A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 10/29/2013. Photo: passersby talk with sex workers in a red-light district in Cheongryang, Seoul in this July, 2011 file photo. / Korea Times

By Kim Young-jin

Kim, now in her 40s, spent her younger years in every kind of prostitution imaginable, from massage parlors and room salons to sexual “coffee delivery” services. “Work enough,” she told herself, “and one day you’ll pay off your debts.”

As with many victims of forced prostitution, the money Kim owed was not to a bank but to criminals who force victims into prostitution through debt bondage, a key element in the worldwide practice of sex trafficking.

As menacing as the threats from her managers were — physical and verbal — the Busan native was equally petrified of the shame she would endure if the people around her knew what she did at night.

“In Korean society, it doesn’t matter how badly you have been victimized — you’re branded a prostitute,” said Kim, who left recently left the sex industry with the help of social workers. “You’re a deviant, a whore.”

Kim and other survivors say stigmatization is an invisible but key element of trafficking that prevents many from seeking help. They say a callous view of victims, rooted in patriarchal views, underpins a misunderstanding of trafficking and hinders efforts to eliminate the crime.

Reprisals and humiliation

After nearly 20 years in the industry, Kim’s debt had ballooned to some $40,000.

Social workers say pimps of sex industry workers cooperate with loan sharks and local businesspeople to induce spending. When victims travel overseas, they borrow thousands of dollars for plane tickets, documents and living expenses.

When she first entered the business, she did so believing she would be sitting with male customers at a bar, earning tips to supplement her work at a sewing factory. Her loaner soon demanded that she pay back a $1,000 advance she had been given, with a huge interest rate. Experts say this is a common case of trafficking, which uses deception and coercion to exploit victims.

Eventually, tapping into what she called her sense of “self-love,” Kim mustered the courage to seek help to file for bankruptcy.

Then the time came to tell her family.

“I’ll never forget my sister’s face, how distorted it became. She couldn’t understand how I did what I did. My parents, I couldn’t bear to tell them.”

Jung, in her 20s, has yet to fully recover from her years selling her body in Japan and Australia while under debt bondage. She has a panic disorder, her social worker says, and often sometimes recoils when asked about her past.

“My biggest concern is possible retaliation,” Jung says. “They used to call me or my family in the middle of the night, ordering me to pay my debt.” She added that she had been hospitalized due to physical abuse as well.

“There are always things they can do to control you. One pimp I knew forwarded a naked photograph of my friend to his associates on Kakao Talk (a mobile-phone instant messaging service) to humiliate her.

“We are products to these people to be looked down on. It’s tough to come out and face that.”

Scholars say Korean society has long held a double standard when it comes to sex services, with women stigmatized for selling sex, but male purchasers given a free pass. This is based on traditional Confucian mores that stressed chastity among women in order to secure a “pure bloodline” and handed all authority to men.

The previous law on prostitution reinforced the view of sex workers as deviant, even in its title, the Law Against Morally Depraved Behavior.

The attitude is also moored in a rigid class hierarchy, added Park Sun-young, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Criminology.

“In Confucian culture, there are high jobs and low jobs,” she said. “Traditionally, Koreans have felt hatred toward manual laborers such as butchers, cleaning persons, and prostitutes. Koreans also have had hatred for prostitutes near U.S. military bases.”

Searching for solutions

The 2004 Special Prostitution Law instituted penalties against sex purchasers and traffickers and provided protective services for victims of prostitution.

But critics believe it retains biases against sex workers because it stipulates that they must demonstrate the “character and conduct” of a victim before receiving protection, without clearly defining those terms.

They also say the government fails to grasp the dynamic of trafficking, citing its plan to ban those arrested for overseas prostitution from leaving the country for three years. They say this would expose former trafficking victims who have returned and begun new lives.

The scrutiny adds to debate over how to address sex trafficking.

“I think the punishment of johns is too weak,” Kim said. “Everyone knows that you can’t change a person by sending them for a day at john school. The country should apply a stronger punishment to convince the public that buying sex is bad. Without demand there will be no supply.”

According to the Special Prostitution Law, buyers of sex are ordered to attend “john schools,” which seeks to decrease the number of repeat offenders.

The number of annual attendees peaked at some 35,000 in 2009, but fell to 7,400 in 2011, a drop attributed by authorities to the difficulty of detecting prostitution.

Matt Friedman, a Hong Kong-based expert with anti-trafficking organization Liberty Asia, said that regardless of the approach, it is important to train law enforcement officials to look for signs of victimization in sex work.

“Once they switch the articulation of the question to be more sympathetic to victimization, then all of sudden you get this sense (from workers) that ‘I didn’t want to get involved in this. It’s humiliating,'” he said.

Both survivors said they are working to get their lives together. Kim said she received her high school equivalency and is now a freshman at a Busan university, studying social welfare.

“I think I have a lot of love for myself, perhaps more than other sex workers,” she said. “I have always wanted to live my life and now I am doing it.”