A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 9/25/2013.

By Kim Young-jin

NEW YORK — Littered with restaurants and karaoke bars, Manhattan’s Koreatown is an iconic destination for Korean culture in the United States. But food isn’t the only cultural element that has found its way overseas.

A taxi driver, leaning on a car, perks up when he sees a passerby at night. “I know all the massage parlors around here,” he says in Korean.

In Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood filled with ethnic Koreans, a sign in a doorway advertises sexual services in broad daylight.

A popular classified advertising website is rife with images of scantily-clad and predominantly Asian women offering in-house and outcall massage services.

These are signs of Koreans involved in the sex trade, who work in many parts of the United States in massage parlors and as Internet-advertised escorts.

The venues are hotbeds for human trafficking, which exploits people for sex or labor in conditions often described as “modern-day slavery.”

The issue is an international one that affects many ethnicities. But law enforcement officials and social workers say Korean trafficking demonstrates the persistence — and evolution — of the problem. Perpetrators are savvier in controlling victims through force, fraud and coercion, and in avoiding detection.

In addition to the vulnerability of those at risk, the issue places the spotlight on Korea’s prostitution culture and shady practices such as loan sharking, a key element of the trafficking chain.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Kang So-yeon, Project Free (anti-trafficking) manager at the New York Asian Women’s Center (NYAWC), a group that works with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking as well as those at risk of trafficking.

She says NYAWC has seen Korean victims who have come on tourist, work or student visas or who were smuggled into the country undocumented.

Traffickers “have this way of manipulating and brainwashing people into thinking they are the only people they can depend on to survive in the U.S.”

It is, “Go ahead and report it to the police, but I know where your family lives in Korea.”

A series of high-profile busts of prostitution rings — most recently in two residential Brooklyn neighborhoods — has brought the issue to the fore.

While the sex industry is the most common trafficking destination, Kang notes that Korean victims fall into a spectrum of situations including labor trafficking and domestic servitude.

From brothels to Internet

With two international airports and large foreign communities, New York is a major trafficking hub. Victims are shuttled from Queens to other parts of New York and cities and towns including Boston, Providence, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Despite crackdowns, the movement of victims makes detection difficult, as does the use of the Internet as a recruitment and advertising tool.

Capt. Michael Correia, a detective commander for the Providence Police Department in Rhode Island, said victims are brought in from Queens in vans provided by establishment owners. He said his city has closed down nearly all its Asian massage parlors, but this only partly addressed the issue.

“I think we have reduced the number of victims, hopefully. But we probably, more likely than not, displaced the problem,” he said.

“I think the concern would be that there are probably victims that we are not seeing.”

Other venues for sex and labor trafficking include nail salons, restaurants and factories, among others.

Melissa Brennan, senior staff attorney with the Immigration Intervention Project at the New York-based Sanctuary for Families, said she has a number of clients who were advertised on Internet sites such as Backpage.com.

“There are many websites that advertise specifically for Asian massage, where potential clients can go and read what to expect at a particular site,” she said, expressing concern that this makes it easier for traffickers to sell women.

Choo Kyung-seok, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, added that owners cooperate to sell and transport women, and Korean taxi drivers are key players in the movement of people. “The drivers know a lot of owners, madams and sex workers. They are also connected with loan sharks,” he said.

Subtle manipulation

Before she was arrested during the bust of a New York massage parlor last year, Lee (an alias) got an up-close look at human trafficking.

Like many who are at risk, Lee, in her early 30s, used to think of the United States as a prosperous land. While working at room salon in Seoul, she heard she could make more money overseas. Her “madam” immediately made arrangements for her to work in Los Angeles.

After Lee was picked up at the airport by a driver, she discovered a harsher reality. “Everything was so dirty and lousy,” she recalled. “Everything was complicated.”

Korean trafficking victims are often deceived about working conditions abroad. They also fall into dangerous debt bondage situations.

“They pay ‘x’ amount of dollars to get into this country and then they are working off that debt,” Capt. Correia said. “It starts out as a legitimate venture…where they are going to work and then the next thing you know they are involved in prostitution. There is a subtle coercion.”

In addition to airplane tickets, agencies offer interviews in Korea as well as hefty cash advances, experts say. While the loans come with interest, victims are lead to believe they can pay off the loans within months. But the story quickly changes upon arrival.

Coercion tactics include threats of deportation or harm to family members if a worker attempts to escape. Traffickers seize passports and take advantage of their victims’ lack of language skills and unfamiliarity with their surroundings.

In Lee’s case, she says she never incurred debt and believed she could leave if she wanted. But the situation was different for others.

“Even if you borrow money, no one actually confines you. But if you try to run away or hide from the loaner, the loaner might go after you,” she said. “I saw some colleagues get abused after they got caught trying to escape from (a massage parlor).”

Due to a lack of language skills, Lee believed that her only option to make more money was to work in a massage parlor. After she answered a newspaper job posting, she travelled across the country.

She was arrested soon later, but a Queens court deemed her to be at risk for trafficking and offered her an “alternative to incarceration” program at NYAWC through which she receives social services.

‘Fear to return’

One recent account from a Korean woman, seeking asylum at an immigration court, paints a disturbing picture of the lengths to which traffickers will go.

According to a statement submitted by the woman, obtained by The Korea Times from a consultant to the victim’s lawyer, the woman borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from a Korean loan shark to invest in her friend’s cabbage business. But the business fell through during a kimchi shortage in 2010. Interest piled up at an exorbitant rate.

According to the document, the loan shark regularly threatened the woman and her family, including threats to sell her organs in China. Men were sent to her house, where they destroyed furniture and threatened to kill her husband.

Desperate, the woman contacted a massage parlor in the United States, despite knowing that she would have to offer sexual services.

Knowing that the woman was in a desperate state, the owner forced her to wake up early to do chores such as cooking, cleaning bathrooms, and doing laundry. By day, she was forced to have sex with clients and raped multiple times. If she wore makeup, she was ostracized and called a prostitute by the owner.

The woman says she fears returning to Korea because she accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and believes the police will not be able to protect her from the loan shark.

Sex migrants or trafficked?

The persistence of Korean trafficking in the U.S. comes amid a debate regarding the definition of prostitution and human sex trafficking. Some believe that all involved in prostitution have been trafficked, while others say there are those who volunteer to be in the industry.

New York and other states have enacted laws to define what trafficking means and offering alternatives to incarceration for probable trafficking victims.

Many, including Sanctuary for Families attorney Brennan, believe that law enforcement efforts should focus on traffickers and patrons of prostitution, in a bid to reduce demand.

Choo, the UMASS professor, has been interviewing Koreans involved in the U.S. sex trade. He applied the UN protocol on sex trafficking to women he interviewed and found 36 percent were trafficking victims. The other group comprised of migrant sex workers, he said.

But the line between the two is often blurry, he added, citing cases where victims become recruiters or open their own businesses.

He said making a distinction between the groups is important because different services can be tailored to each group.

It could also help clarify the urgent nature of trafficking. “Koreans, instead of looking at these people as those who need help, they pinpoint and blame them; they see them more as social deviants rather than victims of society or a system,” he said.

Brennan said stigmatization back home helps to keep victims in trafficking situations.

“There is very much a sense of not wanting family members to know their involvement in this, being ashamed once a woman has been forced into prostitution and has been trafficked; there is a sense of shame about what she has endured,” she said.