in a window along a “red-light” strip just outside of Yongsan Station in Seoul. Experts in Korea say that traditional red-light storefronts are closing, but that prostitution is now being marketed through coffee shops, massage parlors, the Internet and cell phones.
A woman stands in a window along a “red-light” strip just outside of Yongsan Station in Seoul. Experts in Korea say that traditional red-light storefronts are closing, but that prostitution is now being marketed through coffee shops, massage parlors, the Internet and cell phones. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

SEOUL — In early 2002, four phrases erupted together in a news story that echoed from Seoul to Washington: South Korea, prostitution, human trafficking, American servicemembers.

A Fox News affiliate reported that U.S. military members were buying sex from trafficked women in South Korea, a story that spurred congressional inquiries and reviews of South Korean laws and prompted a four-star general to launch a campaign against paying for sex and supporting human trade.

Four years later, some effects of the awareness and legal campaign are clear: South Korea rewrote its own laws to punish the pimp and the customer, not just the prostitute, and the government is spending money on shelters and education programs for former prostitutes.

This year, the United Nations ranked South Korea as Tier 1, its highest rating, for the country’s efforts to stifle prostitution and human trafficking. That’s up from Tier 3 in 2001.

The U.S. military, for its part, has established hot lines, placed some well-known prostitution districts off-limits and patrols one popular area in Seoul looking for servicemembers who patronize bars suspected of selling more than booze.

But the prostitution trade in South Korea is adapting, both to the letter of the country’s laws and to South Korea’s reputation as one of the world’s most wired nations, according to Goh Hyun-ung, head of the International Organization for Migration in Seoul.

“We can clearly see the red light district has gone down,” Goh said in a telephone interview. “But the industry has been adapting. They have been coming up with creative marketing.”

While buying sex in South Korea is illegal, the law fails to define many acts outside of traditional male-female sexual intercourse, and many in the sex trade here are exploiting that loophole, Goh said.

And as the more traditional red-light fronts close, more and more sex is being sold at massage parlors and coffee houses that front as legitimate businesses. Sex also is being sold through cell phones, as spam messages that urge the cell phone owner to call back right away.

U.S. Forces Korea officials said this month they still do routine checks of some off-base bars, and they follow the Pentagon’s requirements for awareness training about prostitution and human trafficking. A request for an interview with USFK’s Provost Marshal Office about current efforts to curb prostitution, however, was denied through USFK’s public affairs office.

Goh said he thinks South Korea is becoming more aware of the problem and that public sentiment is changing from viewing prostitution as acceptable to perceiving it as a social evil. Still, foreign women come to the country on special entertainment visas, and even now some local advocacy groups are working to stop South Korean women from being trafficked to other countries, he said.

And women still linger on Hooker Hill, an alleyway one block off the main shopping and tourist section of Seoul called Itaewon, near Yongsan Garrison.

Yongsan Garrison, USFK’s headquarters base, is Pvt. Jessica Vaccaro’s first duty station in her Army career. The 19-year-old from Milwaukee was told about prostitution and human trafficking at overseas bases even before she left the States, she said last week.

Vaccaro also said she was glad she had some awareness about prostitution before she actually saw proposals on the street. She also said she felt the training she’s gotten through in-processing and through her unit, the 129th Medical Detachment of 18th Medical Command, has helped her learn more about the problem.

“You hear about it, but then when you find out it really is going on … going to Hooker Hill, I’ve seen them, grabbing guys and trying to pull them in,” she said.

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